Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Something missing from the Arsenal?

After a lamentable Champions League exit to Manchester United, where, despite the momentum-sapping quality of United's early lead, a fightback never seemed likely to materialise, questions began to hover again over Arsene Wenger's brood.

Then the Emirates was sacked by Chelsea five days later. Whatever the progress made by the Arsenal youth project since November, when the title challenge foundered on the rocks of defeat to Fulham, Hull, Aston Villa, Stoke and Manchester City, the shortcomings of Wenger's squad were twice brutally exposed within the space of a week.

Arsenal is a subject I try to keep close to my heart but far from this blog. Partisanship doesn't often make for sober, cogent analysis ... but sometimes subjectivity can offer its own insight. As someone who welcomes the cosmopolitan mix of players brought to this country by the likes of Arsenal, I'm loath to light upon the hoary old 'foreigners don't care' argument; but after a classic post-defeat bout of soul-searching with my fellow Gooner brother, Ross, we'd settled on a hypothesis or two.

Maybe there is a case, chest-beating chauvinism aside, that a collection of largely foreign players don't 'want it' quite so much as ones who are wedded to the badge. This is perhaps symptomatic of the increasingly footballer-as-businessman nature of the game - but certainly Arsenal seem to lack a Rooney, a Gerrard, a Terry, who will always give their utmost for the cause.

Is this because they are English? Or because Cesc Fabregas isn't? Such a postulation would surely apply to various domestic leagues around the world, in that locally sourced players may well feel more than a casual affinity for their club. Arsenal undoubtedly have a squad of committed professionals, but does each individual view the arrangement as more of an employer-employee relationship than, say, Jamie Carragher does at Liverpool?

Arsenal rarely overwhelm teams as often as they did in their glorious late-90s, early 2000s heyday, when players of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry's quality blended with the likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and Sol Campbell. Does the current collection of elite graduates from the Gunners' global scouting network lack a heartbeat - or at least someone who understands the fans' chants, knows why they turn up evey week?

Perhaps, too, there is an excessive focus on cold technique within the Arsenal side, at the expense of passion and grab-the-game-by-its-scruff dynamism. Certainly Wenger has emphasised that aspect of the current team's play - perhaps influenced by criticisms of more robust, combative, possibly cynical, Arsenal line-ups of the past. There was a time when the aesthetes of north London were perceived as an indisciplined, bully-boy side, lest we forget.

Whatever the case, it is painful to see your side fail to raise its game in the cauldron of a must-win Champions League semi-final against one of the oldest of enemies. Easy answers there are none, and Wenger will doubtless tread his own path. But unless Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott start stamping their personalities on the team soon, our doubts and questions will linger ...

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