Arsene Wenger will have nobody left to blame if Arsenal finish this season empty-handed, while Marouane Fellaini’s continued selection is a sign of how far Manchester United have fallen.
WENGER RUNNING OUT OF EXCUSES
In 2008, Arsenal were five points clear with 12 games to play yet only finished third courtesy of a run of only one win in eight games from the end of February to mid-April.
In 2011, after two seasons of not even seriously challenging for the title, the Gunners finished February only a point behind Manchester United at the summit yet finished only fourth after winning only one of their seven games in March and April.
Speaking last month, ahead of a trip to Manchester United, Arsene Wenger was asked about the differences between the current Arsenal side and those in 2008 and 2010 that threw away good positions late in the season.
“What is different is that at that time we were losing momentum. This time it’s the opposite,” Wenger said. “We are chasing and gaining momentum. The psychological situation is quite different.
“In 2010 I would say we lost it because the spirit was not exactly what it should be because of individual tap ups. At the moment, I think on the spirit front we are alright.
“I read many things which are not completely verified by the statistics. For example, there is a perception that Arsenal fades in March and April. But if you look over 20 years we have always finished stronger in the second part of the season.”
Arsenal won their last four games in that 2007-08 season; perhaps Wenger views that as a strong finish. The Gunners finished the 2013-14 campaign even better with six straight wins – but only after a run of one win in six games had seen them blow their title chances having ended February a point off the top. If Wenger has used statistics to convince himself his sides do not have a history of faltering in the latter stages of seasons, he’s kidded only himself.
What was more interesting about Wenger’s comments, however, were that he acknowledged a mental weakness in those sides from 2008 and 2010.
“The mood of some players was more to get the next contract somewhere else than to win the championship because at the time we had to sell our players,” he said.
Arsenal’s financial situation can no longer be used as an excuse, however, and Wenger admitted back in October that nurturing a good team spirit was ultimately the responsibility of the manager and coaching staff.
“I believe it’s a little bit like a flower,” Wenger said. “You have to take care of it and look after it every day, or else it will slowly die.
“But you can make the flower bigger, better and prettier if you care for it. We believe that part of the responsibility of the players and the staff is to take care of team spirit.”
Clearly, Wenger believes the best way to nurture a good team spirit is through positive reinforcement. He praised his team’s “great spirit” and “very strong attitude” after they were knocked out of the FA Cup by Watford on Sunday, just as he has done at almost every opportunity.
“We have a fantastic spirit in our squad as you saw tonight and that was the basis of the result” – after 4-0 win at Hull City
“I’m proud of the spirit the players have shown and the response” – after 2-2 draw at Tottenham
“Our spirit and commitment was 100 per cent there. I could not question our desire or commitment at all – after 3-2 defeat at Manchester United
“I believe we have shown great spirit all of the game” – after 2-1 win over Leicester City
Wenger’s words are becoming less believable by the week. Arsenal were top of the table on January 2 and plenty of people’s tips to go on and win the title, but since then they have won only two of nine games in the Premier League, have gone out of the FA Cup and will almost certainly exit the Champions League this week.
In Wenger’s mind, perhaps a strong set of results in the final nine games of the season would represent a strong end to the season, but it certainly won’t be remembered as such if the Gunners are able to overturn Leicester City’s eight-point lead and clinch a first league title since 2004.
Wenger might point to some crucial injuries, but it’s a flimsy excuse. He already has pointed out that Arsenal aren’t the only big club outperformed by Leicester this season, but that is hardly consolation for fans. Now he says it is a “farce” that his side are always viewed to be in “the middle of a drama” after every defeat; in typically-bullish mood he urged his critics to “judge us at the end of the season.”
In this crazy season, he certainly deserves that. Only a fool would rule out Arsenal or Manchester City with so long still to go. But if the north Londoners once again fail to end their title drought, this season will once again be remembered as one in which faltered at a crucial stage, regardless of how they fare in their final nine fixtures.
A lack of finances is no longer an excuse, and Wenger himself has admitted that he is responsible for team spirit. If Arsenal finish this season empty-handed, who else left is there to blame?
FELLAINI PRAISE A DAMNING INDICTMENT OF UNITED
Louis van Gaal was right. Manchester United fans’ reaction to Marouane Fellaini’s substitution was disappointing. And self-defeating. But their point was entirely valid.
Van Gaal’s continued faith in Fellaini is baffling. As soon as the Belgian was ready to return from a hamstring injury, he was thrust straight back into the starting XI for the shambolic Europa League defeat to Liverpool and subsequently retained his place against West Ham, with Morgan Schneiderlin sacrificed instead.
Employed alongside Michael Carrick at the base of Van Gaal’s midfield against the Hammers, Fellaini’s contribution was typical: no key passes, no interceptions, one single tackle, a yellow card, and the United player most dispossessed.
Whether or not it was a transparent attempt to massage his ego, Van Gaal again reserved praise for Fellaini.
“Maybe [the fans] have another opinion to me,” said Van Gaal, understating the point somewhat. To the supporters, Fellaini sums up much about the Red Devils under the Dutchman: expensive, slow, one-dimensional and technically not up to the standards expected at Manchester United.
Perhaps the blame lies with the manager more than the player. Van Gaal consistently selects Fellaini as a deep-lying midfielder, but he possesses none of the traits required for the role. Defensively, the Belgian is neither mobile enough to close down the opposition nor clever enough to position himself so he doesn’t have to. Going forward, he lacks the passing range required to break lines and trigger attacks, or even simply to keep possession.
In almost three seasons at the club, Fellaini’s best form came towards the back end of last season, when he was used further up the field, where his size can be an asset. In a deeper role, he simply cannot cut it.
Van Gaal made reference to how Fellaini performed well in the game-plan, which can only be a reference to defending set-pieces. That is the only purpose that the midfielder serves in this side, which is yet another damning indictment of how far standards have fallen at Old Trafford.