They have skill and guile to burn, but are soft at the centre. Ask any Premier League fans which team I’m describing and the vast majority would get it in one.
I asked my SBOTOP writing pal and he took all of two seconds to make the right choice and that, my friends, sums up the problem with Arsenal.
For a while now, fans at the Emirates have been treated to a dazzling array of individual skill, from highly paid players gathered from around the world.
But when the going gets tough too many of them go missing. And head coach Mikel Arteta needs to sort that out. He’s an excellent tactician, but his main task is to find or develop leaders – men who can stand up to bullies at the trophy winning sides and street fighters at places like Sheffield and Burnley.
The Gunners started the season with back to back wins over Newcastle United and the Clarets but neither were convincing, and a 3-1 defeat to Liverpool followed by two draws saw Unai Emery’s team begin to slide down the table.
They struggled to turn draws into victories and win crucial points on the road, losing a stinker at Sheffield United in October and that started a poor run of form which eventually got Emery sacked at the end of November.
By that time, the Gunners seemed to have lost direction and were on a seven match winless streak, their worst run since 1992.
Lack of Leadership
The best teams in any division are often defined by the number of leaders they have on the pitch, players who can inspire others not only with their quality of play, but more so by their willingness to run through a brick wall for their manager and team-mates.
Top scorer and skipper Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang leads by example and he takes up around half of the Gunners’ Premier League 2020 highlights package.
Following on from last seasons’ golden boot, he has 17 goals so far this term. He’s just two behind current leader Jamie Vardy and I’d back him to reach the top over another ten games.
But Auba isn’t the most imposing or vocal figure, and speculation is surfacing again that with only one year left on his contract, he could be off to pastures new in the summer if anyone meets Arsenal’s valuation of around £50-M.
Goalkeeper Bernd Leno has stood up for the team, making more saves at the Emirates than any Gunners’ keeper in recent times, and he can take a fair slice of credit for Arsenal’s strong home form.
But in defence and midfield there is an alarming vacuum.
Not since the days of that colossus of a defender Tony Adams and his equally herculean midfield team-mate Patrick Vieira have Arsenal had real leaders in those departments.
Centre back Laurent Koscielny has been the nearest thing. The Frenchman is a consummate defender and fierce competitor, but has been dogged by injury recently and the Gunners have had no answer.
Brazilian centre back David Luiz has amazing talent on the ball and is good going forward, but he always gives a striker a chance. And he was humiliated playing for the Brazilian national team on home soil by Germany 1-7 at the 2014 World Cup, when he gave up several.
Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka is a hard man but he’s always one reckless tackle away from a yellow or red card. That’s not leadership either!
This team is as far from the Arsenal Invincibles as any from the past decade.
Mikel on the right track
But in Mikel Arteta the Gunners have a quality head coach. Having worked with Pep Guardiola at Manchester City, Arteta is tactically very strong.
And three consecutive wins before the break lifted the Gunners up to within eight points of fourth placed Chelsea and with a game in hand.
There are a few teams in the hunt, notably Manchester United, Wolves and Spurs, so it will be a tough call for Arsenal to make a Champions League spot.
The Premier League odds will give you a good price but if Arsenal can recapture their recent momentum as and when the season continues,who knows?
The European Championships have been shelved for a year to give Europe’s domestic leagues a chance to complete in June and July. And with fixtures against Wolves, Spurs and Liverpool to come, Arsenal have a chance to show the winning run isn’t just another false dawn.
Arteta is already looking forward and has given game time to 18-year-old Brazilian striker Gabriel Martinelli, and he’s also taking a look at defensive reinforcements by tracking impressive young Eintracht Frankfurt defender Evan Ndicka.
Liverpool are also interested but the 20-year-old is good mates with Arsenal’s Matteo Guendouzi who he’s accompanied in the France U20s and development squads.
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