It was supposed to be relatively easy for Arsenal. The Gunners, Premier League giants, travelling to interestingly-named Valley Parade in northern England, were pitted against the Capital One Cup’s surprise package, League Two (fourth-tier) side Bradford City. The Bantams had dispatched Premiership side Wigan on penalties in the previous round.
The same Arsenal that took a largely second-string and reserve squad and miraculously came back from 4-0 down at the Madejski Stadium to pull off a thrilling 5-7 win over Reading brought most of its big guns out in this quarterfinal fixture. Bradford came in as a plucky underdog, but they figured to be no match for the mighty Arsenal.
That is, until the match kicked off. Arsenal did seem to have the better of possession in the early going, but as Celtic showed Barcelona, possession means little in many cases. There were a couple of decent chances in the opening exchanges, with Thomas Vermaelen sending an open header over the bar from a corner, but nothing really threatening.
And Arsenal were made to pay for their wastefulness, as just past the quarter-hour, a free-kick from the right side hit a flying head before it found a poorly-marked Garry Thompson, who punched home on the volley as a helpless Wojciech Szczęsny could only palm it into the roof of the net. Valley Parade went mad as the home fans saw a famous win in the distance.
As half-time approached, Bradford escaped with the lead as Gervinho, unmarked with an open goal gaping just a few yards away, proceeded to almost completely whiff on an excellent cross. Simply using his right foot would have tapped it home, but the Ivorian decided against that and scuffed away Arsenal’s best chance of the half.
But after controlling the match for large stretches afterwards, Bradford finally conceded as a cross from Santi Cazorla found a charging Vermaelen, and the Belgian did not hesitate in dispatching this header just two minutes from time. It would stay level despite Cazorla’s best efforts, as he had a free-kick parried away before receiving another pass and thundering a shot that was stopped by Matt Duke in the Bradford goal.
Extra time saw Arsenal take control, with the midfield trio of Cazorla, Jack Wilshere, and substitute Tomáš Rosický bossing affairs, but to no avail. Extra time came and went, and dreaded penalty shootout ensued. Cazorla and Marouane Chamakh both missed, putting Arsenal in a quick 2-0 hole. But that quickly turned around, and after a Ritchie Jones miss at 3-2 in the fifth round, Thomas Vermaelen stepped up to equalize.
But the Arsenal skipper, who had the normal-time equalizer already to his name, sent Duke the wrong way but yanked the shot a bit too far, and he watched in disbelief as it cannoned off the woodwork and away. And just like that, the minnows were through, and the giants had been slain.
It was just another day at the office for Arsenal, though, as trophy hopes continue to slip away and poor performances become more frequent than Thierry Henry’s goal-scoring. And with this competition over and the Premiership well out of reach, the pressure is on Arsène Wenger to do something to reverse this club’s downward trend.
A win over West Brom last week-end saw the Gunners vault from 10th to 7th in the league table, just two points behind local rivals Tottenham Hotspur for 5th. But this followed a 2-1 Champions League loss to Olympiacos which condemned the Londoners to second place in the group, and the prior weekend’s 0-2 capitulation at the hands of Michu and Swansea City.
The dour spell in the league that has seen Arsenal pick up just 9 of 21 points in the last seven matches has seen both the 5-2 mauling of Spurs and the embarrassing home defeat to the Welsh side. The same time span has also brought us Arsenal blowing a two-goal lead to Schalke before the recent loss in Piraeus.
While they are still alive in the Champions League, their group runner-up finish could see them thrown up against Barcelona yet again, where Lionel Messi lurks in wait to score 4 again. Or they could be demolished by Zlatan Ibrahimović and PSG. Or the attacking wonderments of Bayern Munich. Or the sleeping giants of Málaga.
At this point, it almost doesn’t matter who Wenger’s side are drawn against. They’ll probably end up being the underdogs. Again, this is a club that scored 13 goals in two matches against strong Cup opponents with a squad mostly comprised of bench players and youngsters, then brought the A-squad to a fourth-tier side and end up eliminated.
Is the scheming Frenchman to blame? Not totally. After all, he cannot control how well individual players perform on a given day. But the work put into developing this squad has been questionable at best. The attack is probably of biggest concern right now. A frontline in which we see international stars like Gervinho, Lukas Podolski, Theo Walcott, and Olivier Giroud on a regular basis ought to be feared.
But Wenger has been misusing the former two terribly. Podolski is a left-footed attacker who would seem suitable for a left-wing role, but he wants to play in the middle and is much better suited to playing as a striker. Gervinho, on the other hand, is nothing but a winger, who has had a couple decent games in a central role. The Bradford game was certainly not one of those.
With Giroud waiting in the squad, Wenger should turn to his compatriot for attacking assistance. And in keeping the usually-excellent Podolski in the squad, he could opt for a complete change of system. Matthew Buening, Counter-Attacking Football’s resident German expert, finds Podolski just “slightly above average” as a left-winger and “much better in the center.”
As Podolski is someone who “generally plays well with other strikers,” I propose that Wenger opt for a two striker system like the one seen below:
Podolski can stay on the left, but won’t be forced wide so often. The magical Cazorla can drift into those kinds of spaces to deliver his pinpoint crosses, while the German slides into the middle when needed to pick up the ball and carry on attacks with Giroud a more direct threat. Defensive help on the left side can be added by Diaby if he regains full fitness, or a potential January replacement thereof. And of course, Gervinho can rot on the bench.
Speaking of January though, a lot needs to be done to patch up this Arsenal squad if they even dream of making the Champions League quarterfinals, which Wenger might find to be a glorious accomplishment, much like finishing 4th in the Premiership.
Anyhow, if Diaby’s fitness continues to be a problem, then a defensive anchor should be in the offing. Wenger has reportedly turned his attention to West Ham’s Mohamed Diame, though the Senegal international is set for three months on the sideline himself. He could perhaps look back to Málaga, where blossoming youngster Ignacio Camacho awaits potential suitors.
If Wenger does not want to use Podolski up top in the normal 4-3-3, then a strong CF should be on his shopping list. Klaas-Jan Huntelaar has popped up as a top transfer target as his contract at Schalke expires at the end of this season. And of course, Thierry Henry looks set to rejoin the Gunners for another short loan spell. When you have to rely on a 35-year-old coming in for a month or so to right the ship, that’s not a good sign.
Whatever he decides to do, there needs to be some net spending. Sure, the club brought in the likes of Podolski, Cazorla, and Giroud this off-season. But they also sold two of their best remaining players in Alex Song and Robin van Persie, after selling Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, and Gaël Clichy last season.
They need to chase established veterans like they’ve done this season, rather than going after youth players that get loaned out right away. The injection of fresh faces could bring a spark to the locker room to aid in the club’s mental turnaround, not to mention the talent these players could bring on the pitch.
As it stands, the burden falls on Arsène Wenger to mastermind the turnaround. The fans are getting on his back, saying he needs to go or at least needs to do something drastic. When Piers Morgan of all people is looking for the Frenchman’s exit (“Wenger’s sold our 4 best players in last 2 years, replaced with mediocrity, and encouraged ’4th is a trophy’ mentality. He has to go.” – @piersmorgan), then you know it’s bad.
Wenger has done so much for this club in his sixteen years, which is probably why he is not really in danger of losing his job. But that should not be an excuse for not making him fix this team right now. Arsenal are in dire need of help at so many levels, and if it doesn’t come, Wenger’s legacy could take a huge shot. That, and the club could miss out on their biggest trophy: 4th in the Premiership.