Something's rotten at Highbury – But what is it?

Last updated : 21 January 2005 By Isabelle Kliger
Wenger - Eye off the ball?
Obviously I'm talking about the “crisis” at Highbury this season. A season that began in truly breathtaking fashion, with three or four goals in every game and a 49-match unbeaten record, is coming crashing down around us. Defeat at Bolton and the most abysmal display I've seen from an Arsenal team since, I don't know, a certain 6-1 thrashing at Old Trafford, maybe?

Old Trafford and, more specifically, losing at Old Trafford has become a major talking point in recent months. Of course that was where it all started to go wrong, where the unbeaten run ended and the Untouchables once again became mere mortals. The theory is that Arsenal players had forgotten about the notion of failure. The pundits argue that the wind was brutally taken out of Arsenal's sails and that all this is the inevitable hangover.

But what about Man U in the F.A. Cup Semi? What about Chelsea in the Champions' League? So they weren't League games and the unbeaten record still stood, but does anyone believe that crashing out of the Champions' League wasn't more painful for the likes of Vieira than if they had, say, lost to Bolton on a Saturday afternoon in January? Last season they bounced back after two consecutive humiliations at the hands of their major rivals. They looked shaky for half an hour and then they reversed a deficit against Liverpool. That took guts, determination and more than a little Va va voom.

It is almost three months since the Battle of the Buffet and I think we would be naïve to continue to blame it all on that fateful afternoon in Manchester. There is no doubt that we saw the effects in the games that followed. Draws against three of the poorest teams in the League were not what we expected, but then we seemed to bounce back in December. And now we've bounced all the way back down again.

So what is it all about if Old Trafford is not solely to blame for all of this? Here are a few other factors that appear to be contributing to our poor form:

1) Vieira

We've all heard the whispers around Highbury, “We should have cashed in on him when we had the chance”. It is far from pleasant, feeling that way about our talismanic captain and the supposed backbone of our team, but there is, in black and white. Patrick's heart just doesn't seem to be in it. He was 100 per cent committed to winning the Champions' League with Arsenal. But where is that commitment when he's playing Stoke or Manchester City? Furthermore, Vieira is the team captain, but where are his leadership skills? Does he inspire and motivate the players or is he, all too often these days, the person losing the ball in the midfield and leaving someone else to clean up his mess? This may be provocative, rash, and unrealistic but how about selling Vieira, offering Edu a decent contract and using the cash for Shaun Wright-Phillips? Any takers?

2) Inconsistency

This is a word that used to define Ranieri's Chelsea, but these days it is the last thing of which Mourinho's team can be accused. Instead, it applies to some of our players. Robert Pires drifts in and out of form with astounding frequency. Brilliant one day, anonymous and uninspired the next. Is age catching up with him?

Seventeen-year old Cesc Fabregas, who is no doubt better than Roy Keane, cannot be faulted for not being able to maintain his form from earlier this season. Wenger probably intended to test him in ten or so games, but he has become the most familiar face in our central midfield. He looks exhausted and has been the subject of a couple of early substitutions in recent weeks.
Thierry Henry can't seem to find his groove. Is he still only 70 per cent fit? Is he not receiving the necessary support? I would never drop Henry as his brilliance can emerge when you least expect it, but no doubt he would have been rested for a few games if he played in a broader squad that could afford to be without him.

3) Goalkeepers

It is a cliché, but the manager of a winning team apparently always knows who his first-choice goalie is. Arsène Wenger does not. We can only speculate as to the real reasons for dropping Lehmann, but Almunia really did start to look the part after a slightly shaky start. He crashed and burned last Saturday, no doubt about it. So instead of trying to select our “best” goalie, we find ourselves trying to find the lesser of two evils.

An interesting article on 365 last week suggested that all teams struggle to replace charismatic goalkeepers. While Wenger and Ferguson desperately seek replacements for Seaman and Schmeichel, Petr Cech has come out of nowhere and stolen the show. He has no great goalkeeping tradition to live up to and is simply doing the business.

4) Team spirit

This is all pure speculation. Stories from the Arsenal dressing room are so rarely leaked these days, but less than a month before the defeat at Old Trafford there was an “alleged incident” on the team bus in Norway. “Sources” suggested that Lauren is treated unfairly by his team-mates and, in particular, his captain. Lehmann's situation appears to have more to do with his personal relationship with Sol Campbell than with his goalkeeping prowess. Is there more that we don't know about?

5) Or, finally, has Arsène simply misplaced the Magic Hat?

Is he too blinded by his personal feuds with Sir Alex Ferguson, to see the younger, slicker, cockier Mourinho powering past them both. Have both Wenger and Ferguson taken their eye off the ball for a moment and been well and truly nutmegged?

Only time will tell…