A watershed moment?

Jamie McDonald

Arsenal's defeat against Swansea City didn't raise any new questions; instead, it raised new answers on whether Arsene Wenger can continue on as Arsenal manager in the long-term. And while many wish to believe that he can, it's no longer the clear-cut answer that it once was; in fact, it may be clear that he can't.

The reaction to yesterday's listless defeat to Swansea City has been almost remarkable; unlike the vicious bickering that resulted from draws against Everton, Aston Villa and Fulham, there seems to be an almost tired resignation about the quality, or lack thereof, of Arsenal's play this season. That this is the worst Arsenal team in nearly two decades is not up for dispute; with 21 points after 15 games, Arsenal are on track to finish with 53 points; decidedly midtable. And unlike last season's "worst ever Arsenal team", there's a distinct lack of match-winners in this team. Last season, one could never write off Arsenal (how many late goals did they score last year?) because of Robin van Persie; this season, Arsenal have gone for stretches of time looking like they'll never score. And, since Arsenal's 3-1 victory over West Ham, there've been countless examples of listless play going forward, which only exacerbates the mistakes made in defence, putting more pressure on Arsenal's back four.

And today, it seemed, was a watershed moment. There were no excuses; Arsenal were deservedly beaten by a team that played the intricate, incisive, quick passing and heavy pressing that was once characteristic of previous Arsenal sides. If not for Wojciech Szczesny, Swansea might have won today at a cakewalk; they had 5 excellent chances. The most depressing aspect of today's performance, though, is that Arsenal looked a shell of themselves; the passing was slow, cautious and lacking in penetration and thought. The pressing, aside from the beginning of the second half, was non-existent. And the opposition who played this highly accomplished game was compiled for a tenth of the price of Arsenal's squad. Finally, it was at home; a home that Arsenal have been unable to make a fortress. One reason why there's been the lack of bickering on forums and Twitter is because there's nothing really to bicker about.

This is no longer a blip; Arsenal have been playing this poorly for over 6 weeks. On this site, I've talked about the problem of not pressing, the problem of lacking creativity and the problem of not scoring goals. Whatever you attribute to Arsenal's horrible form, it all goes back to, perhaps for the first time in his reign, to Arsene Wenger. The excuse of tiredness has been widely lampooned, but it makes sense; Arsenal have an extremely thin squad that is reliant on a few players to tick. If you rotate these players, the lack of quality in the replacements means Arsenal drop points; thus, Arsenal don't rotate much and then drop points because Arsenal's key players are playing more minutes of intensive football than those of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea. Mikel Arteta, for example, has played every single of minute of Arsenal's League and Champions League campaign, and it's starting to tell as he's getting overrun in the midfield. He needs a break, and a physical partner; yet Arsenal's sole physical midfielder is Abou Diaby.

Santi Cazorla has also been unsurprisingly lacking in recent matches. He's played almost every minute of Arsenal's league and Champions League matches, and, coupled with a new, more physical league, he looks in dire need of a rest. Yet, he is so crucial to the side, and his replacement, Rosicky, has been injured, that such a rest is nigh-on impossible. The lack of a strong squad is the fault of the manager; while Wenger may be working under the constrains imposed by the board, mistakes such as Sebastien Squillaci, Marouane Chamakh, and, to an extent (in that he doesn't make the bench) Andrei Arshavin, have hamstrung the club. This, however, cannot be changed until January, and, before that period, Arsenal have 6 crucial league games; games, which, if the club continues it's present form, look unwinnable.

And, that, too, has to be solved by the manager. Arsene Wenger is well-known for his desire that his players come up with solutions to tricky situations, but, in this case, the players clearly don't have the answers, instead carrying on with the same "jaded" style of football. If he hasn't already tried to direct more pace in the passing and more pressing when out of possession, he must do so now. And that is why today is such a watershed moment; for the first time, it seems that a general majority of Arsenal supporters have lost the faith that Wenger can, in the long term, arrest the slide of the club. He may yet pull them out of their current predicament, and, signings in January could instill more quality and more belief in the team. But, if the past 11 games is anything to go on, Wenger may be unable to change his team's fortunes. That is the most worrying aspect of Arsenal's predicament: they cannot wait until January to improve, because, by then, they may be too far adrift.

What was once the unthinkable is now common conversation. This is what today has brought upon Arsenal's fans; the idea that Arsene Wenger is not the miracle worker that he's appeared to be in the past. The next 12 months are perhaps the most crucial in the club's Premier League history: if Wenger fails to maintain the minimum of expectations, Arsenal will surely have to change managers. Today, many seem to have come to that painful conclusion.

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