EDITOR'S NOTE: Community members will know bozz well, and this is his first post as an official member of The Short Fuse staff. Would that it could have been a happier occasion than the aftermath of losing to Olympiakos, but there's not much that can be done about that. –Thomas
Track back to approximately six months ago. Last spring we saw a refreshing Arsenal on its way to what seemed to be a second place finish before a late blip dropped it to third place in the league, but a still respectable third. Despite the final standings, a promising foundation seemed in place built upon the shortcomings of the past with many fans eager for the good form to carry over into this season. The squad being healthy was key, of course, but it was the energetic and thoughtful approach which caught the eye of many as tired old narratives such as walking/passing the ball into the net made way for a defensively sound, counterattacking and pragmatic Wenger and co. It seemed that a base for the 2015-2016 season was in place and that a good offseason and a couple key signings would vault this club into the next tier of title competitors. The offseason was successful as a summer treble was won and JEFF(!) came into our lives, but the lack of any impact signings and the return of old habits have caused many to forfeit hope of a European run and resign themselves to another year of chasing third place in the league.
Of course, it's far, far too soon to give up on titles in September as the season is a long one and a key injury to a competitor could throw a race wide open, not to mention that Arsenal is still within one match of first place in the league. But, we have seen enough to question whether or not Wenger and his team learned anything from last season's late run or if it was just a mirage.
Looking up and down the roster, it also becomes apparent that the time is now for this club. There is a strong sense of veteran leadership – whatever that means – present in Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are world class players in their primes while Aaron Ramsey is right on the cusp of his. Young and hungry talents like Hector Bellerin and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain look to be eager to compete for regular minutes while pushing the veterans who might be ahead of them on the depth chart. This is a team that, while flawed in some areas (defensive midfield, depth, striker?), is still better than at least 90 percent of Europe and one with a diverse enough skillset to play various forms of ball. High possession, counterattacking, high press, you name it.
This is also a roster that isn't in transition and looking to establish its identity like Manchester United. It isn't an aged roster trying desperately to get young like Manchester City. It's not a roster like Chelsea that seems to have peaked last season and now can't find a steady footing. It's not Barcelona or Bayern either with the ability to buy and develop which ever starlet they want, but it still should be good enough to beat the likes of Dinamo and Olympiacos who, no offense to them, are really no better than the Leicester side that Arsenal thrashed on the weekend. Perhaps Arsenal isn't a contender for the Champions League title (yet), but the alarming sense with which it appears completely unprepared for such a competition, and for the second year running as well, is unbecoming of a club with its resource.
Quite frankly, Wenger and his players have looked naive when faced with unfamiliar competition playing styles of football that sometimes aren't what they face week in and week out in England. This is a problem that the other Premier League sides face, of course, but none of them have faced back-to-back opponents of this quality and looked so poor. You can't just assemble what you think is the best talent available to you and stick to the script, there has to be a plan of action for all scenarios and right now it seems that Arsenal is rudderless, especially in European competition. The Leicester win was fun and encouraging, but what's going to happen when sides don't hand Arsenal a tactical edge like Leicester did?
So we have to ask ourselves, yet again, what is the plan and what is the ceiling for this squad? How can it be the end of September and this club's best CM is playing on the right wing? Unless Petr Cech is truly injured, how can he possibly be on the bench in what amounted to a must-win Champions League match? How was it that rotation against Dinamo led to mental mistakes and a loss in the league versus a struggling Chelsea just days later? A few weeks ago the small sample size was a nifty argument to assert that things will get back on track, the offense will come around and the defense will figure itself out. The offense has shown signs of life when presented with the right circumstances, but it's still predictable and non-threatening if clubs sit back in a low block and cut off space for Arsenal's intricate triangles. The defense is a question mark as minor clubs like the two faced in the Champions League were able to impose themselves at will. Defensive midfielder is a Pandora's Box of its own.
Wenger on playing Ospina over Cech: "I do not have to sit here and give you an explanation of every decision I make."— Greg Lea (@GregLeaFootball) September 29, 2015
Wenger is right in the sense that he doesn't have to explain himself to anyone. He's earned that benefit of the doubt due to his successes and stewardship of the club in both the good times and bad. However, the fans are right in wondering what direction the club is headed in and if any long-term progress is being made. When the midfield is looking stagnant but its best midfielder is playing out of position, questions should be asked. When the opposition will clearly bunker but a selection with little history of breaking down bunkers is selected, questions should be asked. When areas to address in the summer are looking everyone right in the eye but go largely ignored, one has to wonder if there's some master design to the club's machinations.
Look, this isn't the end of the world by any means and there's more than enough talent at this club to correct itself, but the prospect of not advancing to the next round of the Champions League is a very real one and the idea that the league is right there for the taking is one filled with worry that more baffling play will continue as opposed to the intelligent football we saw last spring. It's easy to spiral and resort to hyper-criticism when you feel like the club is entitled to victories based on all the factors in its favor, but after a while the lack of execution and disappointing results make one wonder if there is a sense of direction that this club is supposed to be headed in, or if it's just treading water until another late-season push to respectability. The reassurance that Arsene Wenger has been there before and made it out alive is there, but the reassurance that he, and the club, know what to do once proverbially alive is in serious doubt.