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Wenger's Final Challenge

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Nine games left; it's time for Wenger to show that Arsenal has some life.

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With the inevitable loss at Camp Nou, Arsenal find themselves out of both their remaining cups in quick succession and shortened their fixture list to a final nine games. The League looks equally unattainable as they sit eleven points from Leicester and have a recent record that is frankly too abysmal to type out. Yet, for Arsene Wenger, these next nine games could be all he has left, leaving a simple two step challenge ahead of him.

Firstly, they need to win. Regardless of the strength of Arsenal's schedule or the form of their opponents, this team needs points not only to make any pressure stick to Leicester or Tottenham but to solidify a quickly evapourating advantage for a top four finish and Champions League football. What makes this first simple task such a struggle is the true test ahead for Wenger - fix how Arsenal is playing. As pointed out earlier by Aidan, Arsenal are distressingly predictable in their play. And distressingly poor. They don't look like winners, despite any positive metric you want to highlight. They don't look like a team. The few times they have felt like anything positive were during stretches against Barcelona and after going a man and a goal down to Tottenham, when their back was truly against the wall. Which is why, for the sake of the team and his job, Wenger's task remaining is determining what this team is.

The past season and a half has demonstrated that Arsenal are a collection of individuals. A few play well and it is enough to get by, until they face an organized unit that put Arsenal over their knee a la Marseille or Zagreb or Bayern or Southampton or Man Utd. Unreal play by Ozil papers over so many cracks. A shockingly good (and sadly, increasingly rare) goal from Alexis wins games. A expert save from Cech preserves points. But rarely does the team put down a solid performance to sweep competition away and never do they seem to do it consistently to put together runs where one can say the team is playing great soccer. Arsenal play lesser than the sum of their parts.

It shows in our criticism of the team: Ramsey is too far forward, Ozil is non-existent, Giroud is misplaying passes, Koscielny's timing on tackles is bad, Mertesacker was caught out of position. The focus is on one individual who is not performing a role, ignoring that Ramsey is suppose to provide forward runs, Ozil needs to be fed the ball, Giroud is as much a scorer as he is a provider as center forward and the whole defensive unit needs support from each other and the midfield that they aren't getting. These players aren't doing things that are inherently wrong so much as teammates aren't aware of what each other should be doing. It is telling that when the need for rotation arises, they perform worse despite the supposed quality in the depth. Indeed, not since Arsenal supported a backbone of Ozil-Arteta-Mertesacker has the team put in performances where it was moves that failed or an opponent's talent that seemed to be Arsenal's downfall.

All of this is a painful indictment of Wenger who assembled, trained and gave marching orders to this team. Point fingers at the holes but Wenger looked at this side and determined it was enough to better their 75 point third place finish - a mark that they not only will struggle to match but might have been, in this bizarre seasons to end all bizarre seasons, on the cusp of actually winning the title. To finish worse was nearly unthinkable but Arsenal are on pace to finish with fewer points, fewer goals scored and more goals conceded with roughly the same team (apologies to Cech, who has been excellent). The calls for Wenger's resignation or firing are not unreasonable; he has clearly got something horribly wrong.

So it's up to Wenger now to fix it (some would add "finally") in this final run. Whether they lose or win, sticking with the same system or players isn't working. This task is important regardless of results because the way things are going, they could win their next four games and still lose the title. The lessons of Leicester and Tottenham is the importance of a unit. Those teams work; Arsenal's doesn't. Perhaps that's a task too far this deep into a season, but with it all on the line, there's no excuse for not trying. He's pulled last minute managerial rabbits out of his hat before and has run teams that have played effective football; there's no reason to suspect he is unable to do so again.

Whatever the result, Wenger may not go at season's end. The board certainly likes him and few attached to club arguably have more power than him. With a year left on his contract, it may be agreed that he has one last chance at a fitting swan song. But either way, the summer ahead is going to be massive, with many clubs trying to reload following this unlikely season. Wenger, should he remain in charge, doesn't just need to add or subtract but do so smartly. For if he is unable to get this group playing well or find the players who will adequately complement his core, a task made difficult by the dire form they currently possess, Arsenal could likely find themselves swept aside next year by more than three teams. Which would make this year's "title challenge" the last we see with Wenger at the helm.