Arsene Wenger says this current Arsenal squad is the strongest he’s ever had.
As the dust settles on Saturday’s painful and embarrassing defeat, perhaps it’s time to examine that claim.
It seems important that Arsene referred to his strongest squad, not his strongest team (even he wouldn’t expect us to swallow that Saturday’s bottlers are the best team he’s ever had).
The implication must be that he feels he has more strength in depth than ever before.
Opinion is subjective, and there’s no scientific way of measuring it, but one way of examining strength in depth is to look at the best possible second team that the Arsenal could have put out at certain points during Wenger’s reign.
In 2010/11 I see our strongest second team (assuming everyone is fit) as being this:
Eboue Koscielny Djourou Gibbs
Diaby Wilshere Rosicky
Walcott Bendtner Chamakh
In the Invincibles season of 2003/4 it would have been this:
Hoyte Senderos Keown van Bronckhorst
Parlour Edu Flamini Reyes
In our Double Year of 2001/2:
Luzhny Adams Upson van Bronckhorst
Parlour Grimandi Edu Pennant
And in our first Wenger Double Year of 1997/98:
Grimandi Upson Keown McGowan
Boa Morte Platt Garde Hughes
I believe the current ‘second eleven’ would probably lose to all the others listed. They might have a fighting chance against the 1998 brigade (anyone remember Gavin McGowan?) but I suspect even an ageing Ian Wright would rip Djourou and Koscielny to shreds.
The funny thing is that the current second string probably has more technical ability than any of its predecessors, but it doesn’t have the out-and-out winning mentality of the players from previous years (the likes of Ian Wright, Keown, Parlour, Adams and Edu).
I accept that there are other possible ways of measuring squad strength (for example, if we looked into the ‘leftovers’ – players who don’t even make it into the second elevens – there would probably be more in the 2010 crop with first team experience than in previous years – the likes of Vela, Traore, Eastmond, JET and Lansbury).
However, using my method it seems clear that this is most certainly NOT the best Arsenal squad of the Wenger era.
So why would he say it is?
To understand that you need to be able to decipher Wengerspeak. When we had teams conquering all before them, making opponents feel defeated before they even stepped onto the pitch, you seldom heard Arsene talking about how great his players were or how professional or focused they were.
Instead he has a pattern of making these kind of utterances when his team is not functioning properly. It’s as if he hopes that by saying it, it will become true.
Worst of all are his constant references to our mental strength during periods when, mentally, we have all the strength of Syd Little with ‘flu.
I think he says this stuff because, although he knows the players are not mentally strong, he feels it will act as a motivator if they believe that’s what he thinks.
Well, it’s not working. This current first team has perfected the art of collapsing with all the speed and finality of a cheap Caribbean beach shack in a hurricane.
Saturday’s effort harked back to Wigan away last year, the 4-4 against the Spuds at The Grove a couple of years ago and to our habitual inferiority-complex-ridden displays against Chelsea and Man Utd. At this rate I can see the Spuds joining the ‘big two’ as a team against whom we start feeling we can’t win.
Jermaine Jenas said that when the Bale goal went in the Spud players sensed they could win – and that the Arsenal players sensed they could lose. I’m sure most of us watching felt the same anxiety.
What’s to be done?
Frankly, I don’t have much idea. Arsene must know that he has a team of bottlers, a team incapable of stepping up when the pressure is really on, a team that needs a three goal cushion before it can remotely begin to feel secure. I’m sure he has attempted to tackle the psychological issues that are holding his squad back, but whatever he has done has failed.
Maybe it will take a trophy. The Carling Cup is by far the most realistic prospect for us this year, but if we reach the final I suspect there’s every chance we will choke on the big day, regardless of who we’re playing. It’s what this group of players has learnt to do.
For a mostly foreign team, they have a strangely British quality to them: gallant losers all.
I don’t want Wenger out, but I am slowly coming round to the view held by some that if this talented group of players is to ever make that final step up, we need to buy in two or three proven winners at the very top of their games: a new centre back, a new defensive midfielder and possibly even a world class striker. And in an ideal world they will all be players who bang heads together in the dressing room when their colleagues are not pulling their weight.
I know this is not Championship Manager; money isn’t the solution to everything; and who’s to say the right players are available anyway?
But somehow, from somewhere, we need a massive injection of the winning mentality into the club we love or last weekend’s heartbreak is going to become an all too familiar feeling.