As the final whistle blew at Selhurst Park on Monday night after Crystal Palace’s stunning 3-0 victory over Arsenal, the Eagles basked in the glory of another crucial victory over one of the Premier League’s elites that pulls them steadily closer to safety. As a rejuvenated Sam Allardyce and his side cherished another invaluable three points, Arsenal were instead left wondering whether any lingering hopes of securing their customary top four finish had just been permanently extinguished for the first time under Arsène Wenger’s long and illustrious reign.
Following up on their surprise victory over current league leaders Chelsea, Palace can rightly feel enthused with consecutive victories that keep their hopes of avoiding relegation alive. The Gunners meanwhile were left with a familiar feeling of disappointment, as a culmination of excruciating poor form by their own high standards has threatened to plunge Arsene’s legacy into disrepute. It was another desperately poor performance that has become all too familiar in north London.
The defeat itself was not the only problem for Arsène Wenger and his side. Crystal Palace are on a rich vein of form with everything to play for at this stage of the season in their battle to secure Premier League football. After all, the Eagles that had just beaten the current Champions elect, a side who have looked nigh on unbeatable as the season reaches its climax.
At the helm they have Sam Allardyce, the battle hardened survival specialist, re-energized after his disastrous spell as England manager. He has been a consistent critic of Arsène and his side over the years, but any lingering needle between the two opposing managers was cast aside on Monday night; an unnecessary backdrop. The Eagles needed no further incentives here. In light of how far Arsenal’s star has waned recently, it was only too simple for Allardyce to hone in on Arsenal’s glaring weaknesses to record another priceless victory.
Indeed then, as Chelsea themselves have proved, losing is not necessarily the problem here. No team is invincible in the Premier League at this stage of the season. Ironic, given Arsenal are the only team in the history of the competition to go an entire campaign undefeated.
It is the manner of the defeat that matters. Chelsea have been superb all season, and many column inches have been laden with superlatives to describe their progress under Italian Antonio Conte. Their defeat at Palace was seen as simply the end of a hugely impressive run; an inevitable reminder that no team can be victorious forever. And so it was proved, as they returned to winning ways against Bournemouth in their next fixture. The point being there is no shame in losing to a side fighting for their lives against relegation, as long it doesn’t become a consistent trend.
While Chelsea’s chapter this season remains untarnished in defeat, the manner of Arsenal’s demise however is hugely concerning for Arsène Wenger. Their particular chapter is already blotted with the stains of this season’s disappointments, with the concluding pages still to be written.
Limp, lifeless, and starved of confidence, Arsenal have been routinely praised in the past for their outstanding attacking fluidity and charm, but they remain fundamentally a team that flatters to deceive.
Admittedly, they were without defensive stalwart Laurent Koscielny, such an important keystone of Arsenal’s solidity, but the fact they rely so heavily on the Frenchman is testament to how weak they are defensively.
During his reign in north London, Wenger has been able to craft a delightful aesthetic ethos at Arsenal. His discipline to stick to his footballing principles is extremely admirable and during his first few managerial years, it also brought huge success. But progress has stalled.
The fundamental flaw that has plagued his side for the last decade has routinely been overlooked. The team lacks authoritative figures. They lack genuine game changers and leaders. You can garnish a side with as much technical quality as you like, but without the correct human elements, of leadership, courage and hard work, it will never mesh coherently.
This problem was tackled relatively speaking by the signings of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka in the summer, to add some much needed guile and steel into the side. But neither has really lived up to their billing; Xhaka has rather predictably spent as much time collecting cards as he has contributing to his side’s current fortunes, while Mustafi has only provided a modicum of the defensive insurance his side craves.
And what of their goal scoring exploits? A team that has boasted the likes of Henry, Bergkamp, van Persie and Ian Wright in their glorious history has never been short of firepower. While it’s true the Gunners currently sit 4th in the league’s goal scoring charts with 61 goals at home this season, they only have the 5th best win ratio, and they don’t even make the top 5 for shots on target. It begs the question, where is their attacking focal point?
It is mired in a turgid quest for the perfect aesthetic ideal, an obsession with caressing the ball and controlling the momentum of the game and to dominate possession. When the going gets tough, when the opposition lays down the gauntlet to Arsenal to break them down, more often than not the Gunners simply fail to provide the answer.
Manchester City have Sergio Agüero, a criminally underrated player in England who has still never been named in the Premier League Team of the Year, as scandalous as it sounds. Yet the little Argentinian remains one of the most natural goal scorers to grace the English game.
Chelsea have Diego Costa, the fire breathing Brazilian beast who has made a name for himself as the combative powerhouse with the deft touch of a natural goal scorer leading the line for Arsenal’s rivals. While he may not be as prolific as his Argentinean counterpart, he remains a potent threat nonetheless and what he lacks in terms of outright scoring, he provides with the other facets of his game, with his hold up play, aerial prowess and sheer presence to occupy opposition defenders.
United have Zlatan Ibrahimović, one of the game’s greatest figures who is currently defying both critics and logic by enjoying one of his most emphatic seasons, seemingly rolling back the years with his ageless and virtuoso performances.
What he lacks in mobility and vigor, he more than compensates for with his natural ability, sheer personality and force of character, spurring his teammates into supplying the extra percent required to find the winning formula. He is someone capable of grabbing the game by the scruff of the neck and delivering what is required, regardless of how pretty it may be.
Arsenal do not have this. They lack such a leader. It is, and has been, the missing formula that has evaded them for well over a decade. Bearing in mind the sheer scale of ability that has graced their ranks in recent years, one can scarcely imagine how successful they would have been had they had such a leader to galvanize them during their annual crisis of confidence in the past few seasons.
But while they lack the leader they so desperately need, perhaps they already have the player with the ability they require to reverse their current trend, temporarily at least.
Perhaps it is one of Arsenal’s forgotten men that still holds the key to their immediate future.
Olivier Giroud has been a controversial and dividing presence at the Emirates since his arrival from Montpellier; he scores a lot of goals yes, but he also misses a lot of chances.
His record nonetheless remains potent, with 66 league goals in 156 appearances. So bearing in mind his impressive record and the fact he remains Arsenal’s most experienced and influential out and out striker, is he really deserving of his scapegoat role at the moment under Wenger? Has he not shown enough attacking guile to at least deserve the chance to change his side’s fortunes when every other horizon has been explored?
The French target man may possess a slightly unorthodox gait, which can be best showcased by his stunning, albeit improvised, back heeled goal vs. Crystal Palace earlier in the season, the very team that has just condemned the Gunners to their latest set-back, but he remains a highly effective player when the mood takes him.
Whatever criticisms can be leveled at the striker, and one can rightly argue he is neither the most prolific or talented goal scorer to ever grace the Premier League, or indeed Arsenal, he does possess that cherished ability to make things happen. He forces opposition defenders to think a bit differently, to alter their approach and give Arsenal’s attacking players room to breathe, and avenues to explore. He provides tactical flexibility and another option when their normal fluidity is disrupted. He gives them that little something different, the alternative approach when all else fails or tactics dictate.
And despite any caveats that come with his game, he remains a solid, if not spectacular goal scorer, perfectly capable of leading the Gunner’s front line. After all, this is player who has mustered a more than respectable nine league goals this campaign, coming in only seven starts. He may not be prolific, but he is certainly effective, and with his skill set he remains perfectly suited to the Premier League.
So why is the Frenchman marginalized and vilified to such an extent by fans and the media alike?
Well, to even his staunchest supporters, few would legitimately argue he is world class, and the Frenchman remains a frustrating player to watch. Often capable of scoring the most beautiful goals, only to proceed it by missing the easiest of chances, he remains infuriatingly unreliable at times. But the most important trait Giroud possesses is that whatever impact he makes, he makes things happen. What he lacks in solid goal scoring consistency, he can compensate for with his other skill sets and presence alone.
But does he deserve to be criticized so vehemently when he misses an easy chance, as all strikers do on occasion? Of course not, but unfortunately for Giroud, every time he does it simply reinforces the commonly shared notion held by many that he’s just not good enough at the highest level. Therefore every missed chance is immediately dissected and used as another ensemble of evidence to justify his exclusion from the first team.
But the facts do not lie, and with such an impressive goal scoring record, regardless of his many drawbacks, one must look past their pride and admit that in truth, he is the only influential first choice striker the Gunners can call upon. And with the team desperately craving the very attributes he can provide, it makes his exclusion from Arsène’s starting XI over the course of these last few turbulent weeks ever more curious.
Spanish forward Lucas Pérez was brought in over the summer, and although he possesses an obvious level of technical quality that Wenger famously admires, as is so often the way with the Frenchman’s forays into the transfer market, he seems to lack the physicality, presence and grit to truly make an outstanding contribution to the first team.
Perhaps it is somewhat harsh on the Spanish international, but while other players such as Mezut Özil can, broadly speaking, compensate for their lack of outright athleticism with genuine world class ability in making things happen on the pitch, when in the mood, Pérez remains a competent squad player acting as entourage to players such as Özil, Sanchez et al.
But while Sanchez has been a revelation for Arsenal, often taking on the mantle of chief goal scorer all by himself since his switch to the Emirates, the Chilean has always been more of a winger and a wide man. He is not a long term solution and employing him as a striker simply means depriving the side of their greatest attacking outlet from his usual wide role with no-one of an equal level to replace him.
Walcott remains an enigma, neither a fully-fledged winger nor the fleet footed striker he once threatened to become; he blows hot and cold and unfortunately cannot be relied on to score the goals consistently. Danny Welbeck is hard working, technically excellent and a fabulous team player, but he is not a natural goal scorer and injuries have pushed him into the wilderness. Alex Iwobi remains an excellent proposition, a burgeoning talent but one for the future.
With this all in mind, Giroud remains Arsenal’s best option as an out an out striker and based on the facts alone, one can legitimately argue why Giroud is not being utilized more frequently by Wenger at precisely the time when his team needs an attacking focal point more than ever.
What, if any, are the advantages of leaving their first choice striker out when the side remains shot of confidence and any cutting edge and is not scoring? Giroud, while lacking the mobility, flexibility and fluidity of a front line consisting of Messrs Sanchez, Walcott, Özil or Welbeck,ÖzilÖzil would nonetheless provide the focal point they so desperately need to balance their side and give them some direction.
Playing technically proficient and aesthetic football does not put the ball in the net. It provides the platform and the means by which goals are scored, not the act itself. For that reason, goal scorers are, and always will be, needed and cherished in the game. It’s why a good goal scorer is the salt of the earth.
It is why managers such as Pep Guardiola, so resilient to abandoning his beloved footballing ideals, has been unable to ignore the talents of Sergio Agüero – he cannot afford to ignore his completely single minded goal scoring prowess, despite his apparent obsession with creating a footballing nirvana in every passage of play.
Is that what Wenger has chosen to do? Stubbornly stick to his principles, abandoning logic and pragmatics to stick to the fluid attacking formations that, initially at least, promised so much earlier in the season? Is he simply refusing to conform to die hard pragmatics such as Mourinho, unafraid to do the dirty in order to get the points they need for success, totally unashamed of the means by which they achieve the end goal?
There is no doubt that Arsenal, in full flow and playing with confidence, are still able to play some breathless football, bordering on a kind of artistry that is woven onto the pitch. Perhaps the romantic in Wenger is simply waiting for the Jekyll and Hyde nature of his side to transform back into the beautiful aesthetic machine we saw earlier this season, before the side we see today, forlorn and deprived of any confidence, reared its ugly head once again.
Whatever it is from Wenger, he should be experienced and wise enough to see the facts laid bare before him – Arsenal had only three shots on target against Crystal Palace, a side struggling with confidence and form themselves, languishing at the bottom of the table but rapidly rising with results such as their victory on Monday night.
Giroud may not be the long term answer for Arsène Wenger, and even Wenger’s own future now lies in the balance as his glorious legacy, painstakingly hand crafted during his reign, threatens to dissolve into tatters. But the French striker may still hold the key to repairing Arsenal’s short comings for their final eight games.
It may only provide a sticking patch over the gaping chasms of their glaringly obvious faults that have been allowed to fester over the last decade, but with Wenger’s future looking increasingly uncertain, a temporary plaster over the cracks may be all that they require this season, before the real questions that lay currently unanswered can be examined in detail over the summer.
While many fans may be reluctant to admit it, Olivier Giroud still has a huge part to play in Arsenal’s future this season, and despite being the scapegoat all too often for their shortcomings, he may very well be the unlikely saviour they need. If those who doubt him can look past their pride and give him the chance he deserves and the club is crying out for, he might even prove those doubters wrong.