Arsenal — A Club on the Decline? (Part 2)

It’s a sad day in football when one’s remarkable achievements are sullied by the actions of others. Arsenal’s defensive problems have contributed significantly to their demise; but up front, they’re still as deadly as ever.

This season, in particular, there is one obvious reason for that–Robin van Persie. His performances have seen him associated with some of the world’s finest. It’s a pity that his club’s performances have blemished what is proving to be a remarkable campaign.

The Dutchman has taken his game to a whole new level this season and has single-handedly kept the Gunners in with a shout for Champions League qualification.

He has scored a phenomenal 22 goals in 25 league games and is hands down Arsenal’s best player this season.

It’s hard not to feel chuffed for van Persie. After all, his Arsenal career before this season was blighted by injury. He scored 18 goals last season in the league; so it’s hardly a surprise that he has pushed on this campaign. That has done Arsenal a huge favor, considering the goals aren’t exactly flying in through other means. Arsenal’s second highest league goal tally is 4 goals — jointly achieved by Mikel Arteta and Gervinho. Indeed, club captain Robin van Persie has had to carry his team this season…literally.

To be specific, van Persie has scored an eye-popping 46% of Arsenal’s 48 league goals. To understand the magnitude of this, let’s bring the free-scoring duo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo into the discussion: Messi has scored 27 goals in La Liga — 5 more than van Persie in the BPL. Despite that, Messi’s tally accounts for 41% of Barcelona’s 66 league goals. In addition, Barcelona’s second highest league goal tally is 9, achieved by — interestingly enough — Cesc Fabregas. Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 28 goals in La Liga — 6 more than van Persie. Yet, Ronaldo’s tally accounts for 35% of Real Madrid’s 79 league goals. Their second highest league goal tally is 14, achieved by Gonzalo Higuain.

Robin van Persie–‘Come on, Help Me Out Up Here!’

It’s no coincidence that this excessive reliance on van Persie comes after the departure of several big-name players, namely Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. Cesc Fabregas, in particular, was Arsenal’s main weapon. He scored a highly respectable 15 league goals and laid on 13 goals for his team en route to their third place finish. He actually outscored van Persie by 6 goals that year. Though, in fairness, van Persie made 11 less appearances.

Samir Nasri really came to life last season. Many eye-catching displays complemented the 10 league goals he mustered. Behind van Persie, he was the second highest scorer in the league for Arsenal. With both players now gone, the full weight of expectation has fallen on van Persie’s shoulders and to be fair, he has coped very well with the pressure.

The danger in hanging all hopes on van Persie, though, is that he can pick up an injury — which doesn’t seem hard to do at Arsenal — and just like that, the team would find themselves in even more trouble. Injury talk aside, there is the ongoing concern of whether van Persie will sign a new deal or not. His deal expires soon and with the club’s current plight, you really couldn’t blame him if he found the exit door rather appealing to the eye. That said, someone has to step up and take the pressure off of van Persie. So much talk permeates the air about Arsenal being a one-man team. Amidst the club’s problems, someone other than the Dutchman has to stand up and be counted as far as being a consisent goal threat is concerned.

Theo Walcott–‘Play Me Through the Middle, Please’

Up steps Theo Walcott. His future was bright enough for one to need shades when he made his £5 million (initial) move from Southampton in 2006. However, just over 6 years on, his progress has plateaued. This is largely due to his being positioned on the right wing despite his natural position being that of a striker as well as — more notably — his glaringly conspicuous inability to cross a football.

Walcott has completed just 14 of the 81 crosses he has attempted this season, resulting in a completion percentage of just 13.6. Last season, he completed a mediocre 11 out of 89, resulting in a completion percentage of 12.4. So he has made some progress, but let’s not kid ourselves–Walcott will probably never be an effective winger. His finishing ability is quite impressive, however. His goal tally (3 league goals so far this season compared to 9 last season) won’t reflect that, but that’s understandable given his position away from goal.

It has been talked about a lot and Wenger himself is very much aware of the idea; but it’s time it became a reality. Theo Walcott must be moved into the position of central striker. The short-passing game Arsenal play will disregard any concerns about his height up top. It’s a move that will re-define what is evidently a faltering career and it will surely give van Persie the helping hand he sorely needs.

football formations

Speaking of van Persie, however, what would Wenger do with him? Simple: van Persie’s intelligence on and off the ball together with his remarkable technical quality makes the decision to play him behind Walcott an easy one. Walcott would spearhead Arsenal’s attacks, using his searing pace to run off the shoulder of the last defender onto key passes and finish incisively. He’ll finally be in a position to live up to the club’s famed No.14 shirt. van Persie would have a free role behind Walcott, much like Wayne Rooney has at Manchester United. He’ll be in a position to create as well as score. It’ll be a match made in heaven up top for Wenger and Arsenal.

Given that tactical tweak, someone has to take up the wide right position. So, in comes “The Ox.” He’s already a popular figure at the Emirates and his performances warrant regular action. He shouldn’t play predominantly on the right, however. His decision-making when cutting inside is immaculate for a player his age. He should play on the left, meaning that Gervinho could use his pace to run in behind the fullback on the right. His finishing hasn’t been particularly good when cutting inside. Thus, he’d be better off focusing on crossing.

Unfortunately, that means there is no room for Aaron Ramsey in the lineup. Ramsey started the season brilliantly; but over the last few weeks, he has gone off the boil. That aside, Mikel Arteta has simply performed a lot better. The Spaniard has kept order in central midfield in Jack Wilshere’s absence. In addition to having the highest pass completion rate among Arsenal’s regularly used players (90.6%), he plays the most key passes/game (2.1) among all the midfielders — in fact, everyone except van Persie — including Ramsey (2), who regularly plays ahead of him on the pitch. His transfer has truly paid dividends.

So, a few tweaks can salvage whatever scraps are left of Arsenal’s season. They may be in the driver’s seat to qualify for the Champions League at the moment, but they need to bear in mind that Chelsea, Newcastle, and even Liverpool are chasing their dreams as well. This Arsenal team may be in decline, but it is not beyond repair. Hopefully, all relevant parties can come together and revive a club that continues to go downhill. If they don’t act quickly, however, rest assured that the consequences — now and in the long term — will be nothing short of dire.


*- Stats courtesy of whoscored

Posted under: English Premier League

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