Tuesday September 28th, 2010

The timing couldn't have been worse. On Saturday morning, the newspapers were full of the story that Arsenal had posted a record profit of 56 million pounds ($89 million) for the year ending May 31. By Saturday evening, everybody was wondering why the club hadn't spent any of it on a goalkeeper. Even worse, the same afternoon as Manuel Almunia was enduring his nightmare against West Bromwich Albion, 10 miles to the southwest, Mark Schwarzer was producing a string of fine saves to help Fulham to a 0-0 draw against Everton.

Arsenal bid for the 37-year-old Australian during the summer, but fell $790,000 short of Fulham's valuation. According to the nursery rhyme, it was for "the want of a nail" that Richard III lost the crown (its absence causing his horse's shoe to slip during the Battle of Bosworth). Could it be that for the want of less than 1 percent of Arsenal's profits to be spent on a goalkeeper a title was lost? Coach Arsene Wenger's refusal to strengthen that area, when funds are so obviously available, is mystifying.

At the start of the season, there was reason to believe Arsenal could be a serious challenger. It's become customary to regard the club as an aesthetically pleasing also-ran. However, last season it was making a genuine charge when Cesc Fabregas broke his leg against Barcelona in March, a run that came despite losing home and away against both Chelsea and Manchester United, and despite playing for significant parts of the season without a recognized center forward as Robin van Persie and Nicklas Bendtner suffered lengthy injuries.

This season, Wenger's young side is a year older and, theoretically, wiser. Signing Marouane Chamakh gave him not only additional cover at center forward but also, given the Moroccan's physicality, an alternative, even if he has some toughening up to do before he is fully attuned to the demands of the Premier League. Bringing in Laurent Koscielny and Sebastien Squillaci bolstered the center of defense, which had also looked shaky at times last season. Perhaps in an ideal world Arsenal also would have signed another holding midfielder, but Wenger clearly has faith in Emmanuel Frimpong to provide backup for Alex Song and Denilson, and considering his whole philosophy is to give youth its chance, it would be odd to blame him for that.

Assuming the new center backs meshed, it was possible to envision them providing a platform for a devastating and balanced front six. In midfield, there would be Song holding and Fabregas creating, with Abou Diaby or Jack Wilshere filling in the gaps; and up front there would be a fabulously versatile three of Andrei Arshavin, Chamakh and Van Persie, with Theo Walcott's pace in reserve. And that's without even mentioning Samir Nasri, who has probably been Arsenal's best creative player so far this season.

Less than two months into the season, though, Fabregas, Van Persie, Bendtner, Walcott and Diaby are all injured. Arsenal is only four points behind the leader Chelsea, so its season is not over by any means, but it's hard not to think that five, possibly seven, points have been needlessly frittered away. Almunia is a clear problem, for the mistakes he makes and the uncertainty he radiates to the rest of the team, but the issues run deeper than that.

Those problems were apparent in the draw at Sunderland a week ago. Facing a side that flooded the midfield and retained possession well, Arsenal was drawn into a series of niggling fouls. By halftime, it had committed 11 to Sunderland's one, and Song had committed enough of them -- one a cynical trip on Steed Malbranque -- that he could easily have been sent off. When he was then guilty of a cynical obstruction in the second half, a second yellow was inevitable. Wenger applauded sarcastically and became involved in an altercation with the fourth official.

Wenger has done enormous good for the English game, and his insistence on playing his brand of high-risk football is both laudable and entertaining, but in this case he showed the other side of his personality. More than anybody else, he has campaigned against the English game's laissez-faire attitude to overly combative football, but here he looked petulant and hypocritical. That is unpleasant enough in and of itself, but it is also an attitude that at times carries over to his team and, in a slightly different way, was in evidence on Saturday.

At times it seems as though Arsenal's players have come to believe they are artists with an inalienable right to play, as though all the praise they have -- rightly -- received for their style has led them to regard opponents as enemies of civilization. There is an arrogance to them that, up to a point, is probably necessary to play the way they do. But when the game goes against them, as it did at Sunderland, it can lead to peevishness or, worse, to the sort of sloppiness that was responsible for Darren Bent's equalizer, and then, seemingly for the whole performance against West Brom.

Almunia took most of the blame, as was understandable for a goalkeeper who conceded a penalty (even if he did then save it); allowed a shot that was hit straight at him to cannon in off his thigh; and was dragged far too far out of his goal, leaving Jerome Thomas an open net for West Brom's third. But he certainly wasn't the only one at fault. That third goal, in particular, was the result of three missed tackles; without them, Almunia would never have been called to leave his line in the first place.

The irony, of course, is that after Wenger spent the first four games of the season complaining about opponents who supposedly didn't play football but kicked and hustled, his side has taken a single point from two teams that engaged in a passing contest. What was exposed in last season's Champions League meeting with Barcelona was not that Arsenal is technically inferior to the Spanish champion -- which it is, but not by much -- but that its pressing, its defensive work, is far less rigorous. Nobody would claim either Sunderland or West Brom can match Arsenal for technique, but those clubs' combination of technique and energy was enough to rattle Wenger's team.

It all feels like the same old history repeating, with Arsenal too absorbed by its stylishness. When it won its three league titles under Wenger, the presence of Patrick Vieira gave it a steel, both physically and, more important, mentally, that is lacking in the present crop. With a more forceful presence, might Arsenal have turned dominance into a victory at Liverpool, held on to the lead against Sunderland and have battled more doggedly on an off day against West Brom?

Only six games have been played, and Arsenal remains within touch despite its injury problems. But after two unconvincing weeks, it badly needs a strong performance against Chelsea next Sunday, and not just because defeat would leave it seven points adrift. With Arsenal having become so accustomed to winning praise for its football rather than trophies, there is a danger that what began as a consolation has become a comfortable habit.

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