“He gives us power and penetration – he has it all. That’s why I would like him to get to the level he can go to. Maybe he doesn’t completely believe himself how good he can be and that’s the final step for him.”
Arsene Wenger steadfastly believes it is his job to help Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain realise his potential, and it’s undoubtedly an admirable stance when the alternative is to give up on young, talented, fragile players and buy replacements that have already shown themselves to be more robust both physically and mentally. Or at least it was admirable in 2014 when The Ox was 20 and had just endured a season punctuated by injury. And it was perhaps still admirable in 2015 when he had established himself as Arsenal’s first-choice right-winger before his season was once again ended by injury. But in 2016? After five years, only 49 Premier League starts and just seven top-flight goals? Is there not a point when it is more laudable to admit defeat and concentrate on other, less benevolent elements of your role as a football manager?
Does Wenger live in perpetual fear of his well-nurtured but flawed young players blooming elsewhere? This is the man who kept hold of Jeremie Aliadiere until he was a 24-year-old striker with just one Premier League goal to his name. Astonishingly, it’s only two years since Nicklas Bendtner ceased to be an Arsenal player. These are easy names to fling at the club, but they also neatly illustrate the point about Wenger’s frustrating/admirable loyalty. That the season begins again in two weeks with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Carl Jenkinson, Kieran Gibbs and Theo Walcott still in Arsenal colours would be astonishing were it not so predictable.
In the last five years since Chamberlain signed for Arsenal, Wenger has only willingly sold three outfield players to smaller Premier League clubs – Marouane Chamakh, Kyle Bartley and Armand Traore. For the sake of contrast, Manchester United have shunted Tom Cleverley, Jonny Evans, Danny Welbeck, Darren Fletcher, Wilfried Zaha, Michael Keane, Fabio, Park Ji-Sung, Dimitar Berbatov, John O’Shea, Gabriel Obertan and Darron Gibson to other Premier League clubs and a whole heap of other players to lower-league outfits, including two in Ritchie de Laet and Danny Drinkwater who now have Premier League winners’ medals.
It’s easy to point out that Manchester United have only won the title once in those five years and are now exiled from the Champions League so hardly make ideal role models, but it’s also difficult to pick out one of those names who would have helped write a different story. Manchester United have not stalled because they have changed things too radically, but Arsenal are clearly failing to hit fifth gear at least in part because they have not changed things enough.
We have long had a reputation at Football365 for being biased towards Arsenal, with almost daily e-mails of a hilarious ‘why don’t you just call yourselves Arsenal365?’ nature. Former Winners and Losers man Pete Gill was a grumpy old/young Arsenal fan and we have always had a soft/hard spot for the Gunners, Arsene Wenger and his preferred style of football. We have habitually sided with them against the mainstream media when their criticism has been badly researched or just plain rooted in xenophobia. We are all inherently biased in some way and we have sometimes instinctively backed the Arsenal horse, before switching mid-stream when we have fallen a little in love with Manchester City, Liverpool or Tottenham. No Football365er supports a Premier League club so we like who we like, love who we love and laugh at those who amuse us.
And it’s that well-established goodwill towards Wenger and Arsenal that leads us to hope in vain for some kind of change, for some kind of recognition that the status quo is not working. We may not be Arsenal fans but some of us have been watching and writing for a very long time and share close to the same frustrations as Arsenal fans. And no, it’s not necessarily about the simple solution of spending £50m on a new striker (though I stand by my belief that January was the time to opt for this simple solution when Arsenal started a sprint for the line wearing one running shoe and a welly), but it could be a nuanced change in formation to allow Aaron Ramsey to contribute more to a side that has just recorded its lowest goal tally since 2006/07, or it could be spending a f***-tonne of money on Riyad Mahrez, or it could be an acknowledgement that there is at least one member of Wenger’s 32-man first-team squad who is not currently Arsenal-class, if we assume Arsenal have any designs on the title; and no, the sacrificial lamb of Joel Campbell and a Hull loan move for Chuba Akpom is not enough.
Arsenal’s greatest strength this summer – when the three clubs ahead of them in the title betting have all changed their manager – is continuity. There is no bedding-in period, no wholesale change in personnel, no massive shift in footballing style. Yet right now, Arsenal’s greatest strength is looking suspiciously like their biggest weakness. Granit Xhaka is an intelligent signing but nobody at Chelsea, Manchester City or Manchester United is worrying that he is going to turn Arsenal into a different beast; even Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez could not make that change when so much around them remained the same. And absolutely nobody is worried that this is the season Oxlade-Chamberlain ‘gets to the level he can go to’.
Was Jamie Vardy the answer to Arsenal’s problems? Almost definitely not. But at least there would have been an element of intrigue about the upcoming season, a question mark about whether there would be an enforced change of style.
Instead we have at least five Arsenal entrants for any ‘Five players facing a big season’ list. The silliest is that we know failure in that ‘big season’ is unlikely to have any lasting consequences.