Although it may be a tad premature to be writing off Arsenal's season in February, the club's chances of winning their first Premier League title in 13 years seem to be decreasing by the week. Defeats against Watford and league leaders Chelsea have all but ensured that the Gunners will frustratingly spend the final months of the season trying to secure a top four place rather than challenge for the title.
And, barring a minor miracle against Bayern Munich over two legs in the Champions League, Arsenal's trophy hopes for another season will rest with the FA Cup. Tensions continue to grow at the Emirates as Arsenal's almost predictable failure to fulfil their potential casts further doubt over the direction Arsene Wenger is taking the club. But with such a talented squad why do Arsenal continue to come up short in the Premier League?
Lack of leaders
There's no doubt that Arsenal have developed a reputation as a ‘sunshine' team over the past decade. When they are at their best they are irresistible and capable of beating any team in European football. However, when things go against them they are capable of capitulating in dramatic fashion. And, when things do go wrong, like they did against Watford and Chelsea more recently, there is no Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira type of figure to pull the team together again.
When Arsenal have their backs against the wall they, more often than not, are hugely vulnerable. Every player seems to look to the next and ask ‘well who's going to take control?'. For all of Wenger's musings about the character of his playing squad, Arsenal are regularly found wanting. Gunners legend Sol Campbell also recently pinpointed Arsenal's lack of personality as the main factor in the club's fall from prominence over the past decade. If Wenger is able to bring in some strong personalities in the summer or indeed coax more leadership qualities out of his current crop, the club's wait for a Premier League title could come to an end.
Now, this isn't a complete criticism of the Arsenal back four but more so of Arsenal's defensive setup as a team. It could be argued Laurent Koscielny is one of the best centre backs in Europe and new signing Shkodran Mustafi has only been on the losing side on two occasions since joining the club last summer. Hector Bellerin, despite not being at his best in recent games, has quickly emerged as one of the most sought-after full-backs in the Premier League while Nacho Monreal has been a consistent performer over the past few seasons.
However, despite being at fault for some important goals since the turn of the year, the Arsenal defence are not completely to blame. The Gunners, simply, are too easy to play against. Unlike title rivals, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal rarely utilise a high pressing game when they are out of possession which allows teams to ‘have a go' at them. Most of the time Alexis Sanchez is the only player that presses the opposition aggressively off the ball so ultimately their first line of defence is non-existent.
The Arsenal midfield has also struggled to provide the back four with a strong defensive screen this season. Francis Coquelin has been identified as the Gunners' main defensive midfielder but, despite a strong start to his Arsenal career, the Frenchman has waned in form this season. The way he was shaken off by Eden Hazard in Arsenal's 3-0 defeat to Chelsea in the lead up to the Belgian's goal perfectly illustrated just how desperate Arsenal are for a strong, experienced holding midfielder.
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Big players go missing in big games
If you have aspirations of winning the Premier League title then winning games against your rivals is imperative. Arsenal, however, seem to lack the nous and mental attributes to do so. Defeats to Liverpool, Manchester City, Chelsea and a dismal performance during their 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford earlier this season have once again proved that Arsenal find it difficult to perform in big games.
In their previous 22 fixtures away to the Premier League's top six teams, Arsenal have lost 15 and drawn seven times – a record which makes the prospect of winning the Premier League title almost impossible.
But why does it always happen? Arsenal's so-called big players have a predictable tendency of not turning up for the big occasion. Mesut Ozil is usually the player that makes Arsenal tick and is brilliant when on song.
However, against the best in English football, Ozil seems easy to unsettle and ultimately nullify. But, the German seems to take an unfair amount of criticism considering the lack of help he receives from his Gunners teammates. Wenger's side certainly have the talent but their lack of belief and character in big games continues to hold them back.
No Jack Wilshere and misplaced loyalty
At the beginning of this season, Jack Wilshere's Arsenal career looked rather precarious. With Santi Cazorla and Coquelin established as Arsenal's midfield pairing and £30million summer acquisition Granit Xhaka joining Aaron Ramsey and Mohamed Elneny in the midfield ranks, the England international was crowded out and sent to Bournemouth on a season-long loan to get some first team football.
However, seven months into the Premier League season, Wenger's decision to show faith in his current midfield options has backfired. Cazorla has been injured for most of the season, Xhaka has struggled with form and disciplinary issues while Ramsey and Elneny have failed to establish themselves in the Arsenal midfield.
During this time, Wilshere has enjoyed the most injury-free spell of his career and is on the way to returning to his free-flowing best form. Wenger has consistently shown faith in the wrong players throughout the past decade and, on this occasion, one of the country's most talented midfielders has fallen by the wayside. Wenger needs to regain his ruthless streak and discard players when they are simply not good enough.
Much has been said of the vast amounts of money spent by Arsenal's Premier League title rivals. Manchester City, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool have spent huge since Arsenal's last title success, with the Gunners financially shackled for the majority of that time following their move to the Emirates Stadium. However, the Gunners have recovered financially and are once again spending money in the transfer market. The fact that their rivals have cash to burn is no longer an excuse.
The club spent £100million last summer to bring in Xhaka, Mustafi and Lucas Perez amongst others and, Mustafi aside, the rest of Wenger's signings have struggled to cut the mustard at the Emirates. The Arsenal boss has failed to spend his transfer kitty in the right way this season while his title rivals have strengthened. For several years, Arsenal have needed a world class centre back, holding midfielder and a striker and that is still the case in spite of the money he has spent.