Arsenal comment: Strength in depth is still a problem, Arsene
Champions League defeat in Greece exposes shallow squad which needs boosting in January
If Arsene Wenger had hoped that Tuesday’s trip to Athens would confirm the strength in depth of his squad, he must have spent the flight back from Greece in a state of some confusion.
Despite selecting a side with a seemingly reasonable mix of genuine experience and youthful dynamism, his fringe players were embarrassed by a shambolic performance in the Greek capital.
While the result did not affect Arsenal’s top place in the group or status in next Friday’s last 16 draw, the premise that the Gunners currently have a squad capable of attacking silverware on three fronts in the new year looks fanciful at best. Wenger’s side came off very much second best, and the more pressing concern is that there were problems in every area of the second-string team.
In goal Lukasz Fabianski hardly looked convincing even before going off injured, while his replacement Vito Mannone endured his own personal Greek tragedy. Wojciech Szczesny’s No1 position at the club is not under scrutiny, despite him being just 21 years of age.
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In defence Sebastien Squillaci gave the kind of display that makes you wonder just how he had fashioned a decent career with Lyon, Sevilla and France before he came to Arsenal in the summer of 2010. It is hard to think of a signing who has been so disappointing, even in Wenger’s long 15-year reign.
In midfield the tenacious young duo of Emmanuel Frimpong and Francis Coquelin have potential, but are nowhere near the finished article ,with Frimpong’s temperament looking to be a genuine problem as he was booked late on and flirted with a second red card of his embryonic Arsenal career.
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But it is in attack where possibly the biggest worries are. For the second Tuesday night in succession, Marouane Chamakh was given a chance in place of the rested Robin van Persie, and once again the Moroccan gave a toothless, desperate performance.
The team as a whole may not be dependent on Van Persie, but the striking department is very much a one-man show. Chamakh and Ju-Young Park, the Korean who did not emerge from the bench on Tuesday, have just one goal apiece this season, and yet they are the only alternatives to Van Persie currently at the club.
The captain is utterly irreplaceable in a way that has not been the case at Arsenal before. Even with Thierry Henry in his pomp there were other players, such as Van Persie himself, for example, to fill his boots. Behind Van Persie now there is just a gaping chasm where other viable options should be.
On the flanks Andrey Arshavin and Tomas Rosicky, both 30 and with a wealth of European and international experience, no longer seem capable of having any prolonged impact on a game. These are now second choice players and this was a second class game in which Arsenal had no real incentive to win, and it showed.
But come February Arsenal will hope to be in contention at the top of the Premier League while approaching a two-legged last 16 tie in the Champions League and, possibly, the middle rounds of the FA Cup. Some of these players are going to be required to perform, and on this evidence it could be beyond them.
There were not only negatives, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain again showed promise on his second Champions League start, and Yossi Benayoun capped another intelligent, inventive display with a finely taken goal.
But those bright points were nullified by a lengthy list of darker moments after a perplexingly poor performance.
There were short-term problems too, with Andre Santos hobbling off, a loss which leaves the Gunners without all four first-team full-backs for the foreseeable future.
Given that Arsenal’s next away journey is to face the irrepressible Premier League leaders Manchester City, that is a situation Wenger will hope alters in the next 10 days.
If it does not, the Frenchman faces the genuine possibility of taking on a side who have scored 48 goals in 14 league games with a quartet of central defenders lining up across the back four.
With the January transfer window set to open in just over three weeks’ time, Wenger’s assertion last week that he was ‘not in the market’ is looking a little presumptuous.
Van Persie’s goals and a strong first XI are seeing them through in the league at the moment, but the cover is alarmingly fragile in places.
Bringing in an understudy to Van Persie, even if it were a player on a short-term loan deal, would appear to be prudent at the very least. Otherwise when crunch time comes in February and March, Arsenal might be found wanting once more, just as they were last season.