Things are still far from perfect for Arsenal. Confidence is 'wobbling', manager Arsene Wenger admitted after Sunday's less-than-convincing 2-1 victory over Sunderland. Robin van Persie's brilliance papered over the cracks against Steve Bruce's visitors, who themselves are bereft of the all-important good fortune and self-belief. Here skysports.com looks at the five factors Arsenal need to address if they are to finish in the top four of the Premier League.
There was an almost eerie atmosphere at Emirates Stadium this weekend. Empty seats, groans of discontent and a few boos at half-time were reflected on the pitch. Arsenal were destroying Sunderland with some of their old swagger after taking the lead in just the 29th second through Van Persie. But when Sunderland equalised courtesy of former Gunner Sebastian Larsson's brilliant free-kick, Wenger's men panicked. Sunderland squeezed midfield and Arsenal completely lost their way for the second portion of the first half. Yes, 'character', one of Wenger's favourite words, was evident in an improved display after half-time. However, players are clearly paralysed by the fear of making a mistake and when the team takes a setback, such as an equaliser, they shrink. Passes go astray, chances are missed and organisation becomes blurred. The demise in the form of Andrey Arshavin is a case in point. Winning, of course, is the obvious tonic. But Wenger needs to find a solution in words alone and if he is able to do so then he is an even better manager than we already know.
Robin van Persie
The Arsenal captain used his pre-match programme notes to laugh off continued reports of his move to Manchester City and he let his football do the talking on the pitch. His opener within 30 seconds and superb second-half set-piece winner were evidence of his supreme ability and reflected his commitment to the Gunners. But speculation will continue for as long as he does not sign a new contract. Van Persie's current deal expires in 2013, but Arsenal are understandably wary of a repeat of the Samir Nasri situation. The Dutchman is Wenger's skipper and best player (see his wonderful pirouette and chip against the post in the Sunderland match), but in September the forward said he was in no rush to sign a new deal before the end of this season. The uncertainty is only providing Arsenal critics with additional ammunition. It has been reported Nasri turned down a £90,000-a-week offer from the Gunners in order to move to City. Arsenal are said to be ready to offer Van Persie an identical salary, which would represent a £20,000-a-week pay-rise and would be unprecedented for Wenger and a player approaching 30 years of age. If Van Persie is committed, why wait until the summer? Arsenal must find a contract to convince the striker and the new deal would be a fantastic mid-season boost for the club.
It would be interesting to hear what the likes of Arsenal legends Tony Adams and Steve Bould think of their former club's current back four. When watching the Gunners, there is always a feeling they will concede. Even in the resilient display against Borussia Dortmund in the UEFA Champions League, which was probably Arsenal's most organised display of the season, there was a sense the Bundesliga side would score. It required Larsson's wonderful set-piece for Sunderland to break their guard, but the old failings were then more than evident. Had Lee Cattermole and Jack Colback not both made a mess of excellent chances, Sunderland could have gone in at half-time with a 3-1 lead. Former Charlton player Carl Jenkinson, possibly still scarred by his red card in the 8-2 humiliation at Manchester United, is not yet a Premier League-class defender and the 19-year-old has been forced into action ahead of schedule by Bacary Sagna's injury. Kieran Gibbs continues to be incapable of staying fit and Andre Santos is now going to have to quickly settle into England's top flight. Laurent Koscielny shows touches of skill when moving forward with the ball at his feet, but he remains lightweight for a centre-back. Summer signing Per Mertesacker has justified those who questioned his ability to cope with the pace of the Premier League. Thomas Vermaelen's return to fitness cannot come soon enough and, as he has said, Wenger will need to buy reinforcements if things have not improved by January. Prior to the victory over Sunderland, Arsenal had conceded 16 Premier League goals, more at this stage than in any season since 1963/64. Expect renewed bids for either Phil Jagielka or Gary Cahill.
Arsenal had nine corners and 24 free-kicks against Sunderland. Van Persie's wonderful winner aside, all of the set-pieces were utterly abysmal. The Gunners managed just five shots on target. Mikel Arteta was especially guilty, while Van Persie also has to shoulder some blame for his corners. So poor were Arsenal's free-kicks, even Santos and Walcott, getting back to his feet after being scythed down by a wild Wes Brown challenge, were invited to try their luck only to find the crowd behind the target. Wenger confessed his disappointment with the set-pieces to Sky Sports in his post-match interview. He said: "I believe that is still our weak point at the moment. With the number of corners and free-kicks we had today, we should make more of it." He will no doubt have his players working hard on the training ground.
Arsenal have been terribly unfortunate with the fitness of their players. Luck tends to disappear when you need it most. But the injuries to the likes of Vermaelen, Sagna, Jack Wilshere, Abou Diaby and Aaron Ramsey have only served to expose a squad which is woefully short of depth. Wenger's famous preference to sign youngsters means he has minimal experience away from his first team. Jenkinson, Francis Coquelin and Emmanuel Frimpong have all had to be used when Wenger would most likely have preferred to select them as occasional substitutes and Carling Cup regulars. It is not an excuse, it is a reason. Arsenal need to find a solution and quickly. Prior to defeating Sunderland, Wenger's team had amassed seven points from seven matches. No team in the Premier League era has had such a total and gone on to finish in the top four.
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