Liam Barnes

The alarm bells must surely be ringing loud and clear by now; as if the ‘Big Four’ of the Premier League, the cabal of clubs with an iron grip over richest, most popular and arguably the best league in the world for most of the last decade, weren’t hit hard enough by the most serious threats to their lofty position at home, now their recent hegemony over European football has been greatly damaged.

With two of the last five winners, six of the last ten finalists and 13 of the last 24 semi-finalists – including three in each of the last three seasons – preceding this year’s Champions League, the dominant power and paymaster in European football has been at home in England. However, the emergence of Barcelona last year, as well as a growing uncertainty leading to financial limitations being introduced to force the spendthrifts to tighten their belts accordingly, has helped to rein in what was beginning to look like the victory of money over merit. Though Chelsea were planning to revamp their ageing squad anyway this summer before their exit to Internazionale, the comprehensive and surprising nature of Arsenal and Manchester United’s respective defeats to Barcelona and Bayern Munich will force the old heads of Arsene Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson to take another look at their teams.

There’s no need to go into possession statistics, or how many more shots on goal were had by one side than the other, because over the two games in London and Barcelona, it was patently obvious which side had played the better, was organised the better and motivated the better. Manuel Almunia made four terrific saves in the first twenty minutes, Lionel Messi scored four fabulous goals in the last ninety, and in between, other than a little blip from lack of concentration, Barcelona were embarrassingly dominant, defensively potent and aesthetically so pleasing that Arsenal’s much-vaunted claims to be the best passing side in the Premier League looked like scant consolation against Xavi and co. There were no excuses – those who point out that Cesc Fabregas, William Gallas, Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie were missing should look at the absence of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Carles Puyol, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta as an equal hindrance dealt with by having a better squad – and Wenger acknowledged as much in his strikingly honest praise for his victorious opponents.

What Barcelona did was highlight how all across the squad, Arsenal lack depth and the odd dash of truly world-class quality. Almunia may have acquitted himself well in such trying circumstances, but he is at most an average keeper in the Premier League, with iffy understudies that Wenger has bizarrely not addressed – he could have signed Shay Given for a decent fee of £7M last year (or indeed before Manchester City were interested), and there are some promising young goalies around.

Defensive deficiencies, pointed to by the dramatic return of Sol Campbell, lie mainly in the heart of defence, as apart from Thomas Vermaelen, the lot of them are slow, old and inconsistent, a target for pacy strikers and set-pieces.

Midfield may have some fine ball-players, but it lacks an authoritative general to tackle and stay behind, as well as a general work ethic like Barcelona’s energetic pressing of opponents, and up front, other than van Persie and Arshavin, is a touch on the light side, as even with Nicklas Bendtner’s improved recent form it is debatable whether or not he deserves his spot in the side.

Some pundits have pointed to Arsenal scoring in the last ten minutes of 20 league games this year as a sign of a growing toughness, but the mental fragility at the heart of their team is shown by the fact that Chelsea and Manchester United both did the double over them, and only some moments of mercy and profligacy stopped Barcelona from smashing double figures past them. Add in their habit of having key players injured – Eduardo and Aaron Ramsey were unlucky, but Samir Nasri, van Persie, Thomas Rosicky and Theo Walcott all had known vulnerabilities and/or long absences before they were signed – means that some steel is still desperately needed to stop a few fallow seasons turning into a full-on trophy drought.

Manchester United, with six trophies in the last three years, are hardly in the same perilous position as Arsenal in terms of feeling the heat as Man City and others breathe ever closer down their necks, but there are signs of decay and danger that need to be warded off.

Ferguson’s sour grumblings about gamesmanship and poor refereeing  – other than being amazingly hypocritical, as his team are notorious for hounding referees as he accused Bayern Munich of doing, and the Carling Cup final was just one example of decisions going bizarrely in United’s favour – are just diversion tactics to stop people seeing the paucity of their recent performances. Most apparent is how over-reliant they have become on Wayne Rooney, with Dimitar Berbatov struggling to fit into the team system consistently and, in the absence of the departed Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez, a lack of world-class options in front of goal.

Though Antonio Valencia has had a very effective first season and Nani is finally living up to his potential, the centre has become a tad plodding and uninspired, with only Darren Fletcher and Ji-Sung Park bringing any central drive. Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes are both fairly static playmakers, unable to finish or dictate games, and Anderson and Michael Carrick are both hopelessly out of form, with a horrific habit of disappearing entirely in the big games (Carrick if anything would have wished to remain invisible against Bayern, only noticeable for his errant passing and dawdling as he once again was bypassed in the middle).

Despite Rafael’s red card, for one petulant and one daft foul in either half, the defence is still as solid as ever, but with Edwin van der Sar on the verge of retirement with no natural successor and Nemanja Vidic’s future dogged by rumours of dissatisfaction, Ferguson will be mindful of trying to keep the positives in his side and at the same time spend however much money he can to rectify the negatives, to tweak rather than overhaul his squad. That is, if the Scot doesn’t decide to retire soon.

With Chelsea now in pole position for the league title, both Arsenal and Manchester United will be looking for a late surge from them and a shock slip from The Blues to salvage some pride from this difficult campaign, lick their wounds, and come roaring back to bigger and better things next season. If they hadn’t already woken up and smelt the coffee this season, then surely this most trying week will be the necessary wake-up call.


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