October 8, 2011
Arsène Wenger, 15 years on. Has the bubble burst?
Firstly, I really didn’t want to write this. I tweeted on a few occasions completely ruling myself out of making a Wenger critic article, but there comes a point where there’s an element of hypocrisy to blog on the failings of other clubs, yet casually avoid your own. Secondly; This is a long one, but bare with it – It’ll put some light on a generation of football.
“When I think of Arsène Wenger, I think of Warren Buffett. Wenger runs his football club like he is going to own the club for 100 years.”
Billy Beane, 2010.
At 15th in the table, P7 W2 D1 L3. Arsenal have made their worst start to a season in 58 years. The fans are in dismay, the players look shaken, the injury list is growing, and their rivals are pulling away at a rate of knots.
Let’s start this from the beginning. It’s 1996 and Arsenal, and then-CEO David Dein, have just appointed a geeky, quirky, funny looking Frenchman. Armed with a masters degree in economics, a modest playing career and a decent record with Monaco/Nagoya Grampus Eight. It was a controversial appointment to say the least.
Arsène Wenger in 1996, aged 47.
20 months later and Mr Wenger is sitting pretty with an Fa Cup and Premier League title to his name – the first foreign manager to ever achieve ‘the double’. Suddenly the penny dropped, this was a man who’s breath of fresh air had shaken the football world. The attention was being directed to a brand of football, a culture of pass and move. The Evening Standard, who had headlined with “Arsène Who?!” 2 years ago, were looking very sheepish.
Fast forward again, to the famous unparalleled 2003-2004 campaign. ‘The Invincibles’. Arsène Wenger has navigated his side to an unbeaten season, with an all-time unbeaten record of 49 games. He could do no wrong. He had the balance between purchasing established quality players, and developing young players through the system to play the ‘Arsenal Way’. His back four were stubborn. He had a solid 4-4-2 in place which was frustrating to break down and devastating on the break. The giants in Europe were scared. No-one wanted to play The Arsenal.
Following that, the come-down was inevitable, even the most heartened Gooner didn’t expect another invincibles season, but the manner in which the 49-long run was ended has always left a feeling of injustice around the club. An FA Cup victory in 2005 to Manchester United sweetened the pain. Club captain Patrick Vieira left the club and Gilberto Silva filled the boots. Adequately, I must add. The FA Cup win 6 years ago is the last trophy Arsenal Football Club won.
What has happened to a team which promised so much?
Next stop, January 2011, every year getting more frustrating than the last. David Dein, the Chairman, the personal and professional friend of Wenger left the club in 2006 following disputes over the move away from the 93 year old, 38,000 capacity Highbury Stadium, across the road to the new state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium. Arsenal’s pass-and-move philosophy remains, the big name players – to an extent, remain. There is slightly more focus on buying talented youngsters and developing them into the players of tomorrow, as opposed to the balance which was in use during the 2001-2005 era. It’s a long-term plan. Fans are patient, at times too patient, but in January Arsenal find themselves the only English club in all 4 competitions, 2nd in the league with a game in hand, with a strong team, players bought as youth in 2007/8 are now showing the promise to be stars. All is going to plan, bar the long-term injury of central defender Vermaelen, and the insufficient cover on the wings.
To me, Mid-January 2011 is where Arsène Wenger makes his first big mistake. At a time where we have serious chances of an epic season, he needs to strengthen, and get depth. Every manager from Barcelona to Barnet will tell you that teams statistically suffer more injuries in the second half of the season. Wenger does not add to his side.
With the same 25 man squad, Arsenal enter February. A promising month, with a Carling Cup Semi Final, a string of winnable Premier League games, and mouth-watering clash with Barcelona in the Champions League bridging what became the Carling Cup final.
A thrilling win against Barcelona comes first, before they are dragged back down to earth by the turning point in The Gunners season.
Arsenal 1 – 0 Stoke City.
A nervous win against a gritty Potters side, but the tackling of Pulis’s men enrages Arsène Wenger. Winger Theo Walcott, and Captain Cesc Fabregas suffer injuries as a result of strong tackles and are added to the 4 long injury list ahead of the Carling Cup final.
Arsenal 1 – 2 Birmingham City. Carling Cup Final, Feb 27th 2011.
Birmingham players celebrate their winner.
Calamity. Disaster. Embarrassing. The victors went on to be relegated. This was the first showing of cracks in Arsène Wenger’s new 4-2-3-1 formation, as the structure of that team was based around the creativity of the injured Cesc Fabregas, the team went to Wembley and played without a spark. He should have played 4-4-2. This formation is a central-theme to Arsenal’s current demise.
From that game, Arsenal went from worse to worse. Cheated out of the Champions League 3 days later. From 4 trophies to 2 trophies in no time. 2 weeks later, FA Cup quarter-final; Arsenal, and I, travel to Old Trafford to see Sir Alex play 7 defenders against the best strength Arsenal side available. And Manchester United run out 2-0 winners.
This run grew to 2 wins in 17 games. Which brings me to this season.
We’re finally in season 2011/2012. Things have only gotten worse. 9 players, 7 first team all feature in what can only be described as a mass exodus over the summer. Arsenal sign 1 player of stature during before August. They lose their own pre-season tournament to the New York Red Bulls, and enter the first game of the Premier League season with a significantly weakened and demoralised team.
1-1 draw against Newcastle (Gervinho s/o).
From then, Arsenal games went like so;
Udinese (h) 1-0 win. (Pat Rice Manager – Wenger banned).
Liverpool (h) 0-2 loss. (Frimpong s/o).
Udinese (a) 1-2 win. (Szczesny saves penalty – huge moment).
Manchester Utd (a) 8-2 loss. (one of the biggest defeats in AFC history – Jenkinson s/o)
Post the 8-2 demolition at Old Trafford, Wenger finally enters the transfer window with 5 days remaining – building more pressure on himself with “panic buy” allegations.
To highlight Wenger’s big mistake number 2: A quick list of comparison is needed; Transfer dealings, 2011.
Sir Alex Ferguson; Evaluates his team, highlights positions which need strengthening, highlights and dispenses ‘dead-weight’ in the side. Recalls young players from their loan spells at other clubs. Purchases, at all costs, the players he believes will strengthen his side. Allows them to gel over pre-season USA tour, returning to win the Community Shield, and score 18 goals in first 4 league games. Clicked.
Arsène Wenger; Evaluates his team, promises fans he won’t sell big players unless it’s for a fair offer. Loses Clichy, Eboue. Next, Cesc Fabregas leaves for half his value (£28m), then Barcelona slap a 200M euro buy out clause on him. Slap in the face. Arsène Wenger then highlights Blackburn’s Phil Jones as a target, but only offers £8 million for him. Sir Alex Ferguson then realises Arsène has just essentially scouted a talented player, and buys him for double that. Ashley Young, a massive Arsenal fan, let’s Arsenal know his availability via his agent, and is willing to take a wage-cut to join his boyhood heroes. Arsenal spend 12M signing Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, 18 years old. Manchester United sign Ashley Young (who scores twice in the 8-2 mauling). Wenger offers £16M for Juan Mata, Valencia reject the low offer, Chelsea pick him up for £22m – He’s scoring for fun now. Penny pinching has lost Arsenal 3 players, now. Nasri leaves for Manchester City. Wenger buys 4 players in last 3 days. The season has already started poorly, now the side find themselves trying to gel, whilst picking themselves up from humiliating defeats and looking up at the 3 promoted teams above them in the table.
The comparison to Manchester United is the most fair. Given they operate financially in the same league as The Gunners, they should be the main compeition. Their structure is the most similar when it comes to raising capital for expenditure.
This one is a long one isn’t it?
Meanwhile, to thank Arsenal fans for their continued support. Arsenal FC up their – already highest in the UK, 2nd highest in Europe – ticket prices by 6%. 1% for every year the Arsenal fans have had nothing to shout about. Average ticket price is now around £55. Not to mention the now inflated price of travelling around the City of London. Fans are growing impatient.
Arsène Wenger continues with the 4-2-3-1 formation, yes, the one built around Cesc Fabregas, remember? Who’s currently one-thousand miles away in sunny Spain. But place new-boy Mikel Arteta in his role, though sometimes Aaron Ramsey, sometimes Benayoun, but what about when Wilshere’s back? No-one really knows. They face their next 2 games;
Swansea (h) 1-0. win. (Edgy affair, a very lucky goal).
Dortmund (a) 1-1. (Pat Rice manager – Brilliant performance).
And continue the 4-2-3-1 into Ewood Park. The 2nd biggest humiliation of Arsenal’s season.
Blackburn (a) 4-3 loss. (Blackburn are no longer bottom of the table)
Following that, a minor rebuff of 3 wins;
Shrewbury (h) 3-1. win. (Carling Cup – Youth Team out).
Bolton (h) 3-0. win. (Poor first half, red card for BW. Game changed).
Olympiakos (h) 2-1 win. (Pat Rice manager).
Wenger and Redknapp exchange words.
Before the biggest test of Arsenal ‘new beginning’;
Tottenham (a) 2-1 loss. (Arsenal now 5 points + 1 game behind Spurs).
Wenger’s policy of buying youth is simply not working if he cannot retain them, so many fans argue this point. Even Wenger himself was quoted saying;
“We do not buy superstars, we make them.”
Where are they now?
Samir Nasri, 24 – Manchester City.
Cesc Fabregas, 24 – Barcelona.
Emmanuel Adebayor, 27 – Tottenham (of all places!!).
Mathieu Flamini, 27 – AC Milan.
Eduardo Silva, 28 – Shaktar Donetsk.
Jose Antonio Reyes, 28 – Athletico Madrid.
Gael Clichy, 26 – Manchester City.
Emmanuel Eboue, 28 – Galatasary.
Ashley Cole, 30 – Chelsea.
Alexander Hleb, 30 – Barca (loan Wolfsberg)
That’s only a few!
Arsenal are putting up with their ‘developing’ years, all the mistakes etc, but are not getting the rewards of the finished article, other sides are. Essentially just realising an army of ex-players with a point to prove who ear-mark netting against them; Bentley, Pennant, etc.
Furthermore, and an extension of the point of buying youth; Arsenal, in this season, are now finding themselves missing Jack Wilshere, who’s just 19. Granted he’s a talented 19 year old but how are: Szczesny/Ramsey/Walcott/Wilshere/Gibbs being viewed as senior players? In what world is that fair on them? Not to mention giving youth like Coquelin premier league debuts at Old Trafford and White Hart Lane. If you go into a match without experience in your side, or the right balance of experience with youth, then of course you are going to lose.
Wenger, shadowed by the Arsenal faithful.
Following that, there’s Van Persie’s constant quotes saying he is not an ‘out-and-out striker’ and that he prefers to play with a more rounded forward, not alone up front. Yet Wenger continues to play the 4-2-3-1 formation which is currently suiting no-one.
He had to buy someone like Karim Benzema in July. If he had, Nasri would have stayed. I’m 100% sure of that. He could have switched to 4-4-2. And players like Frimpong/AO-C/Gibbs would be out on loan, perfecting their game. Not learning their game through mistakes.
In life, and in sport, if it’s not working, revert to the last system which did. 4-4-2. (coincidentally, with a Dutch trickster, and a Frenchman up front). Arsenal are the 3rd biggest economy in football, one of the highest revenues, yet this summer Arsenal made more money from sales of players, than they spent on players. Which means the ‘transfer kitty’ he originally had available was not touched.
Tottenham have had the better of it recently, I’ll admit that. They kept their best player, and why? ’cause he was under contract. If Ivan Gazidis had half the qualities Daniel Levy possesses then Cesc Fabregas would still be wearing the armband, or we’d have gotten double from a club who one week announced they had no money, then landed Alexis Sanchez for 31.5M euros. Arsenal were taken for a ride. Now Spurs have just fired us out of reach of a European spot most fans are taking for granted. How did that work out for Liverpool?
Brian Clough, the legend that he is, had a fantastic spell with Nottingham Forest, but ultimately, his legacy was the reason he was not dismissed following his poor run of results in 1993. I’m not suggesting for a second that Arsenal will be relegated. But currently this team will be lucky to finish 10th. And that hurts to write.
My final points, and it will be the response to the first 2 questions of every one of your lips/fingertips;
“Yes, it’s right for the team, but perhaps wrong for the club. Arsenal could lose a few players who see him as a father figure; Song, Diaby, RVP etc. but unless he realises 4-2-3-1 doesn’t work, he has until January for Arsenal to be at least 5th. Unfortunately, it’s all uphill, he’s lost the media, which is piling the pressure on them. Players don’t like that.”
And then the second question;
Lastly, have any of you ever seen the film; ‘Lucky Number Slevin’? There’s a good quote by ‘The Rabbi’ which to me sums up Arsène Wenger;
I’ll let you decipher from that what you will.
Over and out.