In my last piece on Arsenal tactics I opened by talking about Wenger’s achievements throughout the years and said that he was one of best managers both Arsenal and the Premier League have ever seen. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was in fact setting myself up for this piece, which I feel inclined to write after the past few weeks. The fact is that, despite that huge list of achievements I mentioned last week, none of them have any impact now.
This seems to go against my very first piece on this site, which warned against over-negativity and argued against the glowing cloud of pessimism. Why now would I jump on the bandwagon calling for by far our most successful manager to leave the club?
And I’m not. Not really. I’m just re-opening a discussion that has been held on and off for the last three years at least. Ever since the breaking up of the Invincibles and the beginning of our trophy drought there’ve been a large number of fans calling for Wenger’s head, and I’ve always thought them idiots. But now I’m starting to sway, if only slightly, and it’s an idea worth considering.
The truth is, whether you want to believe it or not, the only reason Wenger has been around as long as he has during these trophy-less years is because he practically guarantees top four. Just as Sam Allardyce used to guarantee Premier League survival – at the cost of good football, public opinion and general dignity – Wenger guarantees the Champions League. And what happened when Blackburn ditched Allardyce in an attempt to climb higher? They got relegated. Admittedly this was due to hopelessly unaware and incompetent owners and a manager to match, but the message is there. No matter how poor we’ve been this season, we will make top four, I can practically guarantee it. With a new manager, I’m not so sure.
The problem is that for a club like Arsenal, top four isn’t good enough; we must win a trophy. Ever since 2005 Wenger has been trying to build a second Invincible squad, although to be fair a squad with half their quality would be capable of winning this league, Chelsea and the Manchester clubs are far from the Viera/Pires/Bergkamp/Henry quartet that formed one of the best teams in history. He’s come close and failed and has produced some outstanding players, such as the Theo Van Nasregas quartet that hit such great form the season before last, but has always been one or two players away from cracking it. He’s always looked like he had a plan. ‘Project Youth’ may not have been what the fans wanted at a time when Chelsea and now City were splashing millions on big name signings – a lot of them from us – but it was necessary and lead to players like Fabregas and Van Persie, as well as a few near misses at a trophy, and there was always potential to be seen. Even though every season we moaned at the lack of established talent and criticized our transfer policy and mentality, deep down in all of us we always though ‘maybe next year’. There was progress. Slow progress, but progress all the same.
Last season was when I thought the progress might eventually culminate into something real, not immediately but I thought we had a shot. The additions of Arteta and Mertresacker showed a change in tactics for Wenger as he went for more established players. Add in Cazorla and Podolski and with our flying Dutchman still wearing the cannon with not long to go and I thought we genuinely had a shot. Even when Van Persie left I felt we were on the right track, a few more additions were all we needed and at least we knew Wenger was now open to recruiting more established stars. But something isn’t right. The United game really threw me out, in ways it was worse than last season’s 8-2; that was a complete fluke, with maybe three first team performers that went all out trying to salvage a three goal deficit with only ten men that got blown out of the water. It’s never happening again. Saturday’s 2-1, however, could happen when we play at the Emirates this season. And both games next season. And the season after that, and after that, and after that. With pretty much our strongest selection we lacked any sense of unity or fight, we were disjointed and hopeless. The players we have a far better than that – on paper we might even have a stronger squad than United. So why don’t we play like it?
That’s the sole reason I now question Wenger. Whereas before he had purpose and the team had potential, now he looks lost, caught between project youth and established stars and unable to keep hold of either. He may pull through, he’s still one of the best managers in the world and is more than capable of bringing the next Henry/Bergkamp combo out of nowhere. But the current players don’t work, at least not for him, and I’m actually starting to feel a fresh approach might change things. Perhaps someone that’s more of a disciplinarian, someone to tell Walcott he’s playing on the right wing whether he likes it or not and standing behind him at contract negotiations holding an object that looks suspiciously like a baseball bat. If Walcott played for Ferguson there would be no complaints.
However, there are a few problems with Wenger leaving. First of all there’s the financial side; Wenger keeps us very, very stable and moderately successful whilst doing so. There is no doubt that, on average expenditure, we are substantially overachieving. There’s also the fact that we have recruited dozens of players who cited Wenger as the main reason for them joining us. His French connection is well documented, as is his success with young players, whilst even his language skills play a part – his speaking German was the deciding factor in Podolski joining this summer. We lose Wenger and, with no sudden upturn in fortunes looming, we lose our main draw. However, there is one factor that worries me more than any other.
I call it the Dalglish Effect, for reasons that will soon be obvious. Under Rafa Benitez Liverpool were a force that, although dipping slightly, were still among the top clubs in Europe. He was removed and, after a brief and incredibly average spell under Hodgson, appointed club legend Kenny Dalglish as the new manager. After a brief upturn in form, Dalglish soon ruined the club in my eyes. His public support for the Suarez affair drastically lowered his and Liverpool’s standing in the public view and the signings of the Henderson, Downing and Carroll for astronomical fees turned one of the European greats into a laughing stock. Since then Liverpool have never even come close to the Champions League and I have lost nearly all respect for them. For some reason there has always been a good understanding between Arsenal and Liverpool and I have always preferred Liverpool to any of the other top sides, but Dalglish truly ruined their image. That’s my greatest fear; all those years of history to have it all taken away by one man in just eighteen months. I used ‘taken away’ there because ‘destroyed’ or ‘ruined’ are overly harsh; they are still a club with great heritage and a good amount of quality, but they could and should have achieved so much more recently, especially with the money they’ve spent, and yet are stuck in a rut by one man’s actions. Dalglish’s actions have left Brendan Rodgers with a huge mess to sort out – he has overpriced fringe players to ship out, a tarnished PR reputation to deal with and is handicapped by the fact that Liverpool are no longer considered title or even top four challengers. He’s a great manager that plays good football but, especially now most of Liverpool’s funds have been spent on Downing et al, he’s at a severe disadvantage.
I don’t want this happening to Arsenal. Any change of manager would be a risk and to be honest there aren’t really any options. The only managers I would wholeheartedly trust to take up Wenger’s mantles are pretty much all unavailable. Ferguson is, of course, out of the question and personally I don’t think I’d be able to take seeing him at the club anyway, although it would be pretty sweet revenge for the Van Persie saga. Jurgen Klopp is someone I would love to have; he plays good, attacking, fast paced football with players he either bought for relatively small fees, such as Subotic and Kagawa, although obviously he’s now gone, or brought up from the youth academy like Gotze. There don’t seem to be the same attitude problems as there are at Arsenal, though this may be due to the squad being mainly comprised of Germans, and neither are there any well-documented defensive deficiencies. Of course this could be down to personnel – Dortmund are at the moment clearly a better team than us – but the fact remains that Klopp built that side from scraps, with Dortmund facing administration at the start of the decade due to their last big-money bid at the Bundesliga glory. I think the manager that finally managed to break Bayern’s German dominance not just once but for two successive seasons would be more than capable at Arsenal. Sadly, however, at this stage Arsenal would be a step down for him and that’s really, really sad and a true indication of how far we’ve fallen. The only other option I would definitely like to see at Arsenal is Mourinho. Yes there’s been a fairly outspoken rivalry between him and Wenger and so by extension some animosity from Arsenal towards him, and he’s well known for the defence-first, big money approach to tactics and transfers which completely opposes Arsene’s own philosophy, but there’s no doubt he’s successful. His time at Real Madrid shows he can be expansive in his tactics and play some nice football, whilst his defensive proficiencies will benefit us greatly. Plus I doubt we’d ever see another Fabregas/Nasri/Van Persie/Walcott situation. There are rumours he’s looking to return to England soo and his disagreements with Casillas and the Spanish contingent at Real Madrid has made this more likely regardless of how successful he is, so why not? If we’ve got a shot I say go for it.
The elephant in the room for available managers at the moment is of course Pep Guardiola, given he’s currently unemployed following that incredibly successful spell at Barca. However, he seems to me to be just another Wenger, and one that’s been handed his free-passing team rather than crafting it himself. Yes under him Barcelona won an astonishing amount of trophies but he did so with three of the best players in the world and possibly the best player in history. He’s been given a huge amount of funding and wasted a large chunk of it, especially on players like Dmytro Chygrynskyy, and has let quality players like Yaya Toure go. Worse of all though is his character. Reading Zlatan Ibrahimovich’s autobiography shocked me when he covered his conversations with Guardiola – he cannot handle strong personalities and shipped out an incredibly effective striker, one of the best in the world, because he didn’t fall in line. Zlatan described Xavi et al as ‘school boys’ and implied that Guardiola could only work in this sort of environment; he is a dictator that cannot deal with adversity and that is a very bad mix for the dressing room. Because of this I can’t see him having any impact on the mental side of the game and his tactics will be largely the same; maybe he’ll increase the off-the-ball pressing we need and improve on that side, but other than that I can see no effective changes he could make. He has to be a good manager to achieve what he did, but I’m not convinced.
The only other manager I can think of that both could be available and I think could do a job would be David Moyes. He’s a manager and more importantly a man I greatly respect and one that has overachieved for years with Everton. He plays good football, is a good man-manager and is an expert at working on a miniscule budget. Signing him would also give us a better chance at pinching some of Everton’s talent such as Baines and Fellaini. Finally, however, he seems a more imposing character than Wenger and, though I have no inside knowledge and could be completely wrong, I can’t see him being as lenient with the players as Wenger is. Of course he is unproven at the top level, but we’ll never know unless we try.
All this being said, I’m still undecided over whether Wenger should leave or not. The problems with him leaving are many and varied and I’m not even sure we could do better, or even if he’s doing that bad a job given the resources available, plus there’s still that deep emotional feeling that, being born towards the end of ’95, I have never seen an Arsenal team play without Wenger. The Frenchman leaving would be an end of an era, and not one I’m certain I want to see just yet. But it’s certainly food for thought.
To give you a real world example of how being near the top isn’t good enough, let’s take a look at our betting partner Betsson. Betsson is part of the Ongame Network and the network has been #5 in the world for years now. That sounds impressive, and honestly it is. The problem is that the former owner of the network, bwin.Party, was number 2 in the world and they wanted to be number one. Ongame wasn’t getting the job done and so bwin.Party sold the Ongame Network to the Amaya Gaming Group so they can focus on becoming number 1.------------
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