By Tom Gaunt
Many will believe that Chelsea lost the league title in week 36, but I would argue the odds were stacked against them before a ball was kicked this season. In what has been one of the most exciting Premiership seasons ever, Chelsea at first dominated, then capitulated, then were resurrected, and then finally fell short at the final hurdle.
A topsy-turvy season has seen Chelsea’s Premiership crown wrestled from them by a determined Manchester United team, who finally blew them away for good last Sunday with a brilliant first half display which left Chelsea battered, bruised and unable to recover. Chelsea’s late charge flatters to deceive and United will end up Champions fairly comfortably. I think the root of Chelsea’s recent demise comes down to two major factors, squad size and age of team. Read the rest of this entry
“Every man of genius sees the world at a different angle from his fellows, and there is his tragedy”
Havelock Ellis, British psychologist and author 1859-1939
Arsène Charles Ernest Wenger first arrived at Arsenal Football Club in October 1996 as a relative unknown in British football circles. Despite short, but ultimately successful managerial spells with Monaco and J-league team, Grampus Eight, his appointment was considered somewhat left-field by the more traditional (AKA typically uncultured) English football pundits and ex-players, many of whom still had reservations about “foreign coaches” in the British game.
Wenger’s first game in charge was a 2-0 away win against Blackburn Rovers – the rest, as they say, is history….. he went on to win Arsenal the league and FA cup double in his second full season in charge, repeating the feat again in 2002 and famously led his team of “invincibles” on a 49 game unbeaten streak to win the league once again in 2004 going an entire season without losing.
What made all of this all the more remarkable was the fact that his entire team cost a lot less to assemble than those of his main rivals, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool. Wenger relied on his shrewd ability to spot youth talent out of nowhere and develop youngsters into world beaters. On top of that Arsenal played a brand of attacking football which regularly left journalists speechless in trying to come up with new superlatives to describe the flair and majesty of what they had witnessed on the pitch.
Wenger was hailed a modern-day footballing genius – one of the greatest coaches ever. Arsenal chairman David Dein even went on record to declare Wenger had a “job for life”. The future was good – Arsene and Arsenal were a marriage made in heaven.
Wind the clock forward to April 2011, and the situation is now somewhat different…
Arsenal are about to go yet another season without having won a single piece of silverware – the 7th such season in a row. A month ago Arsenal were on level points with Man Utd in the league, were still in the Champions league and were on course to beat Birmingham City in the Carling Cup final – a consolation trophy these days, but a trophy nonetheless. Now it looks certain to be another disappointing, empty-handed season, despite a spirited recent victory over United at the Emirates.
What makes this even more concerning is the manner in which they seem to crumble as soon as the going gets tough. The seasonal Arsenal collapse is about as predictable and expected as the first daffodils of spring, or the fall of leaves in Autumn. Arsenal choke at the death, they always do. They were leading 4-0 against Newcastle at half time earlier this season and ended up lucky to end the game 4-4. They went 1-0 up against Liverpool in the 8th minute of injury time, yet inexplicably still managed to only get a point from the game. The North London derby against Spurs looked over at 3-1, but again the points were split. Even the way they handed Birmingham victory in the Carling Cup was bizarre… And much of this seems to come down to the fragile mental state that Monsieur Wenger seems to have rather unwittingly transmitted to his players.
A recent Arsenal fans poll confirmed that over 65% of supporters have lost faith in Wenger’s footballing philosophies being able to deliver trophies consistently in the future – a shocking turnaround for fans who would have considered it blasphemous a few years ago to even suggest an end for the man who is now Arsenal’s longest serving and most successful manager.
So where did it all go wrong?
Wenger is a man who it seems is blinded by his own genius. He is so deeply entrenched in his purist footballing philosophies that any deviation from these would be like an unfathomable mental collapse – something to be avoided at all costs. Basically he believes that what he is doing will achieve success and won’t change from that blueprint, even if it seems it hasn’t yielded the end-results for the best part of a decade. In short I believe there are 3 elements that contribute to this downfall:
3.Attitude and character
His frugal approach to transfers is something that can be commended (and the financial impact of the transition to the Emirates stadium has been a key factor)- but surely the point of saving money in the transfer market through astute scouting is so that you can save up money for 1 or 2 high-impact signings who can make all the difference? Wenger has failed to address the need for a top goalkeeper since David Seaman left, something which could have made all the difference between landing trophies – and the spine of the Arsenal team is weaker than any of the top 4. It’s hard to understand why he won’t spend money of top players to strengthen when he clearly has it available – perhaps he feels he may upset the balance of his squad by signing “marquee” players or perhaps it’s because whenever he has spent big in the past, he’s generally got it wrong. Give him too much money and it seems to affect his player judgement ability.
What this means is that Arsenal are a team who are in a state of permanent transition – always building a team for the future, but never for the present. In theory it’s a wise strategy as long as it ultimately bears fruit, and how some of the greatest teams in the world were built – but for Wenger it seems that day will never come. I distinctly remember him saying almost 10 years ago that the team were in transition, and they seem to be every passing year without ever actually being the finished article.
There is absolutely no doubt that Arsenal are one of the most beautiful teams to watch. Their passing and movement is slick, fast and fluid and therefore they rely on pacy and technically-gifted players for this system. To suggest that they haven’t achieved “success” with this style of play is wrong, because every year they are there or thereabouts, but what I am talking about is the difference between getting results to win trophies, and just playing nice football because, well, it looks nice. You’ll often see Arsenal dominating possession stats at the end of the game, but if they don’t pick up the full 3 points, then that stat becomes useless. In the recent game against Liverpool, they had almost 65% possession but ended up with a similar number of shots on target, corners and ultimately goals. So in reality, were they just much less efficient with their possession than Liverpool were with theirs?
It’s an old cliche that Arsenal have a tendency to want to pass the ball into the net…. great on the eye, but is Wenger’s purist philosophy getting in the way of picking up points?
Attitude and Character:
In a recent interview Arsene Wenger stated that he would rather “come second in the league every year than win the FA cup” – a shocking insight from a man paid millions every term to deliver trophies for his club. Being a highly intelligent and considered guy, obviously we can understand that what he was referring to was the financial long-term stability that comes from competing in the Premiership at a high and consistent level, but nonetheless this was a very controversial and ill-judged statement to make publicly.
Can you imagine Alex Ferguson or Jose Mourinho coming out publicly and declaring “we are happy to be second” – it just wouldn’t happen.
Wenger has done a fantastic job getting Arsenal to compete on a relative shoestring budget, and with the new stadium, Arsenal’s long-term financial future is secure – but it seems Wenger is cut from a different cloth to men like Mourinho. Wenger is a philosopher, he’s an economist – but ultimately is he a winner?
A dangerous situation has arisen now, as it seems that Wenger’s slightly blase attitude to winning trophies is not shared by the fans. They want silverware, any silverware – it’s been too long without.
In addition to attitude, there is also the issue of character. Arsenal team’s have an alarming tendency to self-destruct. Wenger has come out on countless occasions this season to confirm “the mentality of the players is fine” – clearly it is not when nervous errors keep squandering leads, and he obviously feels the need to keep reaffirming this publicly. But why is this happening so often? A lot of this comes down, I believe, to his own state of mind. I wonder whether the players can sense a nervousness in him and then that spreads onto the pitch? Often his body language on the touchline (even when Arsenal are winning comfortably) is very tetchy and anxious. If the players look over to him during the game, I wonder if this is having an effect?
Chelsea and Man Utd are at the other end of the scale with regards to having much older and more experienced squads – perhaps Arsenal are mentally not as strong because the players are younger and less experienced too.
But perhaps the most damning character flaw comes back down to Wenger’s blinded genius itself…… namely the refusal to be wrong. There is a blame culture that exists at Arsenal that is damaging the team’s development. Any loss is never their fault – always the fault of the referee, the linesman or some other bit of bad luck. Whether this is a public facade for the media or whether it is also the common belief internally in the squad I am not sure. But if it is the latter, then this can be very damaging as it essentially means they believe they are powerless to right those wrongs, and just end up blaming external factors rather than taking a long, hard look in the mirror.
So where do Arsenal go from here?
Is it right to start thinking about life after Arsene Wenger?
Or can he address these issues to justify his genius once again?
I was recently discussing how difficult it would be for a mere Sunday league player like myself to score a penalty past a premier league goalkeeper.
My friends insisted if they hit it sweet enough the keeper couldn’t possibly stop it. My argument is that the ‘Keepers reflexes and the power with which Premier League players hit the ball means that they could probably just react to our shot and stop it wherever we hit it.
Your thoughts… could you score past Pepe Reina or Petr Cech?