Must Arsene Go ?

What is wrong with Arsenal? Or is there anything wrong at all? Read the incisive analysis on Arsene’s philosophy by Saumyajit Ray

As another new season of Premier League football has got underway, the feeling among Arsenal fans is one of déjà vu. Yet again, the Gunners have managed to stumble into the new season with familiar questions surrounding the team’s capability of mounting a serious challenge for league and European honour. Just like five of the previous six seasons, they have failed to start the campaign on a winning note. When one considers that the only outlier is a 2-1 victory over Crystal Palace in the 2014-15 season courtesy an injury time winner, one needs to go back to the previous decade, the 2009-10 season, when they thumped the Toffees 6-1 on the opening day, to find the last instance when they managed to get their league campaign underway convincingly. This season matters have been further complicated by a subsequent draw against Leicester in the second game. While Liverpool and Leicester represents a difficult start to the season, a positive start from a difficult set of fixtures would have given the team confidence for the season ahead. However one point from these two games sees them five points behind the Manchester clubs and Chelsea already, the return equalling their worst ever tally from the first two games since 2011-12 season when they also opened their campaign with a loss and a draw.

As fans, neutrals, and indeed, rivals, try to make sense of what’s going wrong, the focus, predictably, is on transfer dealings. Anyone who takes a passing interest in European club football knows where the shortcomings lie in the Arsenal squad. For the last three seasons the Gunners have been searching for a centre forward to ably partner and complement their number nine, Olivier Giroud. Even the club and the manager are amply aware of the need, as they have gone through the entire gamut of transfer madness in the process. They have made a one pound bid above a perceived release clause Luis Suarez, agreed personal terms but never bid for Gonzalo Higuain, and made a failed deadline day loan bid for Demba Ba who played under Wenger’s sworn enemy Jose Mourinho. The manager has also gone on record multiple times saying that his team lacks goals, and even this summer, made an attempt to trigger the release clause of Jamie Vardy, the talisman of the reigning Premier League champions. Defence is also under scrutiny, especially after their senior pro Per Mertesacker was injured for long-term during pre-season, with the manager again going on record saying defensive reinforcement is required, although failing to bring in anyone.

Arsene Go
Arsenal centre-back Per Mertesacker left the pitch with an injury during the Gunners’ Premier League match against Norwich City.
[Source – Evening Standard]

There is no doubt that addition of these missing pieces of the jigsaw would make Arsenal much more formidable. However, if we look at the Arsenal squad we can see a generous sprinkling of football talent all over the pitch. The midfield is probably the best in England right now as Granit Xhaka joins forces with Aaron Ramsey, one of the best midfielders in the just concluded Euro, Mesut Ozil, the player with the best vision in world football right now, Santi Cazorla, whose technique and composure on the ball is in line with the best in the business. The supporting cast of Jack Wilshere, Mohamed Elneny and Francis Coquelin too are highly accomplished. In goal is one of the best goalkeepers of this era, Petr Cech, who is backed up by David Ospina, an established international for a major South American nation. Even the much-maligned defence boasts three of the top exponents of their art in the league in Laurent Koscielny, Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal. The attack boasts of Alexis Sanchez, one of the deadliest attackers in the game today, along with Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlein and Joel Campbell who bring their unique high quality skills to the table. If you add up the supporting cast and injured personnel like Kieran Gibbs, Mathieu Debuchy, Gabriel, Per Mertesacker, Callum Chambers, Alex Iwobi and Danny Welbeck, you have an extremely competent team that should be challenging for honours deep into the season. Of course there is room for strengthening, but one must consider that no other club is competing with the best players in the world all over the pitch either, everyone has their own weak spots too. So while the endless discussions on war chests, release clauses, come and get me pleas and ambition continue, one must also focus on some more mundane but arguably more fundamental aspects of a successful football team that the Gunners might to be lacking.

A manager’s job is to make a team greater than the sum of its parts. Transfer can improve the value of individual parts, however their sum is improved through work on the tactics board and on the training ground. While Arsenal’s manager keeps complaining how Manchester United and Real Madrid have more financial power, and how there is no value to be found in the market, staring at him are instances of four, five, six and eight goals conceded to arch English and European rivals, instances of losing and drawing to unfancied opponents in English and continental competitions, all of which cannot be explained away just by how much Manchester or Madrid clubs can spend. While he wears his record of consecutive Champions League qualification as a badge of honour, he must pause for a moment and think whether that is really such a huge achievement? After all, if he can point fingers at the money spent by Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United for the failings of his squad in the business end, so too can managers at Liverpool, Everton, Southampton and Spurs point theirs at the Gunners’ financial power. After all, they wouldn’t dream of attracting players like Ozil and Sanchez in their prime at their clubs, while maintaining a wage bill which is the fourth highest in the premier league on average over multiple seasons. So this incredible consistency, which is an achievement in its own right, is at the end of the day also nothing more than essentially performing as per expectations relative to their financial muscle vis-a-vis the other 19 teams in the league. Once this realization dawns in, only then can one move on from blaming prices and squad strength to be able to appreciate that there are other actual shortcomings, tackling which is a manager’s fundamental job rather than worrying about where the football economy is headed.

Once this realization dawns in, only then can one move on from blaming prices and squad strength to be able to appreciate that there are other actual shortcomings, tackling which is a manager’s fundamental job rather than worrying about where the football economy is headed.

Everyone talks about an inherent frailty in the Gunners’ make up that prevents them from making the most of match situations, and results in incredible mistakes on the field which sees them throw away games that they should be winning. While the place to look for lazy answers is the players’ mentality, experience and ability, in a team game there’s only so much an individual can do, while there’s so much more a manager can. A Wenger tactical masterclass is something of a rarity, we are more accustomed to him being schooled by top coaches, and very often even by less famous ones. While someone like Sir Alex Ferguson could beat Wenger by fielding full backs in midfield, the moment Wenger’s default plan goes awry there seems to be only one result. A case in point is the last season, when the centre of Arsenal’s midfield became non-existent the moment Santi Cazorla and Francis Coquelin succumbed to injury. People pointed fingers at Aaron Ramsey, but was Aaron being given the right instructions, the right tactical inputs and training? After all, the difficult thing in football is to hit rabona shots and bicycle kicks, performing Cruyff turns and nutmegs. Maintaining positional discipline and defensive/midfield shape is something lesser mortals playing for mid-table and lower league teams can do as well. It is quite unbelievable that top class players like the ones Arsenal boast of, cannot learn these more mundane arts after years of playing. The only explanation is that they are not being told what to do, and how to do it, they are left figuring things out themselves on the pitch. Once upon a time Arsenal boasted players like Dennis Bergkamp, Gilberto Silva, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry who could figure such things out themselves. However, those are once-in-a-generation players. The standard of coaching and management in opposition teams, as well as general tactics in football has evolved a lot since those days too. Probably Arsenal’s job was easier in their golden era as the teams they played against were not as tactically sophisticated as they are today. Looking at Wenger’s continued inability to get the better of the elite managers like Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho (I am not considering winning a single leg in two legged European ties), while often being outmaneuvered by smaller (and less rich) teams managed by smart managers like Ronald Koeman and Mauricio Pochettino, one cannot help but feel that things have passed a certain Frenchman by.

Arsene Go
From Archive: Arsene Wenger the new Arsenal manager watches his first game in charge. (Source: Mirror)

However, Wenger was probably never a supreme tactician, his greatest assets were always his knack of developing players, his eye for talent, and the attacking verve that he imparted to teams. While for the casual commenters, Wenger is still a developmental manager playing beautiful football with relatively unknown and inexperienced player, the reality could hardly be farther from the truth. For a start, Wenger’s Arsenal have stopped playing eye pleasing football long ago. The 2007-08 class with Alex Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and Cesc Fabregas in full flow, or at a stretch, the Samir Nasri, Andrei Arshavin and Robin van Persie vintage were probably the last ones who played the beautiful game. Today Arsenal’s play is characterised more often than not by repetitive, slow, unimaginative and tentative passing, with frequent employment of the cross or long ball to Giroud, a striker known more for his hard work, hold up play and strength than fluid movements. Hardly Barcelona, not even Barcelona light. If you don’t believe, try to think about truly swashbuckling football played by the Gunners in the last few years. While in the early part of the century, entire seasons were showpieces of creativity, these days you would not be able to look farther than the odd examples of the 3-0 victory over Manchester United last season. Finally, over the last few seasons Arsenal have had a very experienced team with established internationals in their peak all over the starting eleven and even the reserves, a far cry from the times when Wenger had to make do with youngsters due to financial restraints. Hence while the quality of personnel has improved, playing style has become more predictable and unimaginative, for which it is difficult to direct blame towards anyone else but the manager.

While the playing style of Arsenal has become mundane, it hasn’t been helped by players not developing as expected. In the last five-six years, several players have stalled under Wenger’s tutelage. We are still waiting for the likes of Walcott, Gibbs, and Oxlade-Chamberlein to fulfil their promise fully. The latest in the line is Callum Chambers who Wenger doesn’t seem to know where to utilize best, trying him in multiple positions. The likes of Serge Gnabry and Gedion Zelalem have stalled as well after initial flashes of brilliance. And some of these players have come at pretty high fees for their age, so it is not really a matter of money preventing them from getting the prime talent. Coupled with these first teamers are an endless line of academy graduates who inevitably do not seem to be able to make the step up any longer. Jay Emanuel Thomas, Chuks Aneke, Benik Afobe, Isaac Hayden – all have flattered to deceive in recent times. One has to wonder whether it is more a problem with coaching and development of players than the players themselves. Another interesting aspect is that Arsenal seem inadequate both in converting and defending set pieces, both direct and indirect. One would have difficulty in remembering from the last few seasons a great free kick going into the top corner, or an intelligent corner or free-kick routine that fooled the opponent. With the quality of players available like Cazorla, Ozil, and Sanchez, one can’t help but wonder whether adequate focus is given to these routine aspects in training. The situation of player development has been exacerbated by the apparent loss of the Midas touch in scouting. At one time Arsene and Arsenal boasted of the ability to unearth the choicest rough-cut diamonds from the most obscure of places and turn them into global names. Today we mostly get journeymen like Wellington Silva, Samuel Galindo, Ryo Miyachi and Yaya Sanogo from outside England while the likes of Leicester and West Ham seem to unearth the kind of talents that was once Arsenal’s trademark. The fact that Wenger was on the verge of shipping Francis Coquelin to Charlton before injury crisis forced his hand and subsequently Coquelin became a key component of the side, probably shows that Wenger no longer really understands his own players’ talents, leave alone those who play for other clubs.

At one time Arsene and Arsenal boasted of the ability to unearth the choicest rough-cut diamonds from the most obscure of places and turn them into global names. Today we mostly get journeymen like Wellington Silva, Samuel Galindo, Ryo Miyachi and Yaya Sanogo from outside England while the likes of Leicester and West Ham seem to unearth the kind of talents that was once Arsenal’s trademark.

Hence it seems that there is more to worry for Arsenal fans than transfers and war-chests. While a new world class striker signing will definitely improve things on the surface, there seem to be deeper problems plaguing the club, and their most influential figurehead seems to be at the centre of them. Would Arsenal like to be reduced to a chequebook club for whom transfers dictate performance? Or true to the philosophy of Wenger they would prefer to let more fundamental footballing aspects define their identity. More and more it seems that to take Wenger’s philosophy forward they need a new Arsene Wenger, who like his predecessor can redefine and refresh things. It has all gone a little stale, a little predictable.

Featured Image Source – Independent

Saumyajit Ray

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