Should Arsene and Arsenal split up?
Trophy drought, gutlessness on the pitch, and now Arsenal is no longer even loved by the commentariat.
Arsenal. Blimey. The rot has properly set in, hasn’t it? I hadn’t quite realised how bad things were until I watched last week’s 4-0 mauling at the hands of AC Milan at the San Siro. Abject is the only word to describe it. Comical in defence and toothless up front. Oh and utterly gutless to boot. It begs the question: is it time for manager Arsene Wenger to go?
Former Arsenal manager George Graham was scathing in his assessment of the current state of affairs at the Emirates. ‘Yes, Arsenal are in crisis. It has been slipping away for the last couple of years. They’ve not been replacing those players who left four or five years ago’, said Graham. ‘They’re lacking leaders and the quality of the players they’re bringing in is just not up to the standard if you want to win the Premier League.’ Crisis is a relative concept. The club is clearly not in the same dire financial straits as Portsmouth or Rangers. They’re fourth in the Premier League, with £50million in cash reserves. But while Arsenal aren’t teetering on the brink of financial ruin, the trophy drought continues, and there’s a real danger that they may fail to qualify for the Champions League.
To be honest, I felt a little sorry for Wenger when Arsenal fans chanted ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ after he took off Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the recent 2-1 defeat to Manchester United. Typical: fickle supporters turning on the club’s most successful manager. Wenger’s bullish reaction showed that he was clearly stung by the criticism. ‘I’ve been a manager for 30 years and have made 50,000 substitutions. I don’t have to justify every one’, he snapped. But, regardless of the merits of one substitution, the fans’ discontent speaks of a deeper malaise at the club. The fans are unhappy with the board and the calibre of certain players, and now they’re turning on the manager. As one Arsenal blogger put it: ‘[O]ne thing is for sure, and that’s that his relationship with the fans has now changed. He knows he is not untouchable.’
The chorus of criticism Wenger now faces would have been unthinkable a few years ago. He used to be regarded as a visionary. The media drooled over Arsenal’s beautiful football. However, the scales have, over time, fallen from the pundits’ eyes. This week, Times football editor Tony Evans argued that it was time for Wenger and Arsenal to part company. ‘It would be a painful break, but it is increasingly clear that both parties would gain a fresh sense of purpose from a split’, he wrote.
It is becoming apparent to all but the most one-eyed Gooner that the playing squad simply is not fit for purpose. As former midfielder Emmanual Petit said: ‘They are playing like they don’t know what’s going on, like they don’t know what to do. Mentally, they are very weak.’ The thing that really struck me watching the shambolic performance in Milan was how poor Arsenal’s passing was. We always knew that Wenger’s team had a soft centre. We knew they were suspect defending set pieces. We knew they don’t like it when the opposition ‘get in their faces’. But, while the backbone was fragile, the passing has always been sublime. This is plainly no longer true. In the San Siro, the passing was ponderous and sloppy. Rarely have I seen an Arsenal team give the ball away so cheaply. It was just like watching England.
Wenger’s tactics have also come in for heavy criticism. In the past, other teams struggled to live with Arsenal’s passing and movement. Over time their rivals have worked out how to play against them, but Arsenal’s tactics haven’t developed. Michael Cox perfectly summed up the team’s tactical deficiencies in his Guardian blog: ‘They are not good at dealing with sides pressuring them, and they are not good at dealing with sides who stand off and sit back.’
Wenger must take responsibility for failing to correct these flaws. While Arsenal don’t have the spending power of Manchester City or Chelsea, as the fifth richest team in the world they are hardly paupers. The board can’t be blamed for failing to strengthen the notoriously fragile defence or beef up the centre of midfield. Wenger is culpable here. Of course it would damage any team to lose players of the quality of Fabregas and Nasri, but here, too, Wenger must shoulder some responsibility: ‘Instead of Wenger telling the world that Arsenal would no longer be a big club if the duo were allowed to leave, he should have had a strategy in place to spend the £50million generated by their sales to improve the team’, wrote Tony Evans.
Another long-term weakness which Wenger has failed to address is the absence of leadership on the pitch. The decision to hand the captain’s armband to Fabregas last season was symptomatic of Wenger’s myopia on the leadership question. At the time, midfielder Denilson told a Brazilian TV station: ‘Fabregas is the captain, but he is not a leader to me.’ Most sane people agreed with the sentiment, except Wenger, who described Fabregas as an ‘outstanding leader’. With Fabregas gone the armband has been passed to Robin Van Persie. The Dutch striker is the team’s star player, but is he a leader? The answer was all too evident at the San Siro as Arsenal capitulated with barely a whimper. There was nobody shouting and screaming or attempting to rally the troops. A team with Tony Adams or Patrick Vieira would never have surrendered so meekly.
One of the secrets of Arsenal’s success has been managerial stability. Wenger was given time to build an infrastructure and embed his footballing philosophy. But there is always the risk that stability can become staleness. If any other manager had allowed a team of Arsenal’s stature to go six seasons without a trophy, he’d be in trouble. Presiding over a decline to the point where the squad falls short in so many departments – defence, leadership, tactics and fighting spirit – would be considered a sackable offence at any other club. Time for Wenger to go? It is no longer unthinkable.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside
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