Success in football is difficult to sustain. Most clubs go through peaks and troughs. And typically, it’s during the troughs that problems emerge. But there is an altogether different type of problem at Arsenal, a sense of stagnation and déjà vu that is gradually driving many of their fans mad. For the last five or six seasons, Arsenal have shot themselves in the foot with the same predictable weaknesses. Yet Arsene Wenger approaches every season with lofty ambitions (and rightfully so), but little or no steps taken to fix the flaws that have continually undone his team. An also-ran culture is slowly brewing at club, and this needs to be changed. And I think that it’s time that Arsenal embraced change by moving on from Arsene Wenger.
The Arsenal squad is littered with names who are not good enough and Wenger’s unyielding faith in his players is chiefly to blame for this. Occasionally this may work out with projects like Alex Song, but it usually gets shown up in a grand manner by the likes of Denilson and Diaby, among others. And in all honesty, you could make a case for getting rid of eight to ten members of the Arsenal first team and not get laughed out of the room.
Wenger’s faith in his players is directly tied to the gambles he takes in the transfer market. Case in point – not signing a striker in January 2010 (which ruined their chances for honors), or a defender in the January window past (which may yet do the same). His miscalculations in the transfer market also results in him signing players that do not solve Arsenal’s problems. Can you really blame observers for criticizing Arsenal’s defence when the likes of Sebastian Squillaci and the historically awful Mikael Silvestre have been signed as reinforcements?
Part of the reason that Wenger’s transfer approach gets shown up so badly is that Arsenal’s injuries force fringe players to play more than they should. Obviously it cannot be Wenger’s fault that his players are, for whatever reason, injury-prone. But by now, shouldn’t he have recognized this trend and either stopped depending so much on proven sicknotes like Robin van Persie, or ensured that Arsenal’s cover was of a higher standard so that the likes of Rosicky and Silvestre would never start a Champions League tie at the Nou Camp?
Another term synonymous with Arsenal is ‘mental strength’ (or lack thereof). Call it winning mentality, heart, fight, or what you will, but it is a very real concept, something that must be drilled relentlessly into players, and exuded from the top down by everyone at the club. You would think, that after all the near misses that Arsenal has had, all the times when they were forced to taste their own blood; that they would band together in the agony of defeat, under a resolute spirit that should be emanated by their manager and come back visibly hungrier.
Instead, Arsenal fans are treated to meaningless soundbites by players and manger about ‘mental strength’ that are rarely backed up on the pitch. Instead, in this season alone, Arsenal have given us four of the most memorable chokes in the Premier League era – against Tottenham, Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool. Instead, Wenger becomes more petulant in his on-pitch reactions and finds every possible excuse for his team’s failures, which only makes him come across as the worst loser in the Premier League. Do you honestly think that Alex Ferguson would put up with most of the crap that goes on at Arsenal?
Now for all the failings of the squad, I think the real fatal flaw in Wenger’s Arsenal is in their playing style. When it works, it will consistently break down opponents and produce some wonderfully executed goals. But this probably happens eight times a season at best. Far more common is the sight of Arsenal playing ping-pong at the top of the box with absolutely no penetration, while nine opponents sit behind the ball. They often struggle to create chances and when they do, they often struggle to finish them. Arsenal’s predictability makes them relatively easy to defend against, and extremely vulnerable on the break. The main reason that Arsenal’s record against quality teams is so poor is because these teams know that Wenger will tactically approach every game the same way. Even his switch at the beginning of last season from 4-4-2 to 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 did not change Arsenal’s inherent desire to play an ultimately inefficient brand of football.
You can’t make the ‘Wenger Knows’ argument anymore, or hope that Wenger will change his ways. In the last five or six years, he hasn’t established a direction that can lead Arsenal to success. And importantly, it’s not like Wenger has no idea how to find it – his record in the Highbury years speaks for itself. Back then, he balanced his vision with practicality. But nowadays, it’s becoming a case of ‘Wenger Knew’, or more accurately, ‘Wenger Knows, but is too stubborn to change’.
Now, many fans have suggested that Wenger be ‘moved upstairs’ into a more directorial role should he leave his position as manager. I think this would be a mistake – for one, I don’t think he would accept what he might view as something of a passive demotion. And do you really want Wenger’s presence still looming so ominously over the new manager, which might potentially undermine anything that he does? I think the best thing for all concerned would be for Wenger to make a clean break with the club, not necessarily to ride off into the sunset, but to bring definite closure to his legacy at Arsenal, and for the club to begin with a wholly new approach.
The fans will never universally turn on him a la Roy Hodgson. The board will never openly sack him – and rightfully so – one indignity that I think that his pre-Emirates achievements should exclude him from. However, it should still fall on them to show some initiative and encourage him into some sort of mutual departure. Or else it should fall on Wenger, who should follow his own advice and engage in serious self reflection – to realize that his methods have not been working.
And crucially, I think that he is unlikely to make significant changes to his approach, changes that Arsenal need to free themselves from the insanity of stagnation.
For this reason, it is time for the end of Arsene Wenger’s era at Arsenal.