Arsene Wenger was rightfully under fire from Arsenal supporters and the press following the Gunners’ disappointing 0-0 result against Aston Villa from this past weekend.
Chants of “You don’t know what you’re doing” rained down on Arsene Wenger from his own travelling fans after the Arsenal manager brought on defensive midfielder Francis Coquelin for striker Olivier Giroud. The reaction was eerily similar to the response Wenger received last season when he withdrew Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in favor of Andrey Arshavin against Manchester United. Wenger’s decision on Saturday seemed unnecessarily defensive in a match against a Villa side wallowing in the relegation zone. Additionally, Giroud has been scoring goals—four in his last five matches.
When asked to explain the substitution, Wenger defiantly told reporters: “What is the thinking behind the substitution? I will not explain every decision I make. I have managed for 30 years at the top level and I have to convince you [journalists] I can manage the team?”
The Coquelin-for-Giroud change was not the only questionable decision made by Wenger at Villa Park. He also took out Lukas Podolski and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and threw on Gervinho and Arshavin. Gervinho was thrust into the center after Giroud’s departure, and the Ivorian failed to make an impact on the game. By the end of the match, Arsene Wenger’s eleven looked more like a disjointed, relegation-embattled side than a team with serious top four ambitions.
However, not all of the Gunners’ problems can be attributed to poorly-planned player switches. Arsenal also lack creativity and energy in the attack. Despite the presence of Spanish playmaker Santi Cazorla, Arsenal still failed to really threaten Aston Villa’s makeshift back four. Paul Lambert, who was watching from the stands due to his touchline ban, was without left-back Joe Bennett, centre-back Richard Dunne, and occasional defender Chris Herd.
Part of the reason for the Gunners’ attacking troubles again stems back to Arsene Wenger. He insists on playing Aaron Ramsey whenever possible—in the midfield and on the wing. The Welshman works hard, but he simply doesn’t have the quality necessary to be so consistently named in Arsene Wenger’s starting eleven. Ramsey cannot cross the ball well; gives the ball away too much; doesn’t score; and cannot really defend. While Ramsey is still young, he shouldn’t be such an important member of Arsenal’s squad. He should be there to provide depth, and nothing beyond that.
Of course, it is easy to poke holes in Wenger’s scheme without suggesting any possible solutions. Perhaps the solution for the current lack of creativity is introducing Francis Coquelin into the midfield three when one of the usual starters (Wilshere, Cazorla, or Arteta) is unable to play. On Saturday, Arteta was forced into a holding role (because Ramsey was deputizing for Wilshere) that doesn’t suit his strengths as an inventive distributor of the ball. Coquelin—a natural defensive midfielder—could concentrate on the defensive duties while Arteta and Cazorla could focus on providing the attacking inspiration.
Another major issue that must be addressed is the squad’s lack of depth. To this point, Arsene Wenger may appear to be a victim; though he made the problem for himself. With Theo Walcott out with a shoulder injury, Arsene Wenger had only Gervinho, who is just returning after his own injury absence, and Arshavin. Neither player uplifted the team when he arrived on the pitch; in fact, both probably had the opposite effect.
Contrast Arsenal’s thin squad to the players the managers of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City have at their disposal when they are chasing three points. Ferguson, with a myriad of forwards already on the pitch, brought on Javier Hernandez against QPR on Saturday, and the Mexican star contributed his guaranteed goal off the bench. Chelsea always have a plethora of talent to call on when they are down. Against Real Madrid, Mancini brought on Carlos Tevez, James Milner and Javi Garcia. Arsenal’s bench doesn’t compare well to the teams they strive to compete with.
Arsene Wenger’s belief in young, inexperienced players has yielded results in Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, but it also has very significant disadvantages. One of which is severe gap between the preferred starters and the reinforcements. Arsenal Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis has promised that the money from Arsenal’s new sponsorship deal with Emirates Airlines (worth £150 million in total) will be used to strengthen the squad. Furthermore, Arsenal’s revenue will be increased by the Premier League’s new television deal and a new kit-manufacturer contract (likely with Adidas). Perhaps Wenger should considering utilizing that cash to replenish his squad starting from the bottom—replacing stagnant players such as Arshavin and Johan Djourou with quality back-ups who can pressure for places in the starting eleven.
Ultimately, Arsene Wenger is at the heart of Arsenal’s problems. He only signs players to maintain the team’s level of performance—not to improve upon it. By only doing enough, Wenger can rely on the same, tired excuses for why his starting eleven sometimes appears to be a patchwork set of spare parts instead of a purposely-assembled team. And he is increasingly committing tactical errors and player selection mistakes.
It is not time for Wenger to be sacked; he has earned the right to not be evaluated by the club until the season is finished. But it is time to start asking questions. Judging by Wenger’s comments to reporters after the draw against Aston Villa, he’s not willing to answer any.