Criticising Arsène Wenger is often a double edged sword. Most critics of the wily Frenchman end up looking quite the fool. Every year his Arsenal team are tipped to finish outside the Champions League spots. Every year, they make it into Europe’s elite. In fact, no team has made it into the knock out stages of the competition with the same regularity over the last decade and a half aside from one. Real Madrid.
Yet that is the wonderful thing about statistics – they can cover up anything. This is Arsenal’s worst start to a Premier League season. Part of that can be attributed to a particularly challenging fixture list; as though trips to Manchester (twice) and Liverpool was not enough, they have also visited Stoke and West Ham, sides whose style traditionally poses a problem for most teams, and particularly the tippy tappy Gunners. But there was something very typically Arsenal about the way in which they lost their first away game of the season – against Norwich, the one away match on paper you’d have said was a banker before the end of October.
Yet they had started the season quite impressively. And until last weekend had the league’s best defence. It has only been since the last international break that Arsenal have endured a terrible spell. They have looked lethargic, impotent up front and weak in defence. Ironically, it is midfield where their problems have been. The actual back four have played perfectly well, whilst Olivier Giroud has continued to battle hard and take a decent amount of the few chances to come his way. Arsenal have encountered trouble as their midfield has lost of some of its impressive early season defensive shape as well as its ability to control the middle of the pitch. This is mainly down to the drop in form of Mikel Arteta, arguably Arsenal's most important player of the last year. The result is an Arsenal team which are increasingly under pressure defensively as they lose the ball and then fail to get back into the right defensive positions quickly.
As a result, Arsenal have endured an inconsistency has been a hallmark of their form in recent years. At times they have looked title challengers. At others, they have looked rather mediocre, and far short of top four material. Few teams have possessed the ability to come from behind so frequently, yet simultaneously be able to regularly give away seemingly secure leads. Wenger has been one of the few constants at the Emirates Stadium in that time, and yet he is the man who presided over English football’s most consistent ever streak – the famous 49 game unbeaten run in the league Arsenal enjoyed from 2003 and 2004. These typify the contradictions that have come to sum up the club.
Since the ‘Invincibles’, Wenger embarked on an ideological experiment, driving out the experienced faces and trying to bring through a crop of emerging, talented youngsters. Like Chairman Mao, who after a successful first eight years as the head of China decided to risk his legacy by embarking on an ideologically driven project to harness the youth and energy of the nation in the hope of becoming one of the world’s leading superpowers, only for it to hopelessly backfire, Wenger found that his own experiment came to a similarly chaotic end.
Like Mao, Wenger had a five year plan. Like Mao, the plan backfired before five years were out. Like Mao, Wenger did not seem to be listening to anyone.
And so, the big question now lurking over the Emirates Stadium is this - is Wenger’s time up? Or near to being up? One of the most hazardous questions in football, given his contribution to Arsenal. If anyone has deserved a perpetual benefit of the doubt, it is Wenger, and as an Arsenal fan, I’m inclined to give him it. Like Sir Alex Ferguson, he is that rarest of breed, a manager who has been in his job for more than a decade, but unlike the Scot, Wenger seems unable to adapt as times change. But even if you believe Wenger should stay, the debate is now a valid one to have, where once it was unthinkable.
When he first arrived in 1996, the bespectacled one was an unknown figure. Within a year, he would transform English football, making it more professional, intelligent and technical. Arsenal were suddenly transformed into a team leading even Manchester United. Ferguson responded, adapted and tried to keep up. His team dominated until 2002, when Arsenal embarked on the best three years of Wenger’s reign, culminating in that remarkable title triumph in 2004 without losing a game. Wenger seemed ahead of his peers. More knowledgeable, sophisticated and worldly.
Enter Roman Abramovich and the self proclaimed ‘Special One’, Jose Mourinho. They have sparked a decade in which money has spoken, and foreign coaches flooded the Premier League. Rafa Benitez, Carlo Ancelotti, Guus Hiddink and err, Avram Grant. Some of the world’s best have come to England and transformed Liverpool, Chelsea and now Manchester City. While Ferguson, ruthlessly competitive as ever, has watched keenly and found a way to adapt to the changing styles and tactical trends, Wenger has remained stubborn to his own ways. Eventually he decided to copy Barcelona’s 4-3-3 formation. Yet formations are not as important as the tactical instructions players are given. Cesc Fabregas noted how Wenger rarely focused on the opposition, and was more interested in how his team played. The idea was that if they played to their best, they would win. That was certainly true in 2004. It is no longer the case.
Even Pep Guardiola and the Barcelona side which have been the world’s best of recent years adapted to the opposition. Would Wenger have switched to a 3-4-3 when losing to Real Madrid as Guardiola did during last season? Probably not. Would Wenger do as Ferguson did after a series of shaky midfield performances this season and switch to a diamond? Unlikely. Would he copy Frank de Boer’s recipe for dominating possession against superior individuals when his Ajax team played Man City, by playing a ‘central striker’ who actually drops deep into midfield for long periods? Unlikely. Wenger remains rather stubborn tactically, sometimes ignorant of the changing landscape around him.
That may eventually be his undoing. Ferguson’s adaptability has kept him at the top of English football even during the age of the billionaires. Once again this season, Manchester United, for all their fallibilities, look the strongest side in the country. Arsenal, meanwhile, languish some way off the pace after only 11 games.
The man who once left the rest of England behind is in danger of being the one cast adrift. As new ideas and tactical trends emerge, with back threes returning and false nines increasingly prominent, Wenger seems a little outdated. A great manager he is, but if he fails to adapt tactically to the changing reality, then his days may, sadly, be coming towards an end.