A 1-0 defeat at home to Blackburn Rovers has left Arsène Wenger struggling to explain how his team came to pass up the most obvious route to a trophy this season. The Frenchman is under pressure like never before, but in fairness to the Arsenal coach, he certainly deserves the chance to fight on for another season, even if as expected they fail to win the Champions League.
The first thing to say whenever the crisis talk starts at any club is that media hyperbole is usually way, way over the top. When things are great, they are built up more than they should be. And when things go wrong, you are put down more than you should be. As former captain Cesc Fabregas said after Arsenal beat Barcelona in 2011, at that moment they were not as good as they were built up to be and were not as bad as sometimes made out either. The same is true now.
Much is made of the statistic, eight years without a trophy. Yes it’s quite a while. But in fairness to Arsenal and to Wenger, they are the only club in England who are generally held up as a target for a lack of trophies. A year ago this week Liverpool were gearing up for the Carling Cup final with Cardiff City. Liverpool hadn’t won a trophy for six years, yet you wouldn’t have known it – it was barely mentioned in a media dominated by players who used to play for the Anfield side or Manchester United.
It seems rather hypocritical that Arsenal had a huge burden of pressure put on their shoulders for failing to win a trophy in six years when they met Birmingham in the final of the same competition back in 2011. Why the pressure for Arsenal but not for Liverpool? And what of Tottenham? No team is put under the same pressure as Arsenal when it comes to winning trophies, and there is no real reasonable justification for that.
The trophy obsession is rather nonsensical. No matter how much ‘pundits’ who haven’t done a minute’s research in their life and say the first thing that comes to mind insist, the FA Cup is nowhere near as important as a top four finish. It is not even as important as an unlikely attempt to win the Champions League. Arsenal started last Saturday in the last 16 of the FA Cup and Champions League. Which, if you were Wenger, would you prioritise? Yes, the FA Cup may be more likely, but it is rather unimportant if we’re being honest. The FA Cup used to be the sign of a top side. Winning a domestic cup today is not the mark of a top team. Not when teams like Bradford can be 90 minutes away from lifting the Capital One Cup. Birmingham and Portsmouth have both won trophies since Arsenal last did. No serious football observer can suggest winning the FA Cup would really make a big difference to anything. Once a great cup competition, now it is an irritating nuisance.
As for the Champions League, it is almost impossible to see how Arsenal can win the competition this year. To suggest it defies logic itself. But in Wenger’s defence, exactly the same was true of Porto in 2004, Liverpool in 2005 and Chelsea in 2012.
In 2004, Porto were nowhere near as good as Arsenal, AC Milan or Real Madrid, yet somehow won the competition. In 2005, the idea that Liverpool as they were then, struggling to finish fourth in the league, could beat Juventus and Chelsea over two legs and then AC Milan would have been dismissed as utter fantasy. And last year suggesting Chelsea had a hope in hell of beating Barcelona and then Bayern Munich or Real Madrid was utterly ludicrous. One year ago today Chelsea were no-hopers. So it would not be entirely fair to dismiss Arsenal completely, yet at least.
The bottom line is that in cup competitions the best team does not always win. It should be remembered that back in 2006, Arsenal went into a second round tie in the Champions League without much of a hope given to them of beating Real Madrid. They were struggling to finish fourth, and ended up being 15 minutes away from beating Barcelona to lift the Champions League in Paris at the end of the season, with just 10 men.
So those are the things that can be said in defence of Wenger. Now for the criticism. For one thing, Wenger dismantled a winning team and got rid of all the experienced heads in his team for an experiment with a team brought through the club’s youth system. That failed. Experience is critical to winning things, and Wenger was left with a talented squad who had no idea what it took to win. By the time Wenger realised this, his best players were agitating to leave. Fabregas wanted to return home to Barcelona, understandably, given that they are the best team in the world. Samir Nasri was seduced by Middle Eastern oil wealth, and Robin van Persie became impatient with the Wenger philosophy. Gael Clichy and Alex Song also jumped ship.
Wenger has failed to replace those players with enough good signings. Arsenal’s first team is still pretty good, but in reserve are very few players of the sufficient quality. The decision making of the players Wenger has put into his team is appalling at times. Gervinho’s complete lack of composure ruins the good elements of his game, and makes him a useless back up. Wojciech Szczesny is liable to make significant errors, and both Per Mertesacker and Thomas Vermaelen’s positioning is strange at times. Laurent Koscielny, Arsenal’s best defender, has been under-used. That is Wenger’s fault – it is ridiculous that the former Lorient man is playing second fiddle to inferior players.
Wenger has also failed to instil the proper tactical system required for an attack minded possession based team. If you want to attack opponents the way Arsenal do, then pressing high up the pitch is essential, and collectively too. It is also crucial to pass the ball far quicker than Arsenal do to unlock tight defences. Too often Arsenal just pass the ball around happy to keep it away from the opposition, without any real purpose. Tiki-taka is great, but to carve open an opponent you need to be able to speed it up and slow it down, not just one or the other.
One of the other problems at Arsenal is the fans. They have become impatient, and frankly, their abuse of the team and manager is disgusting. There are only four teams in the world who have the right to expect to challenge for every competition every season. Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Bayern Munich. These are the world’s very biggest sides, the only ones with the combination of history, money and fanbase to truly challenge at the top every season. Yet Arsenal are, along with those four, one of the top five richest clubs in the world when it comes to natural revenue generation. This is a team punching well above its weight – thanks to Wenger. If he left, the chances are Arsenal would sink further, not rise. Wenger has kept this club higher than their natural standing should have had them in recent years.
For all he has done for Arsenal though, Wenger deserves time to put it right. The reality is that other teams have come over to Arsenal’s way of doing things, both on and off the pitch. A few years ago, the 4-5-1 and direct football were popular, but now most sides are trying to copy the Barcelona model that Arsenal have used for years, be it Manchester City or Chelsea, Southampton or Swansea. And off the pitch most sides are waking up to the need to balance the books. On these questions, the very biggest ones, Wenger is fundamentally correct. Many of Arsenal’s problems are not unique to them either. Bad tactics and signings affect every team. What few have had to deal with is the turnover of players Arsenal have. Few teams have had such a radical overhaul of their playing squad. With no big players agitating for a move for the first time in years, Arsenal have a chance to actually start next season with a settled squad for once.
Wenger has been let down by players like van Persie, Nasri and Clichy, who have showed him disloyalty, be it for money or trophies. Fabregas’ departure was understandable, but Arsenal do deserve players who showed the kind of loyalty Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira once did. And who better epitomises that loyalty than Wenger himself? For a team whose trophy winning chances have been let down by impatient and disloyal players to take it out on the man who has done more for Arsenal than anyone else, and who has been at the club now for 17 years, would be completely and utterly wrong.