It’s not injuries or refs, the problem’s you, Arsene
As the wheels come off again at Arsenal, it’s time Wenger stopped blaming everything else for his team’s shortcomings.
It’s probably not a good time to use the word ‘meltdown’ in a sporting context. But, as metaphors go, the M-word pretty much sums up what’s happening to Arsenal’s season.
Three weeks ago, Arsenal were in contention for silverware on four fronts. Now, with gloating Mancunian chants of ‘One More Year’, ringing in their ears, it looks increasingly likely that Arsene Wenger’s team will finish another season empty handed. Worse still, a vocal minority of disgruntled Arsenal fans is thinking the unthinkable: that it’s time for Wenger to go.
Football, as Bill Clinton observed last year, is a ‘head game’. And right now, even though the team lies second in the Premiership, they are clearly playing without self-belief. Wenger himself admits that the Carling Cup final defeat and Champions League exit were ‘psychological blows’. On the evidence of Saturday’s defeat to an under-strength Manchester United team in the FA Cup, the players are still punch drunk.
Even the consolation that Arsenal can now ‘concentrate on the league’ is undermined by their unconvincing recent league form. The 4-4 draw at Newcastle in early February typifies Arsenal’s faltering title challenge. Wenger, predictably, blames the dismissal of Abou Diaby but, even reduced to 10 men, genuine title contenders ought to be capable of closing out the game.
Arsenal’s fragility is hardly a new story. We all know – from the interminable media drooling – that Wenger’s team play pretty football. We also know that they are vulnerable to physical teams who ‘get in their faces’. They don’t like it up ’em, as Corporal Jones might put it. But what is new is the increasingly vocal discontent amongst Arsenal fans about their once-untouchable manager, Arsene Wenger.
After their FA Cup exit, a succession of Arsenal fans phoned Radio 5’s 606 programme to demand Wenger’s head. Now, it’s important to exercise a bit of caution here. Moaning fans are attracted to 606 like flies to shit. A vocal handful of moaners does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the silent majority. But the moaning does appear to be increasing in volume. In a Guardian poll asking ‘Has Arsene Wenger taken Arsenal as far as he can?’, nearly 40 per cent of respondents said ‘yes’.
The doubters within the Gooner ranks are unhappy about Wenger’s failure – or more accurately, his stubborn refusal – to reinforce the squad. This isn’t a question of limited resources – Arsenal is the fifth-richest club in the world according to Deloitte. The cash is there to splash, but Wenger chooses not to use it.
The problem positions are glaringly obvious: goalkeeper, central defence and holding midfield. Few Arsenal fans want to turn the clock back to the winning ugly style of George Graham, but they would welcome a bit more defensive steel. The farcical howler which gifted Birmingham’s winner in the Carling Cup final perfectly encapsulates Arsenal’s defensive frailties. The decision not to bring in a new keeper during the January window has returned to haunt Wenger with injuries to Wojciech Szczesny and Lukasz Fabianski. The emergency signing of a 41-year-old German lunatic is a measure of Arsenal’s desperation.
The lack of a Plan B is also a perennial source of frustration to the Arsenal faithful. When the Barca-lite short passing game doesn’t succeed, Arsenal simply do not have a different game plan. This needn’t mean reverting to an antediluvian, route-one game. However, a more physical centre-forward in the Drogba mould would give Arsenal an alternative option to passing their way through a packed defence. The inability to vary tactics makes Arsenal too predictable. Against inferior opposition this doesn’t necessarily matter but, as the FA Cup defeat to United illustrated, Arsenal’s one-dimensional tactics mean that they often fall short in the big games.
The absence of leadership is another longstanding issue. Arsenal midfielder Denilson recently told a Brazilian TV station: ‘Fabregas is the captain, but he is not a leader to me.’ Wenger, as one might expect, sprang to his captain’s defence, saying that Fabregas was an ‘outstanding leader’, and suggesting that Denilson had been mistranslated.
However, despite Wenger’s protestations, the absence of leaders on the pitch is all too evident, particularly when things aren’t going to plan. ‘Arsenal need somebody to take games by the scruff of the neck, galvanise the team, and drag the rest of the players out of the mire’, wrote Alan Hansen in the Telegraph. It’s difficult to imagine Cesc Fabregas rallying the troops at half-time in the way that Scott Parker did to inspire West Ham to come back from three-nil down to earn a draw against Wolves.
If Arsenal finish the season empty handed, Arsene Wenger will no doubt trot out a long list of extenuating circumstances. Wenger’s default mode is to blame factors outside his control: injuries, refereeing decisions, spoiling tactics and so on. However, as Jonathan Wilson argues in a recent Sports Illustrated article, ‘the constant bleating and offering of excuses gives the players a get-out’. Instead of dealing with adversity, the fatalistic tendency to blame others merely encourages the players to abdicate responsibility.
Time for Wenger to go? Not necessarily. It is, however, time for Wenger to stop making excuses and recognise that some of Arsenal’s failings are of his own making.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked‘s sports columnist.