Time to order that taxi for Wenger
Wenger had plenty time to turn Arsenal’s fortunes around and put an end to Gooner whinging. Now, time’s up.
Is this the end of the road for Arsene Wenger?
I’ve always felt that the Arsenal manager was entitled to be allowed sufficient time to turn things around. But now I’m not so sure. Even the patience of diehard Wenger loyalists has worn thin. Whereas once, BBC 5Live’s 606 programme was monopolised by whinging Scousers or disgruntled Geordies, it’s now irate Gooners who dominate the airwaves. A recent poll on the Gooner.com website found that 80 per cent of fans wanted Wenger to be replaced in the summer. Arsenal’s familiar weaknesses aren’t new. The cracks have been showing for some time. And it is Wenger’s failure to correct these problems that leads me to question whether he is the right man to oversee a revival.
Admittedly, the growing chorus of unhappy Gooners is a tad irritating. ‘We haven’t won a trophy for eight years’, they cry. It’s a bit like listening to children wailing ‘It’s not fair’ when they don’t get their own way. Starved of silverware, the Gooners have had to make do with a Champions League spot every year. Poor creatures! When will they learn that no football club is entitled to win trophies. It doesn’t matter how large your crowds are nor how glittering your trophy cabinet is. In the dog-eat-dog world of football there is no divine right to success.
That said, it’s true that Arsenal really ought to be more competitive. The club can’t match the spending power of Manchester City or Chelsea. But Arsenal aren’t exactly raggedy paupers are they? If you want to know what financial hardship is like, go and ask a Portsmouth fan. It’s no shame to be outclassed by Bayern Munich, a team romping away with the Bundesliga this season. But Arsenal’s domestic cup defeats by Bradford and Blackburn reveal a team bereft of quality, fighting spirit and direction. And the strain on the coach is clearly telling. Wenger’s car crash of a press conference this week suggested that the once urbane, unflappable ‘professor’ has been reduced to a twitching, paranoid crank. ‘Why do you look at me?’ he asked Neil Ashton of the Daily Mail. ‘Me? Because it is your press conference’, replied Ashton. Toe-curlingly awkward.
The Arsenal board is reportedly set to hand the manager a £70million war chest to strengthen the squad in the summer. But Wenger has had money to spend before and has failed to improve the quality of the squad. Rather than waste good money on the next Marouane Chamakh or André Santos, here are five good reasons why Stanley Kroenke should now think the unthinkable and consider replacing the manager.
- Absence of leadership. Wenger has long undervalued the need for leadership on the pitch. His title-winning teams had leaders like Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira to shout, scream, reprimand and marshal the troops. Where are the leaders in the current squad? It’s evident from the comical defending at set pieces that nobody is in charge. No one is barking out instructions or pushing up the defensive line. Wenger’s failure to address the leadership vacuum was exemplified by his decision to hand the captain’s armband to Cesc Fabregas in 2008. The best player certainly, but hardly officer material. The Brazilian midfielder Denilson called it right when he said: ‘Fabregas is the captain, but he is not a leader to me.’
- No longer a poor man’s Barca. Arsenal’s pretty passing football once had the pundits enraptured. It was just like watching Barcelona, albeit minus Lionel Messi and the ability actually to win stuff. Barcelona-lite, one might say. However, a more important missing ingredient was Barca’s work rate. When they lose the ball, Barca work furiously to win it back quickly. There isn’t the same work ethic at Arsenal. Not quite a poor man’s Barca; more a lazy man’s Barca. And these days even those flattering comparisons with the Catalan club seem misplaced. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the current squad simply doesn’t have the quality to play the quick passing game that once enthralled the neutrals.
- The limits of Moneyball. Arsene Wenger was arguably the first manager to apply the Moneyball approach to English football. Michael Lewis’s famous book charted the rise of the Oakland Athletics baseball team, whose visionary coach Billy Beane used performance analytics rather than traditional scouting ‘insider’ knowledge to recruit players. Wenger is a big fan of performance data. He also boasts a track record of recruiting youngsters from abroad and honing them into world-class players. Whether it was performance data or simply his knowledge of French football, it is clear that the competitive advantage Arsenal once enjoyed has been eroded. Rival clubs, notably Swansea, Wigan and Newcastle United, have all adopted Wenger’s strategy of recruiting unknown and undervalued players from abroad.
- Mentally fragile. Performance data is fine for measuring fitness or pace, but not so good for testing mental resilience. It was always something of a cliché that the way to nullify Arsenal was to ‘get in their faces’. ‘They don’t like it up ‘em’, as Corporal Jones would say in Dad’s Army. This was never just a question of physical force, but having the stomach for the fight. One of Arsene Wenger’s persistent blind spots has been his stubborn refusal to recognise the need for battling qualities as well as artistry. Whereas Manchester United can win ugly and grind out results, Arsenal always appear mentally fragile. Somewhat belatedly, even Wenger himself has started to question his players’ mettle. After last week’s FA Cup defeat to Blackburn, he admitted, ‘we still have to show more maturity on the mental front’. No shit, Sherlock! It’s taken Wenger years to see what is blindingly obvious to the man on the Clapham omnibus.
- Evolutionary catch-up. When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996, the Premier League was a very different place. The style of play was still very physical and direct. English football was positively prehistoric in terms of the preparation, conditioning and coaching of players. At the time, Wenger’s methods seemed revolutionary. Not so today. The top Premier League clubs all now employ sports scientists, fitness coaches, psychologists and performance analysts. On the pitch, tactics have evolved, too. Arsenal are not the only team that can pass the ball. The evolutionary leap which kept Arsenal ahead of the knuckledraggers has been cancelled out. Everyone is walking upright now and Wenger appears incapable of taking Arsenal to the next level.
Arsene Wenger has had plenty of time and money to bring success to Arsenal and they are still a pretty good team. But his failure to adapt to changing circumstances or admit the flaws in his team suggest it won’t be long before the proverbial taxi is waiting at the back door of the Emirates.
Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.
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