Question Time for Wenger

In Sport on September 5, 2011 at 12:45 PM

The clouds gathering over Mr Wenger’s head grew heavier and a distinct shade darker after his Arsenal’s 8-2 loss to Manchester United. For it really was just avisit; Arsenal’s only real contribution was to permit Manchester United to play some attractive, attacking football, in what appeared to be a very one-sided training game of ‘attack v defence’. The criticism often levelled at Arsenal of being mere boys – talented but fragile compared to the men of other supposed peers – has never been more appropriate than at Old Trafford last Sunday. Almost to a man, Arsenal were mere awe-struck spectators, playing with the fear and timidity of a team with just one point from two very winnable games and starlets leaving the seemingly sinking ship, rather than the fearless abandon the same situation could engender; rabbits in Ashley Young’s luminescent headlights; lambs to the slaughter of Rooney’s ruthless rapier.

As pointed out by Paul Merson – who in all his anger seemed to be at great pains to stop himself exploding in the Sky Sports studio – the team’s respective managers will have gone into the two week international break in very different positions. With the major summer signings bedding in well (De Gea somewhat excepted), a 100% record and, even, an audacious silencing of the ‘noisy neighbours’ by with the 6-goal winning margin, Ferguson could well be off sunning himself in an exotic holiday resort. The mental image is a strange and not particularly appetising one, but pretty accurate. Wenger, on the other hand, has been in the office, assessing the damage of Sunday’s humiliating defeat and searching for last-minute deals which could save Arsenal’s wretched start the season.

Wenger’s parsimony in the transfer market has largely been both the making and the recent undoing of his tenure in North-West London. In the halcyon early years, which saw their zenith in the ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003/04, his economical approach saw him bring in Vieira, Henry, Bergkamp, Petit, Overmars and (Kolo) Toure for a combined fee of just over £30 million. Throughout his fourteen years in charge, his forward thinking commitment to beautiful football on a (relative) budget has been unwavering. Remember, this is the man largely responsible for changing Arsenal from long-ball merchants who specialised in 1-0 victories, to exponents of technical, skilful, flowing, even, ‘total’ football. Also, Wenger has been largely responsible for changing top-flight footballers from pie-eating alcoholics (small exaggeration) to calorie-counting tee-totallers (smaller exaggeration). He thus rightly gained a reputation as one greatest managers ever, having being ranked 8th in a Four Four Two list.

With all these achievements, expectations were inevitably set higher than the already high bar. However, his incredible (former?) glories have also, quite rightly, bought Wenger a lot of time in the 5 (basically) largely trophy-less years up until this day. This idea that it is almost blasphemous to call for Wenger’s exit was evident in Sky Sports’ coverage of the game. Straight after the game, at the height of his ire, Merson claimed that serious questions needed to be asked about Wenger, before appearing to back-track after the ad break in stating that he didn’t mean to imply for a minute that Wenger should go. Also, Ferguson, once seemingly hostile to the Frenchman, outright denied Geoff Shreeves’ suggestion that Wenger may have to go. He pointed out what a great manager Wenger is, all that he has done for the club and how many players Arsenal were missing.

It is true that Arsenal were missing key players: Vermaelen, Sagna and Wilshere through injury and Song and Gervinho through suspension. Arsenal’s starting eleven at Old Trafford was significantly inferior on paper and even more woefully inferior on grass.  Jenkinson up against Young, Koscielny marking Rooney (or doing a vague impression of marking), Traore vs Nani – the list goes on…

With such mismatches of talent, there were no great expectations, indeed Paddy Power even said they would refund all losing bets if Arsenal won. Yet, somehow, these saplings even fell below zero expectation.  For a club with serious -though quickly diminishing – title aspirations, this excuse just isn’t good enough. Injuries and suspensions are part and parcel of football, which managers must make provision for. This excuse also hides the fact that Manchester United have are also started the season without at least 6 key players: Ferdinand, Vidic, Fabio, Fletcher, Valencia and Carrick. It’s fair to say that they have covered their absence fairly well so far.

Not only do United have far more squad depth at the moment, they also have far more quality in their best eleven. The fact that is hard to say what their ‘best XI’ is attests to their quality. The litmus test is to consider what current Arsenal players would make it into an Arsenal/Manchester United XI. With Fabregas and Nasri gone, Van Persie is probably the only player that would, apart from Wilshere to gain experience, perhaps.

The other common excuse is that of Arsenal players’ prodigious promise for their tender years. Completely besides the fact that this has been used- in conjunction with Wenger’s deified status- to excuse near misses and relative mediocrity for about five years, it is misleading because the average age of the Manchester United team on Sunday was, like Arsenal, just 23. Unlike Arsenal sometimes, Ferguson has long struck a pitch-perfect balance between youth and experience.

The classic case of this was how he bled in the prodigal ‘Class of 91’ (Scholes, Giggs, Beckham, the Neville brothers etc.) in the mid nineties. He waited patiently until he was sure they were ready for the top-flight, then when he was certain– and only when-  gave them their chance. What’s more, he earned a healthy profit in doing so, with Ince, Kanchelskis and others being sold to make way for Becks and co., in decisions that baffled many at the time, but proved visionary in hindsight. Mr. Hansen will know this only too well, having had to eat his infamous line: “you don’t win anything with kids.”

Recently, they seem to have managed just fine the transition from the last remnants of the class of ’91 to the youth of Welbeck, Cleverley, Fabio, Rafael, Jones, Smalling and others. This is largely due to Ferguson’s savvy use of the loan system – a tactic that Wenger might be well advised to employ more effectively. For example, last season, whilst the already world-class talent of Van Der Sar, Giggs, Rooney et. al. were grinding out results to knock Liverpool “off their f***ing perch”, the nascent talent of their successors was on exhibit on loan in the lower echelons of the Premiership (Welbeck and Cleverley) or being carefully dipped into the cut-throat world of the top 4/5/6. Conversely, Arsenal youngsters were left pretty much to their own devices. After late February, Arsenal crashed out of the F.A. Cup and the Champions League, almost literally handed later-relegated Birmingham the Carling Cup Final and faded out of contention in the league.

The thing is, by general consensus, Wenger only really has himself to blame for his current woes. His thriftiness in the transfer market was once admirably economical, but now seems positively Scrooge-like. Many recent transfers have proved flops and Wenger’s previously faultless radar for spotting talent has also failed a fair bit recently. Koscielny, Squillaci, Eboue, Bendtner, Djourou, Traore and others have all proved transfer flops or misfirings of the extensive scouting system. He has brought in Mikael Arteta who may prove a useful addition, as well as German Per Mertesacker and Brazillian Santos, but these somewhat pale in comparison to the astuteness and financial muscle showed by other top Premiership clubs in the transfer market recently.

If these signings do not prove good and Wenger remains relatively tight in the transfer market, serious questions need to be asked of Wenger’s position at the club. He has undoubtedly experienced great success at the club, but it is time that people stopped giving him so much time because of this. It is strange place when Premiership football has got to where new managers can be sacked almost on presumption of inadequacy (Hughton at Newcastle, Hughes at Manchester City and others), while Wenger is given inordinate amounts of forgiveness. Maybe, just maybe, Arsenal’s fans and board should amicably part ways with Wenger, in acknowledgement of great times that were had, but also, that the relationship is no longer working.

Joel Durston

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