Sometime around 3.30pm local time in England today, Arsenal’s stuttering season came to an abrupt end as a relatively unknown Israeli midfielder by the name of Tamri Cohen, powered a header into Arsenal’s net in injury time. The Arsenal players, and particularly their French manager, Arsene Wenger, looked on in disbelief as their meager title hopes evaporated in the unusually hot Lancashire sun. Although not yet mathematically out of the race, all that seems left now for the North London club, is the microscopic examination of where it all went wrong, and it’s been no secret that the main focus will be on Wenger himself.
Time and again over the last 6-7 seasons, unfulfilled promises are all that remain for Arsenal fans at the end of these grueling Premier League seasons. Whilst always looking title contenders at the start of every new campaign, it seems that they are drawn towards a level of inconsistency which undermines their undoubted talent. Particularly this year, they have gone from the highs of that amazing night at The Emirates when Wenger’s men put Barcelona through the ringer, to the lows of that crushing loss to Birmingham City in the League Cup Final at Wembley, to the even lower depths of the injury time loss today. During the press conference afterwards, Wenger was tortured with cutting questions about his style and whether he had the stamina to continue on like this. In typically stoic French fashion, he refused to believe change was necessary and took blame for all of Arsenal’s troubles. But where do Arsenal go from here? Surely their fans will demand some kind of change of approach. These types of seasons are tough for loyal fans to endure, especially when the end result is so repetitive.
My own feeling is that Wenger is correct. He is the cause of his team’s problems. Not by the way he coaches, but by the way he manages, and there is a subtle difference here. He is not the first manager to have a talented young squad at his disposal, but other managers have won trophies with young players, and Wenger is a winner. He proved that with his “Invincibles” who crushed all before them back when they went unbeaten for 49 games in a row. However, that was a vastly different group of players. They had Keown, Veira, Bergkamp, and Henry who were all fierce competitors. The current team has no “steel” despite Arsene Wenger’s refusal to admit that. If you pay attention to his press conferences, he never accepts that his side was beaten by a better team on the day. They were either “unlucky”, or “victims” of a brutal style of play, or he will blame the officials, and therein lies the real truth. The Frenchman treats his team as if they were still youth players. He never calls them out, and so they have no accountability to anyone, least of all him. They have developed as players under Wenger but not matured as professionals. They lose the physical battles whilst outplaying their opponents and give away silly goals under pressure. Those are traits you expect from high school players and not professional footballers. If Wenger doesn’t change his approach, Arsenal will continue to dominate on the field but never be good enough to win the big trophies.
Contrast his methods with that of Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford. His younger players are brought through in small groups and mixed in with the older players to teach them mental strength and physical stamina. Back in those days in the 90′s when Beckham, Giggs, Scholes and the Neville brothers all came through the ranks, they were sprinkled in among the Irwin’s, and the Keanes of the football world, and Ferguson always treated them like men. Arsene Wenger may need some added size and strength to go with his immense talent pool, but it’s his attitude that must change.
Arsenal will never fire him as he makes too much money for the club, and he’s too stubborn to quit, but if he doesn’t redraw his plan, the years ahead will be full of same old same old for a team which has promised so much, and yet delivered so little.