AC Milan 4 Arsenal 0. Ouch!
Arsenal are my second team in football. The family team. And the team that over the past decade have been synonymous with good football, the beautiful game. When they lose it doesn’t hurt in the same way as when West Ham lose. But when they lose like they did last night, it does hurt. Because it feels like the dream – that Arsene Wenger could carry on doing it his way – is over.
Twitter isn’t necessarily the best place to judge the mood, because it’s where all the naysayers, the abusers, can congregate, safe behind their computer screens or mobile devices, and just vent their spleen. But it is fair to say that hardly anyone was defending Wenger last night. The Arsenal fans do seem to have turned.
What has gone wrong?
Man, where do you start?
There are three things that I think are worth highlighting: the business model, the football strategy and tactics, and the leadership question. Blimey! That doesn’t leave a lot, but I think it is all fundamental. Of course, if Arsenal scrape into the top four this year and win the FA Cup, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and blame it all on the Man City money. But the roots of the problems are deeper and they need to be addressed. Not by sacking Wenger. Or not yet. He is a brilliant man, the man who transformed Arsenal and transformed English football. Respect, massive respect is due. But he does need to rethink his ways – just a bit. Otherwise….
The business model
There are two sides to this. There’s the whole move to the Emirates thing, which I don’t really want to go into. That side of things looks on track to work. The money has been invested; slowly but surely more and more income will flow in and make Arsenal maybe the healthiest club in English football, financially. Sorted!
But the footballing side of the business model has been blown out of the water. In the early days Wenger inherited a solid English defence and leavened the side with seriously good players: Viera, Petit, Overmars, then Henry and Pires amongst others. Some had a bit to prove when they joined Arsenal (as did Bergkamp, who was brought to Arsenal by Bruce Rioch), but they had pedigree. That gave Arsenal the platform to dominate English football for a few years, with Man Utd. But then Wenger turned to the self-sustaining model, prompted perhaps by the stadium move and the costs that that involved. An idealistic model too. Identify players at a young age, from all over the world, get them in and mould them into Arsenal players, playing the right way. After a while there would be a blossoming of first team talent, a team that had grown up together, fought for each other, invincible.
It almost worked, but then a problem emerged. Some of the star players were coveted by other teams, with greater resources than Arsenal, at least in this transitional, stadium-moving period. Henry left, maybe before he should have done. And there was speculation every year about when Fabregas would move to Barcelona, until he did. Likewise Nasri. Arsenal can no longer hold on to their best players. By the time they are in their early twenties they are being tempted by riches elsewhere. Who will be next to go? Song? Wilshere? Who knows. But the model now looks more like a financial one: grow talent and then sell it on at massive profit. Good from a short term business perspective, disastrous from a football point of view.
The only way to get round this is to change the buying policy. Start buying seasoned professionals as well as promising youngsters. Strengthen the spine of the team, get in a few hard men, some leaders, etc, etc. Arsenal can afford it, but will Wenger be willing to do it as a matter of principle? There was some panic buying just before the beginning of the season, but it needs to be more strategic in future.
The football strategy and tactics
I hugely admire Arsene Wenger for his commitment to the beautiful game, his desire to build a team that is the equal of Barcelona. He clearly knows more about football than just about any other person on the planet. BUT!
He seems to have developed a massive blindspot about defence. And that’s not just defence-defence, but midfield-defence, attackers tracking back. Defending as a team.
Last night against Milan was a perfect example. That defensive mindset, the tracking back, the pressing, just didn’t seem to be happening. There was no discipline in midfield. And if midfield malfunctions everything else is doomed to fail. It has been a feature of much of this season and a few before. Wonderful going forward, hopeless at the basics of defending the line. Song is a great, athletic player, but so often he is surging forward when he should be holding back, ensuring cover. Is he just indisciplined or does Wenger give him the licence? If he has the licence, then who is the midfield defender?
There have been some complete disasters at the heart of the defence too. Lack of concentration, lack of pace, loss of nerve, you name it. But if your midfield is not protecting you, it is always going to be a nightmare as a defender, because the opposition will be running at you. At every level of football this is a truism. When will this Arsenal learn?
When will this Arsenal learn?
When will Arsene Wenger learn? Or accept that something has to change?
Arsene and Fergie at Man Utd have been around longer than anyone else. They are testimony to the fact that stability brings success. But it can also bring stagnation. There is an important way in which Ferguson appears to differ to Wenger. It is called delegation. Fergie seems to leave more of the day to day coaching to his staff. He concentrates on the strategy and the people management. Arsene seems to do everything. Earlier this season when Arsenal were shipping goals, especially after the 8-2 defeat against Man Utd, people were asking why Arsenal didn’t have a specialist defensive coach. Martin Keown was mentioned as a candidate. My recollection is that Wenger said he didn’t need one – he was the defensive coach. Really? Reduce the pressure Arsene: get some help in. Some fresh ideas. Some focus.
Another example. Fergie has been top dog for a very long time, but his number two has changed every three or four years. In recent years Steve McClaren had a go, Carlos Quieroz stiffened the defence, Mike Phelan is there now. Each time there will be a fresh perspective, a counterbalance, a bit of challenge. That’s good for any leader. Arsene has had Pat Rice by his side every day that he has been manager. No doubt he has many virtues. But does he challenge the great man? I doubt it. Ossification is a risk.
I’ve been a great admirer of Arsene Wenger’s leadership in the past. His strategy, his calmness in the face of pressure, his love of the beautiful game, his belief in development from within. All still admirable qualities. But he needs help, new help, and if he doesn’t recognise it, there’s a chance – greater than ever before – that Arsenal will refresh by saying thank you and goodbye Arsene. I’d hate to see that happen, but he needs to act soon to get that help, as well as bring in a few seasoned pros in the next window.
Fingers crossed it will all work out. Arsenal have played the best football in the Premier League for many years. I want to see them reap the rewards again.
Unless of course West Ham get a sugar daddy and sweep all before them!