Friday, 11 April 2014

Time For A Change At Arsenal?

I wrote here back in August that a lack of willingness to evolve was killing Arsenal. One week later they seemingly proved me wrong, paying £42m for Mesut Ozil and surging to the top of the Premier League table by mid-September. Now, almost the whole season later I find myself singing a familiar tune. Arsenal's failure to evolve and make themselves better has seen them blow their lead at the top and become engulfed in a familiar battle for 4th spot.

It seems unthinkable that a club would sack the most successful manager in their history and out of respect for what he's done for the club, I don't expect Arsenal to merely dispense with Wenger's services in such a cold manner. However I do believe it is the right time to change and it would serve the club better going forward.

It's a situation similar to Brian Clough at Nottingham Forest in the 1980s and early 1990s. Clough took Forest to their first ever title in 1978 and followed it up with European Cup wins the following two seasons. Thirteen years elapsed between their triumph in Madrid in 1980 and Clough's departure from the club in 1993. During that time they achieved only two 3rd place finishes and two League Cups. Clough's immortal status at the club made him pretty much immune  to firing. It took relegation in the inaugural Premier League season in 1993 for them to part ways. Clough never managed again, his style had long-since passed it's sell-by-date.

The changes that have occurred at Arsenal in the intervening two decades since Wenger's arrival are a testament to the fantastic work he's done at the club. He arrived at the club as a relatively unknown manager having previously won Ligue Un with Monaco. His tenure at the club has changed the culture entirely. There's no bigger tribute to his impact on the club than the majestic Emirates Stadium where Arsenal have played since 2006. It might as well be a monument to the work done by Wenger in his first decade.

A giant monument to Arsene Wenger, Arsenal's Emirates Stadium

His first full season ended in the Premier League title and FA Cup double. He phased out an Arsenal legend in Ian Wright and decided to build the attacking outlet around Denis Bergkamp. His new signings Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars in particular where vital in Arsenal's success that year as they put together an amazing run towards the end of the season to clinch the title with games to spare.

A lull followed for the following seasons as Wenger struggled with an ageing defence that needed replacing and the challenge of perhaps the greatest Man United side of all time who won the next three titles. With Sol Campbell acquired controversially from neighbours Spurs, Arsenal stormed to another double in 2001/02.

Wenger had, by this stage put together one of the most complete Premier League sides of all time. The defence had been replenished with the arrivals of Campbell, Kolo Toure and Lauren as well as the emergence of Ashley Cole. Vieira was still running the midfield alongside World-Cup winner Gilberto Silva. Robert Pires and Freddy Ljungberg, two of Wenger's best ever signings played on the wings with Denis Bergkamp up front, playing off arguably Arsenal's greatest ever player, the best in the world at the time and talisman of the team, Thierry Henry.

This side famously went the entire 2003/04 Premier League season unbeaten. The run continued into 2004/05 but was stopped at 49. A defeat that in many ways marked the turning point for Wenger. Arsenal relinquished the title to Chelsea that season, never to regain it. The Invincibles broke up over the next two years. Vieira was sold to Juventus, Henry to Barcelona, Cole to Chelsea. Bergkamp retired. Pires and Ljungberg faded away and then left.

The Invincibles were Wenger's second and last great side

Wenger's great rival Sir Alex Ferguson built several teams at Old Trafford, always ensuring the trophies continued to flow in. After Wenger added a bit of attacking flair the to solid defensive unit that was the mid-90s Arsenal side to make them champions, he built the Invincibles. They disbanded within two seasons. Gunners fans are still patiently waiting on his third team.

Arsenal didn't finish outside the top two of the Premier League in any of of Wenger's first eight full seasons at the club. Since they slumped to 4th place in 2005/06, they haven't managed to get back in. Wenger brought us the Invincibles, the team who went an entire Premier League season unbeaten, but since that era ended in around 2005, he's failed to build on the success from his first

The early part of this decade has seen Arsenal become the subject of many jokes regarding them being a selling club. In the space of a few years they sold a considerable amount of players to teams they were supposedly trying to beat. Clichy, Toure, Adebayor and Nasri went to Manchester City. Fabregas, Hleb and Alex Song went to Barcelona. Perhaps the most unforgivable from the fans point of view was the sale of the reigning PFA Player of the Year, Robin van Persie, to old rivals Manchester United in 2012. All these players have gone on to win trophies at their new clubs. Arsenal haven't won a thing without them.

Truth is, they were a selling club long before then. They sold Overmars and Petit to Barcelona in 2000. Henry followed in 2007. Patrick Vieira went to Juventus in 2005. All of these players still had something to offer to Arsenal.

The sad truth for Arsenal fans is that they've failed to win the Premier League since 2004 and failed to win a single trophy since a fortunate FA Cup Final triumph over Man United in 2005. These days, instead of being the team to beat in the Premier League as they were in the early 2000s, Arsenal's main aim every year is simply to remain in the top four and continue to play in the Champions League. The club has fallen a long way in terms of ambition.

Arsenal players celebrate 'finishing 4th' last season

The reasons for Arsenal's decline? Chelsea and Man City are two big ones yes but even if they weren't a factor, Arsenal haven't finished above Manchester United in the league since 2005 which suggests they wouldn't have won a title even without the billions of petro-dollars they have flowed into the Premier League in the past decade.

Paying the £600m required to build the Emirates Stadium is another factor that must be taken into account. However, Man United were also saddled with a similarly huge debt around about the same time and have won six league titles and the Champions League since then so I'm not sure how much that excuse can wash.

The trophy drought should end this year and Arsenal should have enough to secure 4th spot and a 17th successive year of Champions League football but is this enough to satisfy fans, particularly in a year that promised so much with the signing of a world superstar in Ozil and the runaway league lead over the winter? I think not.

Arsenal's capitulation this season began at Anfield on February 8th. They came to Liverpool as league leaders and found themselves lucky to be only 4-0 down after twenty minutes and lucky to escape with just a 5-1 defeat. This game was an easy tactical victory for Brendan Rodgers over Arsene Wenger. Arsenal always play with a high defensive line and Wenger continued this approach at Anfield. A massive mistake. All Rodgers had to do was instruct Coutinho to drop back and help win the ball in Liverpool's half, put Suarez on Sterling on the wings against Arsenal's advanced full backs and trust his attackers to punish Wenger for his refusal to adapt his tactics.

The defeats to Liverpool and Chelsea were amazingly similar

I found myself in disbelief when almost the exact same thing happened six weeks later at Stamford Bridge. Arsenal played against the division's other great counter attacking side with a similarly high line, clearly having learned nothing from their Anfield humiliation. This time they were 3-0 down in twenty minutes, 4-0 by half time and 6-0 by full time. It is genuinely baffling how a manager with Wenger's experience is so unwilling/unable to adapt his tactics based on the oppostion. It seems he'd rather lose playing his way than change his tactics from the system that everyone has figured out by now.

Last weekend, it was the turn of Roberto Martinez to make Wenger look like a fool. Wenger tends to play the same players in the same system every week. Against the weaker teams this will normally be enough. Against the big sides, as they've found out time and time again, you have to 'play the other team' and not just your own game. It sounds elementary but it's remarkable how often Arsenal seem to get caught out.

Everton don't have quick enough attacking players to destroy Arsenal on the counter the way Liverpool and Chelsea do. Martinez instead relied on the defensive negligence of Arsenal's 3/4 line (Podolski, Cazorla and Rosicky), put his two quickest attackers up against Arsenal's full backs and played Naismith as a false nine to drag the centre backs up and create more space in behind.

Martinez beat Wenger last week. He's seen as a possible replacement by many.

Arsene Wenger changed the face of English football. There can be no disputing that. He brought a new scientific and economic look at the game when he arrived in the mid-90s. But his failure to evolve with the times has seen the game over-take him. Young managers like Martinez and Rodgers have made him look like an old fool in the past few months while his old nemesis Jose Mourinho continues to get the better of him at every turn. Wenger attributes his side's failings since about 2007 to a 'lack of mental toughness'. That excuse held up when he had a young set of players but it doesn't anymore. Arsenal's youngest outfield player against Everton on Sunday was Olivier Giroud. He's 27. Wenger needs to stop relying on his trusty excuse and face up to the fact he's been out-thought time and time again by his opposing managers.

Times have changed and Wenger doesn't seem willing or able to move with them, certainly not way in the same way Ferguson did at Man United. His sides play lovely attacking football when they come up against the likes of Norwich or Sunderland. But their default gameplan, their plan A, is only effective against these type of sides. Against the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and City, Arsenal don't change anything and get torn to shreds again and again.

You can't sack someone like Arsene Wenger, with all he's done for the club, but I can't see them winning another title, or even improving significantly with him at the helm. Looking to the future, the time may be right for both sides of this marriage to part ways, mutually and amicably.

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