I have watched a lot of football in my 45 years on this earth, and for much of that time my gaze has been firmly set on the team I started supporting when I was 7 years old (because I liked their shirts) – the Arsenal.
I suppose if I’m really honest, it wasn’t until a certain George Graham took the helm that I found myself glued to almost every televised match. The football may not have been pretty, but I felt every crunching tackle, every scruffy goal, and boy did it mean something when we won the league in 1989 after 18 years of waiting.
The Graham era was certainly successful, and when he left, in shall we say unfortunate circumstances, he was succeeded by another couple of Scotsmen, Houston & Rioch who quickly proved that being Scottish does NOT mean you have a divine right to be a great manager. Odd though Rioch’s appointment seemed at the time, still more bizarre was the fact that he somehow managed to sign the legendary Denis Bergkamp. If Bruce Rioch never does anything right again, in fact if he turns out to be a serial killer, it won’t matter, because that purchase was so very right it will eclipse everything else.
And then along came Wenger. Arsenal got lucky; it worked. Wenger got really lucky, saved from obscurity in the Far East and brought in to manage one of the most famous clubs in the land where football was invented. He inherited “that back 4” led by the God like Tony Adams, heart and soul of the club for so many years, along with the aforementioned Dutch maestro and a certain Ian Wright (you gotta love him). What Wenger managed to do to Arsenal football club is quite incredible. I suppose it was always going to happen sometime, but Wenger was ahead of the curve – he brought modern methods to the English game and revolutionised the way we play, using his intimate knowledge of the French game to bring in a string of wonder signings.
They say that if a team is great it must have a great spine. With the truly awesome spine of Henry, Viera, Campbell and Lehman (don’t laugh) we touched perfection in 2003/04; an entire season unbeaten in the Premier League. Viera took over as the heart of the club from Adams, and he didn’t let us down, despite the annual speculation linking him with every top club in Europe. The one thing Wenger has failed to achieve is winning the Champions Cup, but we did make the final and would have won if we had not been playing with 10 men for most of the game.
We reached such heights, and played such beautiful football under Wenger that it was almost inevitable that it couldn’t last, and it didn’t. The way the team has unravelled since Viera left, followed by senior players like Pires and Henry, has been as remarkable as the transformation from ugly ducklings to swans when Wenger arrived. Sure, it is nowhere near as bad as it could be. We still can, on our day, beat the best. Victories against Man Utd and Chelsea sit uneasily alongside defeats to Hull, Stoke, Fulham and Manchester City.
So what has gone wrong? Well, for one thing Wenger seems to have started to actually believe all the hype about him being the master at unearthing young talent. Don’t get me wrong, he gets some good ones, but many are not up to the mark and will see out their careers in lesser teams. That’s all well and good – every top team should have a string of promising youngsters coming through the ranks, but what Wenger has done is try to disprove the adage “you win nothing with kids”. Surely the idea is to keep the talent that you have nurtured so carefully, and yet Flamini, arguably the second most improved young player after Fabregas, was allowed to leave last summer. What seems to have happened is that the balance in the squad has shifted too far towards potential stars rather than real ones.
Another unfortunate bi-product of the Wenger philosophy, which seems to concentrate on technical ability with no regard for other aspects like physique or mental toughness, is the vacuum of leadership in the squad. Gallas has proved himself to be lacking in both leadership qualities and, sadly, playing ability of late. There are other factors too, such as the regular playing of people out of their best position.
However, what I believe may be the straw that eventually breaks this once great camel’s back is, surprisingly, our tactical naivety. “Surely not”, I hear you say, Wenger is “Le Professor”, a tactical genius. Well, actually no, he is not. We appear to have spent little time on the training ground doing anything but lots, and I do mean LOTS, of passing and moving. We have it down to a fine art. Nobody out passes Arsenal on a good day. I believe that we are shockingly poor at set pieces in both defence and attack. This is inexcusable and causes us no end of problems. I don’t just mean “the Delap Disaster” from earlier in the season. Even today, as I write this, we allowed Porto a free header at a corner to gift them their first goal. It gradually kills a teams confidence when they always have to come from behind.
With so many teams crowding out the area just in front of their box, because they know if we go wide we won’t cross it (because if we do there will be nobody there to head it, and even if there was they’d miss), we find ourselves trying to thread the perfect pass through the crowd, lose the ball and get spanked on the counter. Once we are behind our problems multiply. The first goal is crucial – if we get the lead the opposition must spread out, creating space for our pretty passing. So how do you get the first goal when teams are defending like demons? Yep, set pieces. Big Sam knows. We need to force corners and free kicks to get the first goal, not always, but enough times to justify putting it to the top of the “things to do in training today” list.
And another thing….oh, never mind I could go on all night. The point is, it doesn’t feel like it used to when Wenger first arrived with his “magic success formula”. Other clubs have caught us up, overtaken and left us wiping mud from our faces. We have a team of children with shattered confidence and gaping gaps that have been there for all to see for some time now, gaps which Le Professor needs to plug pretty quickly if he wishes his reign to continue. I really hope he does.
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