The new season, like always, is a harbinger of impending doom for Arsenal. Van Persie is playing peek-a-boo with his contract extension, greener pastures may await him elsewhere in Manchester but in London, Arsenal have already been written off and the trophy drought is expected to continue.
Where has it all gone wrong? Lack of financial backing? Moving away from Highbury? Feeder club? Arsene Wenger’s footballing philosophy?
A lot of fans are calling for Wenger’s head. But is a change of manager what Arsenal really need? It is shown to have a refreshing effect on the team, Chelsea under Di Matteo went on to win the Champions League, Mancini was replaced by Mourinho at Inter despite bringing the Scudetto year in, year out. It paid off, as Mourinho led Inter to the treble in 2010. Should Arsenal resort to a show of ambition and sack Wenger? Which brings me to the focal point of this article, is Wenger’s footballing philosophy outdated?
Wenger has a set of principles he never violates. One of which is relying on attacking flair in every match. In recent memory, very few teams beat Barcelona by siding with an attack minded strategy. Wenger would never resort to Inter Milan‘s or Chelsea’s tactics against Barca. Is this helpful in present day football, with games calling for a ‘false 9′ or a ’3 man ‘defence’? Wenger is a purist. He would never resort to drastic changes. Arsenal have always played a brand of football which is in contrast to that played by others in the Premiership, and it has brought them success. Sustaining the attractive, non-pragmatic brand of football is a challenge in itself. The philosophy is bound to bring trophies but is a long, painstaking process. Having said that, Arteta and Ramsey do not possess the technical superiority of Nasri and Farbregas, and this is where Wenger is missing a trick or two.
One rarely sees Wenger spend 20 million pounds on an established player. Financial constraints apart, Wenger would rather develop a player than sign one. A classic case would be Arsenal’s pursuit of Juan Mata. The Spaniard looked set to join Arsenal for £17.5 million, only for Wenger to announce the contrary in his quintessential demeanor. Mata eventually joined Chelsea for £23.5 million, Arsenal did miss out on a good signing. It tells you about the lack of desperation in Wenger’s camp, after making profits from the sales of Nasri and Fabregas, Wenger looked at Arteta and Benayoun as replacements. One rarely sees a big name player being linked to Arsenal like Modric to Chelsea, Sneijder to United or every other player to Man City. Wenger has talked about football trafficking, but for a team to win trophies in modern day football, it will need big name players to perform.
But Wenger is not building a football team, he believes in building a dynasty. The current situation is almost analogous to the one after Wenger won the double in his second season. Arsenal went through a barren spell for three years but during this time period Ljungberg, Henry and Pires established themselves in the first team. The controversial transfer of Sol Campbell helped Arsenal’s case too. Arsenal lifted the Premiership in the 2001-02 season, Wenger’s eye for scouting talent was rewarded. The stroke of genius to push Henry from the role of a contemporary winger to that of a striker paid off. It was like Wenger was building a monument all along, brick by brick, and the crowning moment came an year later in the 2003-04 season, the season of the invincibles, played 38 lost 0. It was a truly remarkable achievement, something I guess will never happen again in the Premiership. The secret has always been patience, the preceding years were used to lay the foundations.
Wenger has been trying to replicate the same model ever since, but luck has been twisted like always. Hleb, Flamini, Henry and Gilberto Silva departed. Vela, Denilson, Eduardo, Bendtner failed to live up to Arsenal’s standards, Arshavin faded out eventually, van Persie could play only 20 games every season, if you don’t count the last one. The jigsaw was almost complete a year back. Wilshere was emerging, Walcott was making his mark, only for Fabregas and Nasri to leave. If Persie does leave now, it would be a major setback, morally deflating. But expect Wenger to come back at it, not for vindication or to prove a point. In Chamberlain and Wilshere, he has England’s most exciting talents, Podolski might fill RVP’s boots, Song has started to make a name for himself.
Football management isn’t a trivial matter. A club is always bigger than the player, and fans’ opinions account for nothing. People may advice you with signings and tactics but sticking to your philosophy regardless of that, requires courage. To finish 3rd with such a team is something very few people can achieve. Wenger, unlike Chelsea or Man City, doesn’t require millions. He just needs time and loyalty. Times are changing, player power is on the rise, top managers are shifting clubs every two years. Wenger stuck with Arsenal when Madrid, Barca and the French national team came calling. He’s not a shrewd manager. Oon the contrary, he’s an architect striving to outdo himself. Arsenal have to trust in Wenger.