What went wrong for Arsene Wenger at Arsenal?
A revolutionary, a genius, a breath of fresh air - these were the words of praise everyone had for a certain slender Frenchman who was at the helm of Arsenal Football Club’s double of 1997/98, only his second season with the club. A tactical genius touted to stop Manchester United and Alex Ferguson’s rampage in the Premier League.
Even though he was relatively unknown in English football when he joined the club a year prior to their double, Wenger quickly cemented his place as the right candidate to lead the club to glory. After 5 years without winning the league, a second double in 2001/02 and that famous unbeaten run of 2003/04 elevated Wenger to legendary status not only at Arsenal but in the entire country.
And yet, that was the very last time Arsenal tasted the success of winning the top-tier of English football. Three FA Cups and three Community Shields in 14 years are the only honours Arsenal received since their golden era, while top 4 finishes and Champions League qualification being mere consolations.
His tactics have become stale, his transfer policies are failing, and his top players most certainly leave after a few seasons with the club because of a lack of silverware.
The financial mess
Arsenal is not a club which can throw cash at a club to buy a player. The owner Stan Kroenke is a shrewd business man, someone who views Arsenal as a money minting machine. Kroenke has always said that a club should be self-financed, should handle all its monetary dealings without the owner stepping in. Wenger has been the perfect manager in that regard.
The Arsenal manager treats the club’s finances as if it is his own personal wealth, knows the ideology of the owner and sticks to it. When the London club were building a new stadium, Wenger sold several of his major players to rival clubs just to finance it. It is commendable how they still managed to finish in the top 4 despite offloading a bulk of their crucial players.
Also Read: Arsene Wenger: the legend of Le Professeur
It has gotten the club in a position where the owner does not want to change the manager simply because he follows the doctrines set forth by him. Being a self-financing club, it is difficult to sign world-class players as high wages pose a problem thanks to Arsenal’s strict wage structure.
Furthermore, Arsenal has always sold some of their key players for bargain prices; club legends Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira were sold for £16 million and £13.5 million respectively. Wenger could never replace either with the sum of money he received from their sales.
More recently, the same was the case for both Van Persie and Nasri. The Dutchman was one of Arsenal’s finest strikers, yet Manchester United acquired him for a sum totalling to £24 million including bonuses.
Wenger has also often refused to bring in new players to strengthen his squad, which could be attributed to the manager’s inability, unwillingness or lack of funds. More often than not Arsenal have needed fresh blood in the squad, but the Frenchman is the kind of manager who only buys new players based on reaction rather than action, filling gaps instead of building a wall.
Missed opportunities, archaic tactics
There was a time when the Frenchman’s footballing style was perhaps the most attractive in the league, overshadowing even Alex Ferguson’s fast and direct football. The kind of football which used to leave spectators awestruck, wanting for more. Now, there are only glimpses of glitter, there are moments when Arsenal look like the team they once used to be and the one which Wenger wants them to be.
Quick passes, a couple of one-twos, tremendous pace, counter attacks, the whole package; but without consistency and, most importantly, without results. Last season saw Arsenal perform well against the other top teams but failing to get points against the weaker oppositions.
The 2015-16 Premier League season was no doubt a miracle season for Leicester City, however, it was Wenger’s best shot in more than a decade to be crowned champions of England. Every other top club was going through a tough or a transition phase, with the exception of Tottenham.
Manchester United was still rebuilding under Van Gaal, the Gunners’ London rivals, Chelsea, were going through managerial changes with Mourinho ousted, Liverpool had got a new manger in the form of Jurgen Klopp, while Manchester City was ready to welcome Pep Guardiola to the blue half of Manchester.
Arsenal, on the other hand, had a settled manager, a balanced squad, and the right opportunity to win the title after more than a decade. Despite fortune being on their side, Arsenal still managed to finish 10 points behind the Leicester, losing out mostly because of their inability to finish off games against mid and bottom table opponents.
Arsenal have never been able to replicate the impenetrable defensive line-up of the early Wenger years. The likes of Tony Adams and Martin Keown protecting David Seaman with Lee Dixon and Winterburn as the full-backs – a defensive line feared by any attack in the late 90s. By 2004, Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure had been brought in.
However, over the course of the next few years, Arsenal struggled to build a solid defence line. They have pace in the full-back areas but there has been a lack of strong centre backs, often leading to unconventional and unnecessary goals being conceded by the team.
The side has been in need of a solid balance in recent years, with Wenger opting for possession based midfielders and technical players, rather than a strong presence in midfield and defence. The signing of Granit Xhaka was supposed to fill in that gap, which did not happen, and the Gunners have often conceded goals against quick counter attacks against teams with pace, which was visible when Arsenal played Watford in a 2-1 loss at the Emirates.
The Hornets were far more energetic, piling on the pressure against Ramsey and Coquelin. As if the first half wasn’t dreadful enough, the second goal for Watford came when Ramsey tried to bring down a loose ball, giving Capoue the opportunity to go past Mustafi with ease to score their second of the night.
The injury to Santi Cazorla has been crucial for the Gunners. No one in the current squad is as good as the Spaniard in short passing. A reason why Arsenal saw two 2-1 defeats during the first half of the season against Manchester City and Everton. Ozil seemed isolated at times; the German playmaker is better when a player like Cazorla is passing the ball to him rather than getting it himself.
A lack of organisation in defence has made Arsenal vulnerable tremendously when they cannot control the ball. Arsene Wenger has failed to adapt to the new-ways of football, and a lack of quality players to rotate the squad and adapting when games are coming thick and fast has cost the manager dearly over a decade.
There have been questions as to how quickly the mentality has changed at the London club. A side with the likes of Sanchez, Ozil, Cech has looked uninspired at times this season, a trait which was in abundance of Arsenal teams of yesteryear. Unable to kill games they should comfortably be winning, drawing matches that they were expected to win and even losing against teams they should be routing by quite a margin.
Arsene Wenger has always applauded his side’s mental strength to make comebacks, yet, they have dropped points more often than they have made a comeback to gain. His training ground routines and fitness regimes seem outdated, his stubbornness to stick to the same 4-2-3-1 formation despite the lack of results has been almost ludicrous. It seems that the club relies on individual performances rather than team effort to turn games in their favour.
Despite all his failings as a manager, Wenger cannot and should not be solely blamed for his team’s lacklustre performances. Arsenal’s performances throughout the season have either been brilliant and flashy or appalling and dull. They either control the game really well, counter with lightning passes, or bore the fans to death with an extensive dragged effort.
At the end of the day a manager can only be blamed so much, and it is the responsibility of a player to show up on a match day and give it his everything. Uninspired and at times utterly unwilling to put in an effort, Arsenal’s squad has looked pale compared to their rivals.
A reinvigorated sprit and determination coupled with strong mentality is what the Frenchman would have hoped to have this season. But with the exception of Alexis Sanchez, everyone has performed either terribly all season or have been quite inconsistent.
On the pitch, Arsenal have failed to even look like a team which wants to win the league. Both Ozil and Sanchez are rumoured to have been thinking about moves away from the club, despite the constant reassurances given by Wenger that both will play the next season.
Currently 6th in the league, even a top 4 finish is in doubt, it will be interesting to see which direction the board take with regards to Wenger’s contract. A change in manager seems highly likely at this moment, however, calls for Wenger’s head have been made over the many past seasons, yet he shoulders on. Arsene Wenger is without an iota of doubt an exceptional manager, but his tactics seem outdated and stale, his methods questionable and his team’s mentality doubtful.
Reports suggest that the Arsenal manager might sign a new contract, however, that very well may not be the case if Arsenal finish outside of the top 4 this season. Even if the Frenchman stays at the helm, it will only be for one more season, a final ultimatum to win the league or leave. A section of Arsenal fans over the last few weeks have become restless and have asked for his sacking vigorously.
One of the last long-term managers currently in an era of seasonal sackings in the Premier League, his ousting right now could bring a much required modern change to the club. ‘Wenger In’ supporters might argue by bringing up the case of Manchester United after the exit of one of their longest serving managers, Sir Alex Ferguson
The next few weeks are crucial for both Wenger and Arsenal, one good or bad game could seal both their fates, one good or bad decision could alter their futures.