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Arsenal: Close, but so far away

It's not an exaggeration to say that Arsene Wenger revolutionised English football after succeeding Bruce Rioch as manager of Arsenal in 1996. From diet and preparation, to style of play and philosophy, he not only changed Arsenal, but also the Premier...

23 Mar 2012, 10:00 IST

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Arsene Wenger revolutionised English football after succeeding Bruce Rioch as manager of Arsenal in 1996. From diet and preparation, to style of play and philosophy, he not only changed Arsenal, but also the Premier League.

Whilst teams such as Liverpool and Man United had always played passing, positive football, Wenger introduced a more subtle approach usually associated with ‘continental’ teams. The traditionally strong Arsenal defence of Seaman, Winterburn, Adams, Keown, Dixon and Bould remained, but were mixed with a more technical approach to midfield and attack. 

One of Wenger’s first signings, a young Patrick Vieira, was the perfect example of physical prowess, mixed with technical ability. Arsenal could mix it with the toughest of opponents, but could also play with the best too; it was a blend that brought success. 

At the back, personnel gradually changed as Seaman was replaced by Lehmann, Ashley Cole emerged; Sol Campbell, Lauren and Kolo Toure were all brought in, but the defensive record remained strong. 

Up front, in Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, Arsenal arguably had the two finest footballers the Premier League has ever seen. They were supported by the immense Vieira and regular goals from Ljungberg and Pires, culminating in the much heralded ‘invincibles’ side of 2003/04.

Alongside this, there was much talk of the promising youngsters coming through the ranks to be the future for the Gunners. Wenger’s philosophy, it seemed, was being vindicated.

Despite Roman Abramovich pumping huge sums into a now Jose Mourinho led Chelsea; Man United ending Arsenal’s record unbeaten league run and suggesting Arsenal could be bullied out of a match, they were still serious contenders, reaching the 2006 Champions League final. 

By 2007/08, Arsenal were moving along the Barcelona and Spain model of smaller, more technically gifted players, particularly in midfield. 

At the turn of that year, the Gunners looked strong and in contention for all 4 trophies, but in the space of 4 weeks, they went out of the League Cup to North London rivals Tottenham 6-2 on aggregate; got dumped out of the FA Cup in a humiliating 4-0 defeat to Man United and then the horrific injury to striker Eduardo. 

Despite reaching the quarter-finals of the Champions League, the injury to Eduardo and going from 2-0 up to drawing 2-2 in that game with Birmingham seemed to be a turning point in the season. Eventually finishing 3rd in the Premier League, many fans and pundits felt that Arsenal were just 2 or 3 players away from being champions again.

The problem for Arsene Wenger is that this became an all too regular theme; despite being admired for their passing football, they would end the season without any silverware to show for it and fans would believe that they were just 2 or 3 big signings away from the desired success.

By 2011, critics had already rounded on Wenger, frustrated by his apparent lack of willingness to spend significantly on key areas of the team, most notably on a goalkeeper and central defender. 

Despite the emergence of Wojciech Szczesny in goal, the lack of a trophy was becoming a monkey on the back of Wenger, magnified by losing the League Cup final to Birmingham. Last summer, the 2 or 3 big signings had become 4 or 5, losing key players in Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy.

Many see the likes of Bendtner, Rosicky, Arshavin, Chamakh, Denilson, Squillaci, Almunia, Diaby and Djourou as nothing more than very well paid squad players. Their attempts to sell Bendtner were thwarted by his high wages, Borussia Dortmund amongst the clubs reported to be unwilling to match his wage demands.

Promising youngsters, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson arrived, but they weren’t the established quality players needed to replace the loss of Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy that many Gooners wanted. 

Humiliation was taken to another level at Old Trafford, beaten 8-2 by Man United. Two teams that not so long ago were championship rivals, were now poles apart. The summer transfer deadline day signings of Arteta, Mertesacker and Santos, as well as Bennayoun on loan, did little to quell the criticism of Wenger’s transfer policy. 

Had the normally methodical Wenger been panicked into a deadline day version of supermarket sweep? It certainly wasn’t normal Wenger behaviour; the once calm ‘Professor’ looked rattled and the once unthinkable has begun to happen: Sections of the Arsenal support have begun to turn on their manager.

Whilst going out of the Champions League to AC Milan at the first knock out stage ended the last glimmering hope of ending the now 7 year run without a trophy, their second leg performance at home to Milan, along with wins against Spurs, Liverpool and Newcastle have offered fans some hope and a top 4 finish this season is now looking likely.

If, as many suspect, Lukas Podolski does become an Arsenal player this summer, then it will be a big step in the right direction for Wenger. However, will the recent improvement in form and the outstanding contribution of Robin van Persie be built upon in the summer? 

Will Wenger seize the opportunity to add the few top quality players in key areas needed in order for Arsenal to compete again or will he again stubbornly refuse to do the obvious and instead back mediocre players to finally ‘come good’?

It’s potentially a huge summer for Arsenal and for Arsene Wenger if they are not to fall further behind the title challengers.

Written by Andy Wales
Follow him on Twitter @AndyArmchair

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