Are We Seeing Wenger's Renaissance at Arsenal?
It’s that time of the year, the second half of the season, when so often Arsenal find their form and begin to showcase the form of true contenders. However, once again it is too little too late, in a season where - in all seriousness - we never came close to competing for the title.
Nonetheless my twitter feed is once again awash with Wenger fans telling me just how ‘wrong’ I was in wanting a change of manager. Strangely enough the same feed was totally dominated by tweets in agreement with me just a couple of months ago, but that’s football.
Firstly, I completely respect those propagating ‘Wenger in’, it’s their opinion and I can understand the line of thinking. However, having wanted a change of manager for four years now, never once wavering, I find it mind blowing that a half season of good form following a truly atrocious first half is somehow supposed to be enough to throw the entire argument out of the window, especially considering the regularity of such a sequence over the past 11 years.
What cannot be denied is that Arsenal have produced a string of excellent results since the turn of the New Year, their form only matched by Barcelona in Europe’s elite, and the question is whether this symbolizes the beginning of a long awaited Wenger renaissance or the continuation of the same old story.
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
To answer this we have to establish to what extent Arsenal have actually improved having spent over 70m in last summer’s transfer window, whilst retaining all their key players. After 33 games the club finds itself third with 67 points compared to fifth with 64 at the same stage last season. Whilst this represents a slight improvement, especially when considering we have scored seven more goals and conceded eight fewer, it is hardly the stuff of ‘genius’ that many fans are so eager to associate Wenger with. After all, Arsenal have only lost 8 out of 55 games in the Febuary to May period in the last four years.
The season and its results follow a similar pattern to many of our previous ones. We know Wenger can produce a strong half season, often the second half, but we haven’t seen a consistent one since 2004, and this is the case yet again.
Some pundits have argued that success in the FA Cup is irrelevant due to its role as a secondary trophy. This is not the case, as every team in the country would love to win it and an appearance in another final is a great achievement. Nonetheless it is a competition in which sides rarely field their strongest sides, thus success in this alone is not enough to secure Wenger’s position among the world’s elite.
For me only two results stand out as a real sign of change. The brilliant wins away to Manchester City in the league and Manchester United in the cup.
I would love to believe that Wenger has laid to rest his big game curse but a more intense examination of these games makes it tough to do so. We dispatched of a Toure-less City team in the mist of a run of five weeks without a win, with Vincent Kompany and Sergio Aguero having just returned from injury. We played well at United but realistically we have to thank Phil Jones for a dreadful back pass and Antonio Valencia for a moment of absolute madness.
Refreshing wins yes, but signs of real change? I’m unconvinced and our performances in other big games this season only reinforce these doubts.
(Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Injuries to players such as Ozil, Ramsey, Walcott and Wilshere, of course, are purportedly the reason yet again for our abysmal first half of the season, not Wenger’s deficiencies.
This is understandable but the players that were fielded during that time remained experienced internationals that warranted better than finding themselves seventh in January. Every team experiences injuries, and Arsenal more so than anyone. However, after years of this recurring problem under Wenger, its viability as a defence of him no longer stands up. Most are hamstring injuries, indicating a direct issue with Wenger’s training methods, something which Thierry Henry stressed last week.
Elite managers must be able to adapt to such circumstances. Wenger’s galactico style football works when the squad has a clean bill of health, but his unwavering persistence with the method when players are missing is a huge reason as to why Arsenal have not achieved a consistent season for so long.
Returning players have played a significant role in Arsenal’s resurgence but there are other contributing factors. None more so than the introduction of Francis Coquelin, an actual defensive midfielder, at the base of our midfield. The aggression, bite, discipline and protection the Frenchman has added has been absolutely crucial to our turn in fortunes. The solidification of his place in the starting line up has coincided directly with our run of good form.
The fact is, as I wrote in January, he is exactly the type of player every Arsenal fan, pundit and onlooker have been saying Arsenal need in their midfield for years. This is a player who had an uninspiring start to the season in the championship. His remarkable success has finally proven just how wrong Wenger’s stubbornness in his reluctance to field a genuine defensive midfielder has been over the years, something I find worrying. Alongside the acquisition of Gabriel Paulista as back up in central defence, serving to relieve unforgivable strain placed on a squad that was left with six defenders going to into the new season, the team has certainly developed into a more solid unit.
(AFP PHOTO / BEN STANSALL)
Arsenal have played some brilliant football since January, particularly at home, proving that Wenger’s team are capable of playing at the level of Europe’s best.
However, we must also recognize that this has been one of the weakest Premier League seasons in the modern era in which the five teams below Chelsea can all be seen to have had poor seasons and no English team made it through the first knockout of the UEFA Champions League.
Even the majority of Chelsea fans will readily admit that their team has played only a handful of impressive games since November. The ease with which they have walked to the title is an embarrassment to the alleged ‘most competitive league in the world’.
As usual Arsenal fans will point to the age-old excuse of ‘money’ when explaining this, but the fact is Chelsea spent less than Arsenal, making a profit of 8.6m in their transfer dealings, compared with Arsenal’s 75m net spend. The clubs are twice as far apart in terms of points than they were last season. Chelsea may have more strength in depth, but with Jose Mourinho rotating less regularly than the London Eye, this is peripheral. In Sunday’s game between the two clubs, the two most expensive players on the pitch were wearing the famous red and white.
At some stage you have to acknowledge superior management rather than producing endless excuses, and Mourinho is quite simply a better manager.
(Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
The football we have played since Christmas does lend some justification to the idea the club is on course to become genuine title challengers once again but Wenger cannot rest on his laurels in the manner he has done so often before.
Chelsea are the perfect example, as last year they finished just four points off the title as well as Champions League semi finalists. Yet Mourinho knew the additions of Diego Costa, Fabregas, Luis, Remy Matic and Courtouis were vital to push on. They will no doubt strengthen again, and you can be sure United and City will do the same. The title challenge will be much closer and more intense than it has been this season and Arsenal need to acquire a quality centre back to replace the ageing Mertesacker, and also add a truly word class holding midfielder and a game-changing striker if they are to keep up.
Arsenal fans can only hope that Wenger will demonstrate a more ruthless side and bring in such players, even if it requires dispatching some of the deadweight.
While there is a case for an improvement in a domestic sense, in a European one, Wenger has failed yet again. This is a man who has achieved just one semi final and one final appearance in nearly 20 years, which considering the teams he’s had is an exceptionally poor record, particularly given it is the competition in which consistent qualification for has been his ‘great success’ over the past decade.
The problem being that this is a field of competition based on big games, which is Wenger’s kryptonite. In recent years, the excuse has been tough draws, though the 4-0 away loss to a weak Milan side in 2012 was one of the worst pieces of management in European history.
This year the luck of the draw was wholly on our side yet somehow we were knocked out by significantly inferior Monaco side in the first knockout round for the fifth year running. The more worrying aspect of this was just how quick the majority of Arsenal fans were to brush it aside after a couple of cozy wins against lowly Premier League teams.
I watched the Chelsea game at the Emirates on Sunday with tennis legend Boris Becker, a Bayern Munich director of 10 years,who told us that if Bayern ever lost a game at home there would be serious high-level discussions regarding the future of the manager. This may sound ridiculous but it is the kind of ruthless mentality that prevents such absurdly lax displays as the one we saw against Monaco at the Emirates.
(VALERY HACHE/AFP/Getty Images)
The problem is that too many Arsenal fans like to see themselves as ‘football purists’. As long as Wenger can produce beautiful football every now and then, his job will never be under serious threat.
We are a fan base that values Mesut Ozil, the playmaker with the same amount of assists as Branislav Ivanovic this season, over the man who has shown what a truly world class signing does with 22 goals and 11 assists, Alexis Sanchez. Why? Because Sanchez is “a bit selfish” and his passing isn’t quite as “flawless”.
The man is, without question, the best player in the squad. We need to start prioritizing winning football matches over fulfilling a certain style. For such a style to truly pay off, you need a squad of the best players in the world, and clearly we don’t quite have that yet.
The refusal to criticize Ozil runs parallel to the refusal to do the same with Wenger. Ruthless attitudes build a winning mentality, a mentality we are just starting to see more of. Fundamentally the question over Wenger boils down to whether or not you see Arsenal as a legitimate ‘big club’. If you do then Wenger has not performed to the required level for 11 years. Big clubs compete for major trophies and once again we have not reached that level this season. Wenger’s reign since 2004 can be seen as consistent and competent, but genius it cannot.
Realistically, Wenger is staying as long as he wants. Second place and another FA Cup would be a great platform to build on.
Arsenal fans can only hope that he has truly changed and will actively seek to strengthen further this summer, the way in which a seven million pound a year manager should be expected to.
If he does, then we might witness the consistent season we’ve been waiting for.