Arsene Wenger, who is also known to fans as Le Professeur is about to embark on his 17th consecutive season as Arsenal manager which is a tremendous achievement. Along with being idolized worldwide, he is also regarded as one of the best managers in Arsenal and Premier League history.
Wenger has been a revelation for Arsenal over the last 16 years, winning three Premier League titles and four FA Cups. Wenger was also the first manager born outside of England to win a cup double in 1997-98 and then 2001-02, go a whole Premier League season undefeated in which his team was labelled as the Invincible’s, and guide Arsenal to their first Champions League finals appearance in 2006.
They’ve been in the top four for the past 13 years and have reached the knockout round of the Champions League 11 years running, which makes it hard to believe that a man with such a resume could be the catalyst to the slow demise of Arsenal Football Club.
Now here’s a question, what do Ashley Cole, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri have in common? If you’re stumped I’ll answer this for you; they all left Arsenal in their prime to pursue trophies during the Arsene Wenger era. There are others such as Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor & Matthieu Flamini who also left and won trophies, but they slightly differ from the four men named above.
These three world-class talents and Nasri were at some point the face of Arsenal Football Club, but decided to move to another club that had title ambitions. The life of a modern day footballer is short and although some of the exits were ugly in the case of Nasri & Cole, you have to understand these players play to win trophies, not to be loyal to us fans.
Here we are in 2012, and another world-class player in his prime wants out. Robin van Persie turns 29 this summer, and during is eight year spell at Arsenal has ONLY won ONE FA Cup. The striker has found it difficult staying fit for a whole season throughout his whole career, but this year was different.
Van Persie’s ability to stay fit allowed him to transform into a world class striker last season, in which he scored 30 Premier League goals in 38 games and 37 goals in 48 games in all competitions. He won Arsenal countless games this season through his individual brilliance, and was an integral piece to the Arsenal attack where majority of the buildup would go through him. Without Van Persie this season it’s fair to say Arsenal might’ve not qualified for the Champions League.
It looks like it might be another heart breaking summer for Arsenal fans as they’ll start another season possibly losing another star player due to their lack of title ambition. Over the years Arsenal has slowly become a selling club, and are slowly falling behind the likes of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea.
“I can understand why some players might be frustrated and thinking of leaving, they want to win things and we haven’t done that for six years,” stated Arsenal winger Theo Walcott in a previous interview.
With these names leaving the club it’s only time before the Wilshere’s, Vermaelen’s, Song’s and Koscielny’s follow in the same footsteps. This leaves one to ask, maybe it’s time for Arsenal football club to go in another direction and part ways with Wenger.
It seems evident that modern day football has passed Wenger by, and he’s not the master tactician many thought he was, but is it fair to say that Wenger should be held responsible for Arsenal’s downfall in recent years? With the likes of Rafa Benitez, Juande Ramos, Sven Eriksson, Felipe Luiz Scolari and even the “special” Jose Mourinho being sacked during Wenger’s tenure as Arsenal manager. Is it possible that his exit has been long overdue?
His teams in the past have been known for playing the most attractive football in the country but have lacked that cutting edge and were always looking for the perfect goal. Wenger’s team lined up in a fluid 4-4-2 formation during his glory years that saw his wing backs in Lauren and Ashley Cole surge forward and provide natural width, while his wingers were more direct and took on defenders at ease. His CM duo in Petit-Vieira and Gilberto-Vieira were hardworking, defensively superb and very athletic which decreased the defensive duties of the four men in front of them.
Wenger’s 4-4-2 that he inherited came to an end permanently during the 2005 FA Cup Final against Manchester United when he worried his midfield would be far to open against superior sides. As the years passed he lost key players that were essential to his system such as Patrick Vieira, Gilberto, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp which is why he stuck with a 4-5-1.
Wenger’s 4-5-1 is supposed to see the midfielders interchanging positions to link up with the lone striker and draw defenders out of position. This formation suited Arsenal and it led them to their first Champions League final in the clubs history. Wenger’s sides intend on holding a bulk of possession which is why this formation suited his team. It allowed them to add an extra body in midfield when they play teams that are superior or far more physical.
They became more stable defensively and were able to dictate games as teams had to deal with that extra midfielder they didn’t have prior. Over the years we’ve seen many variations of this formation. During Cesc Fabregas’ rise to becoming a world-class player the team was built around him in a 4-3-3 that at times was a 4-2-3-1, in which he excelled in an advanced role behind the CF.
The departure of Fabregas and Nasri saw the emergence of Van Persie as Arsenal reverted to a 4-5-1 that looked like a rigid and disjointed 4-3-3 when going forward. This left Van Persie up front alone with about a 20 yard distance from the five man midfield attempting to support him. Arsenal tend to be quite predictable when attacking and they seem to struggle to break teams down as the opposing teams feel confident sitting deep and countering on the break.
Most teams field a physical, yet crowded midfield to startle and disrupt the free flowing football that Arsenal try to express. It’s easy for teams to play Arsenal now because their 4-3-3 is at times robotic and static. There are a lot of factors that separate Arsenal from being at an elite level as Barcelona and one main factor is their movement off the ball.
Barcelona players have the technical ability and are instilled with the tactical prowess to interchange positions and are always moving, compared to Arsenal in which their positions seemed fixed. Over the years, Arsenal’s movement off the ball has become very stagnant and predictable, which is why teams allow them to pass the ball freely until they reach the final third because they believe Arsenal don’t possess the creativity to break them down.
His naive approach in the transfer market has also seen his rivals surpass them in the table. Wenger has always relied on the likes of his youth players rather than splashing the cash in the market. The problem with this is teams such as Manchester City and Chelsea have gotten better over the past decade due to the amount of money invested in their squads. Arsenal have slowly turned from being title contenders to fighting for European spots.
Whether it’s Theo Walcott, Denilson, or Per Mertesacker, this team is filled with players who didn’t live up to their transfer price, high expectations and are simply not good enough to take Arsenal to the top of English or European football.
The excuse “they’re still young” and “they’ll eventually mature” has been overused over the last eight years and some of these players have been living off these labels throughout their entire career. To be fair Wenger has done well bringing in the right players, but he’s failed to get the best out of these players by playing them out of position. Wenger has also failed to take the club as a whole to the next level. That’s the problem.
Tactically he’s stalled players development and you can make a firm argument that he’s ruined a few careers along the way. The likes of Nasri, Arshavin, and Walcott are players that like to penetrate through the middle of the pitch, and excel as a free number 10 or deep-lying role in the midfield.
It leaves one to believe Wenger buys players that he likes rather than ones that would fit his system. The wingers in Wenger’s system are made to stay wide and hug the touch-line as a natural winger such as Antonio Valencia, Angel Di Maria and Gareth Bale do. Which leaves us to ask why did Wenger prefer to purchase these players and stick them on the flank rather than actually buy natural wingers?
These players that have played on the wing over the years aren’t natural wingers and if stuck on the wing would prefer to play as an inverted winger; the problem is this has caused these players to be caught out of position numerous times and cause little to no threat going forward in big games.
Over the years we’ve seen his top players leave the club, but he has failed to find players of their class to fill their void. To make matters worse, he still implements them into the same system regardless if they fit or not. This leads to a drop in quality but also pushes the progression of the team back.
A prime example is Mikel Arteta who joined Arsenal last summer in what most will call an “emergency buy” to replace Cesc Fabregas. Arteta operates deeper in the midfield, whereas Fabregas prefers to be in an advanced role closer to the striker, which is a key reason why Van Persie saw a lack of quality service compared to recent seasons.
Another example is Alex Song, the Arsenal holding midfielder has to fill the boots of Petit, Vieira, Gilberto and Flamini. These were commanding midfielders that possessed tactical discipline, and also held the midfield together. Song, like many Arsenal players are good footballers and he built a great partnership with Arteta this season. Going forward in attack he has excelled, notably setting up Van Persie numerous times this season, but his defensive duties has been one of his few flaws.
Against the elite in England and Europe he tends to lose possession easily when pressure is applied and he tends to be caught out of position often. Players are able to drop in the hole far too easily which allows the opposition to cause a threat in their final third. The likes of Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic have exposed his defensive flaws this season.
Arsenals frailties at the back are still the same, they’ve been poor when defending set pieces and have failed to find a legitimate replacement for Jens Lehmann. The fitness of Vermelean and Sagna has been a blow, but due to these injuries we’ve seen the rise of Laurent Koscielny this season.
Unfortunately, the rest of the defenders in the side have proved they’re not good enough and that is down to Wenger’s training and his ability to find class defenders. A solid defensive unit is what leads teams to titles, we see this in Mourinho, Guardiola and most recently Conte’s Juventus team this year. Arsenal’s defence has weakened over the years and there is only one man who you can be held responsible for this.
Now the real question is who do you blame for this era of mediocrity? Most of the blame is rightfully put on Wenger, but have you ever thought the fans can also be held for the slow demise of Arsenal FC. The club is financially stable and from a business stand point they’re successful, but this is a football club that should be filled with supporters that desire and demand silverware.
Some might feel it’s unfair to attack the fans as they don’t play the game, but they have a part to play as well. Arsenal used to be a legitimate title contender, but in the last decade they seem to be playing to qualify for Champions League football. Their fans seem content with this, which is an absolute shame.
Managers in today’s game are fired for finishing second, some even for claiming a league title, but Wenger has always found a way to keep his job. In the last eight seasons, apart from finishing third twice, Arsenal have finished fourth six times in the past eight years.
At any other club Wenger would’ve lost his job, but Arsenal fans have kept faith in a man who once possessed a team that struck fear in the hearts of teams around England. If Arsenal fans are content with third or fourth place every year and a Champions League spot then one can understand the situation, but this is a club that demands silverware and if these fans really cared about this club they would be demanding change.
Wenger appeared a genius when he was Manchester United’s only competition for the Premier League, however as time passed players began to leave, those players weren’t properly replaced and the new players are less imposing. Whether its financial reasons or a change in the club philosophy, Arsenal has slowly become a legitimate contender for Champions League spots, whereas Manchester City and Chelsea have surpassed them and rivals Newcastle and Tottenham are fairly close.
It’s quite scary for Arsenal fans that in an eight year span their team has taken massive steps backwards. It’s fair to say that majority of the blame should be put on Wenger. A manager’s job is to find the right mix of players, implement a winning system that fits his team well, be able to adjust to different tactics, motivate his players, have his players believe in his philosophy and get the best out of them.
During this era, he has failed to meet these requirements and it leaves one to believe that it’s certainly time for change. It doesn’t matter if Wenger is fired or he steps down, but the Arsenal board need to address this issue immediately. He can certainly take up a role behind the scenes or higher up in management but the longer he stays as manager the worst it can get for Arsenal.
What’s certain is that Wenger has endured his highs and lows during his tenure, but is it possible that he’s the cancer in the progression of Arsenal Football Club? As memorable and historic as his recent successes have been, you have to ask yourself one question, is Arsene Wenger still capable of taking Arsenal Football Club to an elite level ?