A guest post from Muppet
In 2004 Wenger walked on water. 12 years on obituaries are circulating on line, despite him still being in contract. At the time of writing, L’Equipe has just announced that a 3-year contract extension is planned, which will take him up to 2020. The mood amongst fans is largely negative. The Wenger Out protagonists, who had always been with us, from around 2007, are now enraged. More significantly, even some of the mainstream support, who love Wenger and respect him for what he has done, are now saying it is time for a change. Go now with dignity, they implore.
The straw that broke the camel’s back was the exit from the FA Cup. After the Watford game a fight broke out on Twitter, and apparently, outside the ground. The fight was really about the events leading up to the Watford result, surfacing like a volcano. The sorry statistic of amassing just 10 points from 9 games since January 2nd (played 20), when we were top with 42 points, to take us to 52 points (played 29). This was a collapse and seen as an opportunity lost in a season where Man U, City, and Chelsea have been poor, so inviting us and clubs traditionally with no chance, to land the title. This was about stomach, and the expectation that we would fight – “Once more unto the breach dear friends”. With 18 games to go, we simply didn’t or couldn’t. We instead showed relegation form.
The case is mounting against Wenger. Not just knee-jerk Wenger out sentiment, there is major mainstream criticism of Wenger for his failure to strengthen the squad last summer. The retention of Flamini and Arteta, the decision not to buy a single outfield player. The failure to sign a world class striker, and to anticipate injuries to Rosicky and Wilshere, who have a chequered history. Even if you argue that we have been affected by injuries this season, the counter argument is that we should have anticipated the injuries and brought in replacements. Some say that our squad was already big enough and should have done better even with the absence of Sanchez, Cazorla, Wilshere and Rosicky for long periods. These arguments point to the failure of a manager to make short term decisions and assemble a strong enough squad. The success of Leicester apparently blows a hole in the resource argument. A team assembled for under £50 million, now favourites for the league. If Leicester are doing it now, then why didn’t we during the last 10 years? Managers are seen as being largely responsible for a club’s fortunes. Replace the manager if it is not working. We see this with Rodgers and the incumbent Klopp. The prevailing mood at Anfield apparently now much improved. And there are other managers who will do better. Simeone is a common suggestion. And these are managers who know how to deliver big blows to the super clubs like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid/Barcelona, whilst being at a club with lesser resources. Simeone, achieving this with a defensive style. Klopp, at Dortmund, playing heavy metal.
The problem with mounting a defence for Wenger, and the club, is that you become accused of being too defensive. And dismissed of having a red tinted narrative inconsistent with reality. And of downplaying our expectations. The backdrop of the stadium move and the relative success of the Wenger years from 1996 to 2005 has raised expectations such that the target is now the Premier League or Champions’ League, with probably the FA Cup or League Cup enough to stave off threats of the sack, and at least a top 3 finish.
If we agree that Flamini should have gone, Arteta too, then we should have been looking for 2 midfielders in the summer. A playmaker and a DM. Why then, didn’t they come? It was either because the manager misjudged the injury situation of Arteta, and over-estimated the remaining potential of Flamini, or there were issues in acquiring new players. Schneiderlin was supposedly available, he was seen as being ideal to solve one of the positions in the midfield. For whatever reason, AW thought otherwise. The reputed £24m fee and £5.2m salary which Manchester United paid may have had something to do with it, but I accept that we are now a well resourced club, and such sums are well within our reach. A popular criticism here is that Wenger’s unwillingness to pay market rates is killing us, and he is penny wise and pound foolish. But it might be that he simply thought Schneiderlin was the wrong fit. A player who was a box-to-box type, but no better than either Ramsey, Cazorla or Wilshere, and lacking the technical skill and deep play making ability of an Arteta. People can laugh at such a defence, but isn’t it the case that Wenger is under more pressure to take less risks with money than say, a manager of City or Man U. What if we spent £24m on a player who could neither be a deep laying playmaker, nor a superior box-to-box player than what we had?
Ok, but doesn’t this miss the point? Assuming that we were even looking for two tailor made replacements, a deep lying play maker, and a DM, isn’t it just rank incompetence that we didn’t find the replacements we were looking for? Whether we failed to scout them, or balked at the market rate, the accusation is of incompetence. Two players, popularly called upon to add to our midfield, are Geoffrey Kondogbia and William Carvalho. Put these two in midfield, we are told, and we have a title winning side. But there is a track record of players who would supposedly strengthen our squad and win us the title, and solve all the defensive and other problems. A lot of these players remain today playing for mainly mid-table clubs or have disappeared into obscurity. M’vila, Felipe Melo, Christopher Samba, Mata, Marouane Fellaini, Julio Cesar, Luiz Gustavo, Brede Hangeland, Scott Dann, Lewis Holtby, Bernard, Joe Cole and Stevan Jovetic are all examples of players who sparked a fury amongst Arsenal fans when we failed to sign them. The point is, that to compete with the elite, you need to make elite signings, who are in short supply. Too many fans are calling for signings of players who are simply not elite.
But there must be elite players who can improve us. Some maintain that if Napoli are demanding £60m+ for Higuain then just pay the money. We are not in the austerity period any more they say; we need to speculate to accumulate. But this is the one argument that, for me, should be taken up with the clubs directors, and not Wenger; if the objection is that the club is run as a profit driven model, and retaining those profits to the detriment of trophies. Of course, a lot still see Wenger as being all powerful, and hold him responsible for the lack of spending. Assuming that a new manager comes in, what is the plan? A change of style and more resources ? Some argue, an organisational coach like Koeman would be successful. But what is unclear is whether the budget would remain the same. Of course, the traditional anti-Wenger brigade blame the austerity on Wenger. But even if you are wildly enthusiastic about a new manager wielding a cheque book, will that bring success? Van Gaal has spent £129 million net in two seasons. Chelsea and City will continue spending with impunity. The latter clubs are now backed up with very good coaches. But doesn’t recent evidence of other clubs’ spending show that even with spending a colossal amount of money, there is no absolute guarantee that one will win either the premiership or champions league? In fact, there is no absolute guarantee that one will finish top 4. City are having the best ever campaign in the Champions’ League, but had never gone, until recently, beyond the quarter finals. Liverpool, despite spending over £100 million net in 5 seasons, have only been top 4 once, finishing 6th, 8th, 7th, 2nd and 6th. Manchester United and Chelsea are currently not in the top 4.
With respect to the defence of the current campaign, in my humble opinion we have had a lack of balance since January, due to our ball playing midfielders being absent. This was reflected particularly in our performances at home. Too many unconverted chances saw us gain just 2 points against Swansea, Southampton and Crystal Palace. In my view there has been a lack of analysis about the reasons why our form has been so poor at home. At home, teams sit back and they counter attack. To break them down, we normally rely on continuity players who are able to ping the ball around in the final 3rd. I believe the absence of Cazorla, Rosicky and Wilshere has been significant in this respect. In their place was Ramsey, Flamini, Coquelin and more recently El Nenny. We have still been able to dominate games, and have created chances, but I would argue that had we had the former three midfielders, we would have had more gilt-edged chances and opened up the opposition a lot more. Many of the chances created at home after January have been half chances that we have failed to convert.
We have still had moments this season that has proved our quality. We have beaten Bayern Munich at home, Leicester, Manchester City and Manchester United. But the crux for the mainstream support who have departed from Wenger is the cycle of injury problems, and the refusal to change transfer direction. They are not convinced that these problems can be solved by Wenger, because they should have been by now.
With respect to injuries, a report by the Independent shows that AFC had 37 separate injuries in total, ranking 7th overall. Crucially Leicester had the fewest injuries, having just 18.
There is a big correlation as well between teams that win the league and the consistency of the same 11 that is put out. Leicester is evidence of this, which is of course a reflection of the lack of injuries to its squad.
On the one hand, it can be argued that we should have done better in terms of our league position, as our injury total was probably not as bad as in recent seasons. This shows that Shad Forsyth must be doing some good work.
On the other hand, I would still point to the midfield, and say that it has been severely depleted, which has affected the balance of the team. I think this is a crucial point, because right now, on social media, on the blogs, there are a number of fans who believe that there is a confluence in the current run of form, and the stale football, and what they see as the end of Wenger’s reign. They see the current loss of form as one of a number of cycles that have taken place over the last 12 years, and therefore removing the manager is the solution. On this point I vehemently disagree. I believe, strongly, that, if we had more of a midfield balance, we still may not have won league, but we wouldn’t have had the negativity surrounding some of the performances, and could have finished higher.
I find it very difficult to believe that Wenger of all people can be accused not knowing the way forward, in terms of playing attacking football. In previous years, the accusation was always the complete reverse, that we were too gung-ho, and the defence needed attention.
For years, fans lamented the absence of a world class goalkeeper and a defensive midfielder.
Ironically now, with Cech, Coquelin and Elneny, fans are now lamenting what they see as the absence of a striker, but forgetting that previous concerns were addressed.