Sunday, March 13, 2011

Where do Wenger & Arsenal go from here?

There is a romantic view of Arsenal, where style is sometimes regarded more so that substance.

A season that seemed to be destined for titles this season has now seen Arsenal exit three different competitions in the past couple of weeks - UEFA Champions League, FA Cup and the League Cup.

After Manchester United's 2-0 victory over Arsenal yesterday, Phil McNulty of BBC Sport writes about Arsene Wenger's philosophy as manager of Arsenal, as well as the big differences between Manchester United and Arsenal.

As time ran out at Old Trafford, an agitated, animated Wenger stretched out his hands before him on the touchline, evoking an image of a man who has seen prizes slip through his fingers, the fear gnawing away that hard work may go unrewarded as Arsenal miss out once more.

Wenger still has his sights on the title, saying: "I believe that we can do it. It is a good test for us to regroup, stay together and respond quickly." They were words carried on the sound of hope rather than expectation.

He also claimed Arsenal's three pivotal defeats had all come in strange circumstances. Not really. The common thread running through the losses was that they either did not deserve, or did nowhere near enough, to win.

This was not a bad Arsenal performance, indeed United goalkeeper Edwin van der Sar was busier than opposite number Manuel Almunia - but it was a display that lacked bite, conviction, energy and inspiration.

In short, it was another example of why Arsenal fail so often to get over the line. Sir Alex Ferguson's team selection offered them an opportunity to banish the depression of the last 14 days but they were betrayed by a lack of conviction, an absence of killer instinct.

United have endured a mini-slump of their own recently. There remains, however, an iron self-belief in Ferguson's squad that does not appear to exist in Arsenal's, even though United are clearly in reduced circumstances compared to their pomp. There was a toughness about United, both mentally and physically, that is in short supply among Wenger's squad.

The Premier League title may yet provide spectacular consolation and vindication for Wenger's methods, but Arsenal have taken such a swift succession of heavy, bitter blows from Birmingham, Barcelona and United that there are fears it will prove too much.

If Arsenal are once again without a trophy, then Wenger's long-held argument that potential and promise is about to come to fruition will carry reduced weight. In among the odd madcap call for his dismissal, there remains huge support for Wenger among Arsenal's fans, illustrated vociferously by those who travelled to Old Trafford.

And it is backing he deserves because the notion that Arsenal should seek another manager is a wild one. Who could they get who is better than Wenger?

But for that support to be maintained, the time is coming when Wenger also has to accept the reality that his current approach, admirable though it is, must be altered if he and Arsenal are not to become the perennial nearly men.

Wenger may well be correct in his constant assertions that Arsenal are not far away. The brutal reality is that results in recent times suggest that they are still too far away, with vital pieces missing in the manager's formula for success.

Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis recently told Radio 5 live's Sportsweek: "For us winning is certainly important but it is not the end objective of everything."

This is a romantic, some might say fanciful, notion that may not be shared by, for example, Cesc Fabregas if he goes through another season without a club honour to add to the Euro 2008 and World Cup medals he claimed with Spain.

And it is unlikely to be a philosophy shared forever by Arsenal supporters who enjoyed such riches under Wenger until it came to a halt after the 2005 FA Cup Final win against Manchester United and crave those successes again.

Wenger remains an outstanding manager, the most important and powerful figure at Arsenal and one of the game's deepest thinkers. He has earned that status through his success but he cannot ignore the obvious flaws in Arsenal's make-up even if they overtake United to win the title.

It is time for Wenger to inject more experienced and battle-hardened figures alongside wonderful young talent such as Jack Wilshere, a shining light again at Old Trafford but again forced to reflect on defeat with Arsenal's disappointed fans via his Twitter account, an all too regular occurrence these days.

Wenger must shed his reluctance to spend big to add the required quality in defence and midfield in the summer - again even if Arsenal do gather themselves and claim the title.

1 comment:

  1. Actually, had Wenger not sold Gallas and not bought Squillaci, the Gunners would be on top now. Frankly, I think Fabregas should have gone to Barca last summer. That's where he wants to be, and he deserves to go, having paid his dues in London. Had we sold him and bought Van de Vaart, we'd be 20M pounds to the good and doing at least as well. Ramsay's coming up and Wilshere and Nasri will only get better. The only must-buy is a strong, talented center back, which should be affordable after we sell Cesc (now at a greatly reduced price, as he's a year older, with one less year on his contract, coming off a so-so year, with Barca knowing they don't really need him and being almost bankrupt). I'm not even going to say we have to have a goalie--they've all looked pretty good this year, and should be healthy by August. If Almunia keeps this up, maybe we can even get a couple mill for him, and bring Mannone back from loan.