Thursday, September 1, 2011

Quo vadis Arsene and Arsenal?

Paul Gardner writes about the trials and tribulations of Arsene Wenger.

Is it OK to feel sorry for Arsene Wenger? That 8-2 rout by ManU was a humiliation that he surely did not deserve, a sad, sad moment in the history of Arsenal, a cruel game that I found it almost agonizing to watch.

Over the years Wenger has earned great respect with his devotion to skillful soccer -- the Beautiful Game -- and his determination to play that way in the face of immense skepticism and outright ridicule. Remember -- he determined to have his Arsenal play the Beautiful Game in England, never exactly fertile ground for anything other than manly, robust, no-frills soccer.

But Wenger persisted and for several years he made Arsenal -- by quite a margin -- the best team to watch in the EPL, and a team that won. In his first nine years with the club, between 1996 and 2005, Arsenal racked up three EPL titles and three FA Cup wins, a string that included the extraordinary 2003-04 team that won the EPL without losing a game.

In 2006 Arsenal got to the Champions League final, where it lost to Barcelona, no disgrace, but that game turned out to Arsenal’s swansong, its last memorable climax. Nothing has been won since. For six years Arsenal has been an also-ran team -- has, in fact, become something of a joke in that respect.

To repeat: is it OK to feel sorry for Wenger? Well, during these bleak years, Wenger has never faltered in his devotion to the Beautiful Game. But something has gone wrong, seriously wrong, with his ability to field a team that plays the Beautiful Game and wins while doing so.

From being a team that was always a serious contender for the EPL title, Arsenal has become little more than a mess of a team, a patchy assembly of good but mostly not-good-enough players that has built up a formidable reputation for being incapable of winning crucial games -- even those against obviously inferior opponents.

Wenger has also stuck religiously to his belief that he does not need to spend big in the transfer market, that he can spot good young players before anyone else, and get them on the cheap -- Cesc Fabregas being the prime example. Backing up that policy has been Wenger’s oft-proclaimed faith in the ability of Arsenal’s youth academy to supply the first team with a stream of top class youngsters.

At this point it’s OK to start wondering about feeling sorry for Wenger. Because, on those last two points -- not flashing the cash in the transfer market, and relying on homegrown youngsters -- Wenger has clearly made a hash of things.

To take the second point first, the youngsters. There’s an old saying in soccer, that “You don’t win anything with kids.” An old saying, but one that is still around because it has stood the test of time and experience. The exception -- Manchester United’s “Busby Babes” who won the English first division with an average age of 21 -- is much talked about, but it remains just that, a mighty exception. Pro soccer is not a sport for teenagers; the average age of World Cup-winning teams is invariably around 29 years.

Relying on youngsters, then is not a good idea. But even if it were -- where are they, these shining products of the Arsenal academy? Jack Wilshere, yes. But neither Theo Walcott nor Aaron Ramsey qualify, as both were established players, with some first team experience before joining Arsenal.

In short, Arsenal’s vaunted academy (vaunted by Wenger, that is) does not have much to show for its efforts -- which is not really as bad as it sounds, as very few pro team academies do any better.

Then there’s the transfer market. Wenger claims he doesn’t really need to join in the annual spending sprees of the big clubs. Certainly, he is reluctant to do so -- which means he has minimal experience in the market. Logically then, his purchases are far too frequently inadequate. Think of them -- Aleksandr Hleb, Thomas Rosicky, Emmanuel Eboue, Marouane Chamakh, Laurent Koscielny, Johan Djourou, Sebastien Squillacci, Andrei Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner -- all of them highly rated players, but none of them up to what Arsenal needs to remain among the elite of the EPL.

And there is something about that list of names that needs emphasizing, because it remains for me one of the great anomalies of modern soccer, something I simply cannot understand about Arsene Wenger.

It is a list without Brazilians. Indeed, without South Americans. This is the anomaly: Here is Wenger, one of the foremost proponents of the Beautiful Game, yet he clearly has some sort of aversion to signing players from Brazil -- the country that invented the Beautiful Game, the country whose players are spread the length and breadth of Europe, exciting Germans and Russians and Spaniards and Italians and Frenchmen and Portuguese and Dutchmen with their intricate skills.

But not at Arsenal. Never at Arsenal. Yes, Wenger has signed a handful of Brazilians -- but never real Brazilians, never the creative midfielders, or the crafty goalscorers. Sylvinho was a defender. Edu and Gilberto were robust defensive midfielders. Denilson, maybe, had some promise, but Wenger has already shipped him back to Brazil, on loan to Sao Paulo. The only true exception was Eduardo (I shall, of course, refrain from mentioning the canard that Wenger thought he was Croatian), the poor, unfortunate Eduardo, who when he returned from his ankle-shattering injury, was quickly unloaded by Wenger.

What sort of madness is this? The Beautiful game without Brazilians. Worse, the Beautiful game from which Brazilians have been methodically excluded. You can make a case for it working in the early Wenger years, but the Beautiful Game has been slowly ebbing away from Arsenal for some years now, while Wenger mulishly refuses to countenance Brazilians on his team.

Wenger has always preferred French players. About one third of the current Arsenal roster consists of French, or French-speaking players. Not a one of them, in my estimation, should be playing on a team that wants to win the EPL by playing skillful soccer.

So, no, it is not OK to feel sorry for Wenger. The disaster of the 8-2 rout is largely self-inflicted. It was the result of a blind devotion to two policies -- youth development and a refusal to buy top players -- that now have a six-year spell of failure.

For the game at ManU, it is perfectly true, Arsenal was missing five or six regular starters. Time for the youngsters to step in, a great moment for the academy players. But the players were just not there, the Wenger-Babes turned out to be no match for ManU. Worse, much worse, for Wenger to face up to, was that Alex Ferguson also put out several of his young players -- Tom Cleverley, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck, plus two newcomers, Phil Jones and Ashley Young. A pointed statement from Ferguson that he can do what Wenger seemingly cannot: Produce good youngsters, and spend wisely on newcomers.

For a top-level team such as Arsenal to be missing a slew of regular starters should not immediately turn into a fiasco. Surely all the top teams, these days, have enough talent on the bench to add up almost to another first team? Not Arsenal. That is the true measure of Wenger’s failure. When the team needed the youngsters, it turned out the cupboard was bare.

How has Wenger, how have his collaborators, allowed that to happen? Why, when it’s been clear for a year that Cesc Fabregas would be leaving, was no superstar replacement lined up? Ditto for Samir Nasri.

So we have the unedifying sight of Wenger forced to do what he has always scorned as unnecessary -- to wade into the player market. Having to do so in desperation, right before the transfer window closes, does not sound like the ideal way to do business.

The result is, once again, a mixed bag of OK players. There’s Per Mertesacker, a huge, lumbering German defender, so you can forget about the beautiful Game with that one; There’s Andre Santos, a Brazilian no less but -- you’re not going to believe this -- another defender; There’s a Korean goalscorer (we are told) Chu Young Park, and there’s Yossi Benayoun -- neither of whom is likely to play a major role in landing trophies. And more youngsters -- though not from the Arsenal youth Academy: the Japanese Ryo Miyaichi, age 19, and the 19-year-old Costa Rican Joel Campbell, immediately loaned out to French club Lorient. A mixed bag, did I say? More like a grab bag.

But there is one name that stands out: Mikel Arteta, the Spaniard signed from Everton. This is a bit more like it, a skillful, creative midfielder of proven value in the EPL.

Maybe all that last-minute buying will work for Wenger. He’ll be judged lucky if it does. What are, in effect, panic buys just before the iron-curtain of the transfer window slams down is no way to build a team. He’s already riding his luck -- after all, so far there has been little talk of him losing his job, but he surely won’t be able to survive another poor season. It’s been six years since Arsenal won anything. Seven years sounds like a year too far.

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