Friday, July 1, 2011

Wenger's Revolution: Leaders Out, Mercenaries In?

One possible defence of the Arsenal manager is: He cannot do anything about the mercenary culture in football today. If Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy refuse to accept perfectly fair contract terms, because they get the whiff of bigger bucks elsewhere, what can the manager do? He has taken these players under his wing, trusted them, developed them into stars, and they have betrayed that trust.

But Wenger can hardly cite tradition as an ally when he has done so much in recent years to dismantle Arsenal's on-pitch traditions. Revolutionising the playing style and off-pitch affairs and guiding the club to an unprecedented period of success ensured his status as a legendary Arsenal manager. But has his latest revolution, which seems at the moment an ill-advised one, tarnished his legacy?

Sometimes, vociferous criticisms of Wenger overlook the fact that he moved Arsenal to a bigger stadium, and always acknowledged that this would necessitate an extended period of careful financial management. He has often hinted that the priority in this period was simply a top-four place, to keep Arsenal in the Champions League. And he has also admitted at times that the financial constraints applied by the stadium deal meant Arsenal now needed to sell big before spending substantial amounts.

The problem sometimes arises from Wenger's own muddled rhetoric. If it's true that Arsenal are presently aiming for Champions League football, and are at a disadvantage when it comes to winning the big prizes, perhaps he should stick to that line of thought. It would, of course, prove unpopular with many fans, but it would also be honest.

In the last few seasons, Wenger has played an infuriating game. He talks up his team's chances of winning trophies, even if a lot of the time, their actual performances are not great. And when they implode and end up empty-handed, he reminds everyone that in the current climate, a place in the top four is a trophy in itself. It has been six years, but fans haven't yet forgotten what silverware looks and feels like.

Circumstances in this period have been kind on the one hand, cruel on the other. No other English club has yet emerged with the consistent quality and stability to challenge Arsenal's spot in the top four. So Wenger's primary priority for the last few years has been met, usually comfortably. At the same time, teams above Arsenal have, particularly in the last couple of seasons, been weak by previous title-challenging standards. For long stretches of 09/10 and 10/11, Arsenal seemed close to mounting a serious title charge, even though they never really seemed to have the necessary nous. So it proved in the run-ins both seasons. But fans have been enraged by the perception that success is so close and yet, because of the manager's obsessive frugality (and other personal flaws) so far away.

It has probably surprised the manager that his team have failed to give the fans a little something to cheer for in the shape of a League Cup or FA Cup victory. From that viewpoint, the loss to Birmingham last season in the Carling Cup final- a team that was eventually relegated, remember- represents an almighty gaffe by the Gunners. If they don't banish that memory with some silverware in the next couple of years, that day will surely come to be seen as emblematic of the failures of this Arsenal side.

It was a defeat secured not just by Birmingham's doggedness and determination but by Arsenal's contrasting characteristics. Without Fabregas, they lacked any sort of leadership in an awful first half performance. They should have been more than one down by the time Van Persie volleyed an outstanding equaliser. But he injured himself in the act, soldiered on ineffectively until late in the game, and Arsenal never developed a great deal of momentum. They were given the initiative in the second half by a retreating Birmingham, but failed to create a gilt-edged chance from all that attacking and, in a very Arsenal irony, they managed to present Obafemi Martens with an open goal from Birmingham's only attack of the last half hour or so, one barely worthy of the name.

Koscielny and Szczesny, two rookies playing in spinal positions, handed the game and the trophy to Birmingham.

When you have wilfully built a team of rookies, as Wenger has, without any guiding hand of experience on the pitch, you can't really call it bad luck. 'The Invincibles' were a team of experienced players playing at their peak, or close to it. Henry, Vieira, Pires, Campbell, Edu, Gilberto, Lehmann, Lauren. Arsene Wenger dismantled this team with amazing speed. Clearly, he felt that by selling on some of these players in the years after 03/04, he could secure funds for Arsenal for players who had passed their peak, and also allow young players like Fabregas to establish themselves as the new guard.

Some problems with that: Fabregas is a one-in-a-million talent and Arsenal have not brought in any young players close to his level since. The other youngsters have proven brittle, flakey under pressure, and, as I've argued countless times, their technical excellence is too often overstated.

Perhaps more importantly, Wenger has been far too committed to a policy of selling off senior players. "Passed their peak" does not equate to "useless". When did Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes pass their peak? Quite a long time ago, but they continued to play a central part in United's success over recent seasons. The same was true of Dennis Bergkamp in the twilight of his career.

Quite apart from their refined talents, these guys could provide a guiding influence on the pitch, even in the dressing room. Gilberto Silva was rightly displaced in the team by Mathieu Flamini in 07/08, but was it really necessary to alienate him, then turf him out that summer? Especially when Lassana Diarra and Flamini himself departed at a similar time?

We see the bitter fruit of this agist policy in games like the 2011 Carling Cup final. Arsenal have no leaders, no know-how. And while we may find it easy to dismiss Clichy and Nasri as mercenaries, we should also acknowledge that Arsenal have lost something of their identity in the last few seasons. I don't really mean that in the historic sense. More that the characteristics that brought success in Wenger's early years as manager have been discarded, and the unintentional effect has been to create something of a mercenary culture, where players get itchy feet as soon as bigger, richer, more prestigious clubs come calling.

Whereas before, Wenger chose to profit from the sale of his ageing stars, now his own young stars- Nasri and Fabregas are both 24- choose to leave his project.

I have spoken about Arsenal's lack of on-pitch stability and to understand it, all you have to do is consider a list of experienced, first-team pros who have left even since the initial dismantling of the unbeaten team. It's common for people to talk about the team having changed completely since 03/04, but by the end of this summer, it's likely to be totally unrecognisable from the team that challenged for the title as recently as 07/08.

First eleven from that season: Lehmann; Sagna, Toure, Gallas, Clichy; Hleb, Fabregas, Flamini, Rosicky; Van Persie, Adebayor.

The expected departures of Clichy and Fabregas will leave only Sagna and Van Persie. That was Sagna's first season, but Arsenal are in such constant flux that he is now as close as Arsenal have to an established servant.

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