Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wenger tarnishes his legacy.

Once upon a time, Wenger bashing was born out of a grudging admiration at his hugely effective methods and wonderful use of the French transfer market during the first decade of his Arsenal reign.

In time however it became more fashionable as Arsenal's standards dropped after the break up of 'Les Invincibles'.

Previously little known signings had often been masterstrokes but too many Pascual Cygans and Marouane Chamakhs rather than Patrick Vieiras and Robert Pires belied a man whose methods everyone else had caught up.

Nowadays, Wenger bashing almost feels like a cheap shot. A man who has clearly done extraordinary things in management has over the course of 1,000 games in charge of Arsenal become so intransigent that he cannot see things that amateur arm chair pundits such as myself can see so clearly.

Saturday's capitulation to Chelsea was not a one off. Arsenal have shipped goals to both Liverpool and Man City also this season with an aggregate score of 17-4 away from home to those three.

Score-lines such as the 8-2 at Old Trafford in previous seasons could be put down as a one off but there is a wider pattern that has emerged.

Thousands of column inches have been written about Arsenal's soft centre, the lack of strength, belief and fight. It is obvious to everyone except it seems Monsieur Wenger.

Wenger will no doubt point to Barcelona's success as an example of slick football and brains outplaying brawn. But for every Iniesta, Messi and Pedro, there was also a Busquets, Puyol and Mascherano. Barca are an incredibly streetwise team who can mix it with anyone.

Wenger showed up at Stamford Bridge yesterday to face Jose Mourinho, a coach he has never beaten. Arsenal have been shorn of many gifted players lately but his decision to start in central midfield with Oxlaide Chamberlain and Mikel Arteta is typical of Wenger's stubbornness.

Chelsea are a formidable attacking unit. Their attacking play filtered through the likes of Oscar and Hazard has been tough to resist at times.

I would guess that I would find it hard to find too many people who would have thought that playing Mathieu Flamini would not have been a good idea. Flamini after all was credited by many for much of Arsenal's early season success.

As mentioned before, it is not necessarily Wenger's fault that he is shorn of Ozil, Walcott, Wilshire and Ramsey, any team would miss four players of that calibre.

The reality is however that these four players represent and symbolise everything that is Arsenal's character. Pretty to watch, hugely talented when they're on form but physically frail and hugely unreliable and often even unavailable.

The earlier Barcelona reference indicates that Wenger always persists with attacking football and always will do. Whilst he remains so unchecked at the Emirates, that will always be his prerogative.

Looking at the line ups though, seeing a Chelsea team with Cech, Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry, Luiz and Matic, it is obvious that there is a huge physical disparity on show.

Flamini may not have stemmed the tide single handed but he would certainly have helped avoid such a disastrous first ten minutes.

It wasn't always so. In the past Wenger had many physically imposing players. Sol Campbell, Jens Lehmann, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit were all strong players and presences.

The likes of Dennis Bergkamp was not afraid to mix it and the likes of Thierry Henry and Sylvain Wiltord were both wonderful athletes to match their footballing skills.

Much in the way that many of Sir Alex Ferguson's replacements increasingly became sub standard, Wenger's transfer policy is much to blame. Wenger rarely deviates from a formula when looking for a player, there is no blend to speak of in the team.

Mesut Ozil was seen as a masterstroke and whilst he is a very fine player and seemed to inspire those around him at the beginning, any seasoned Real Madrid watcher would tell you that he struggled physically over an entire season. Another frail player was not what Arsenal needed.

Despite all the criticism, Arsenal have stayed in touch in the title race this season which is almost more galling if you are a Gunners fan.

Whilst I've written that Wenger is not to blame for the injuries per se, he is to blame for not signing players in January to help the title push by bolstering the squad.

One wonders how Arsenal might be looking had they stepped up and signed Nemanda Matic for instance in January.

No one is suggesting that Arsenal should abandon their attacking principles but a good football team is about balance. Defending is just as great a skill as attacking.

Brendan Rogers as an example has evolved both himself and his Liverpool team to turn them into a far more potent threat. Initially Rodgers last season too had an obsession with possession and over elaboration.

Liverpool's play whilst still attractive has at many times this season been far more direct and as a result they are having a far better season and look the genuine title contenders that Arsenal are not.

It is not quite reminiscent of Brian Clough's last years at Nottingham Forest but Mourinho's 'specialist in failure' comment looks highly accurate right now. Come February and March, Arsenal simply capitulate against the real contenders for the prizes.

Arsenal will probably go on to win the FA Cup this season but that will do little to paper over the yawning cracks in Wenger's team and philosophy.

Chelsea and City will no doubt strengthen this Summer and it is safe to assume that Liverpool will kick on from their breakthrough season. It is also tough to believe that Manchester United will be anywhere close to as poor again next season.

That will it seems leave Arsenal scrabbling around in a fight for fourth place yet again. Qualifying year after year for the Champions League is an achievement of course but it is becoming an increasingly mediocre yardstick with which to judge Monsieur Wenger - No Nonsense.