Where would Gunners be without that man?
By David Swaden
When we lost to Blackburn, and with it went our last realistic chance of a trophy, I shouted some things at the team that I am neither proud nor ashamed of. The team and the manager deserved the stick they got, our vice captain has admitted as much.
That day, my furious gripe was that Wenger’s Arsenal continue to play the tap-tap style that made us world beaters in 2004, with little to no variation in style in the last 8 barren years despite the heavy weight of evidence for change.
Eight years ago, that style was, more often than not, blowing teams away. Rarely, if ever, were we outplayed, and a “no-contest” sort of game that we have come to see against Man Utd, Barcelona and the first leg against Bayern was nowhere to be seen.
So if it was so effective then, why so toothless now? The unfortunate truth, in my humble opinion, is that the players Wenger has at his disposal, due to whoever you wish to blame, have gradually deteriorated throughout recent times. Now, we have well meaning, perhaps talented, but hardly ever gifted players. This means they see the game just that little bit slower than the Invicibles, their touch is just that little bit less deft, their X factor that little bit less devastating. The result is hesitant and predictable interplay that is usually easy to read and shut down.
At the same time, as Wenger readily confesses, his style will never create the conditions for a miserly defence. So increasingly we’re seeing an ineffective attack added to what, let’s face it, was pretty much always too porous a back line, not the greatest combination.
Le boss, quite simply, is a purist, not a pragmatist. He is unable to shift from the unshakeable belief that football should be played a certain way, his way. If proof were needed of how single minded this approach is, simply bear witness he has tried to bring some variation to his squad. Enter Francis Jeffers and Julio Baptista, exit swiftly stage right.
So with all this in mind, it might be easy just to write Arsene Wenger off as an anachronism, conclude that another manager could get far more out of these players and that, if he won’t quit, he should be pushed, albeit with a heavy heart.
Indeed, a big part of me has wanted to decide that over the last few years, and particularly this season. I don’t think I have felt more angry with the club than when we capitulated to Blackburn and were then predictably trounced by Bayern. The whole Arsenal establishment seemed to be completely out of touch with what success should look like.
But there is something about Wenger’s steadfast loyalty to his principles, even when all around him mock and criticise, that has to be admired. He does genuinely believe that eventually his way will win out against all others. In a way it is his religious faith.
Yet even that would not be enough to save him on its own. What does, I think, is that this unbreakable faith actually seems to rub off on his players. Sometimes, it can be their downfall. In both cups, they were guilty of just turning up and expecting to win against teams they judge must surely crumble in the path of the tippy-tappy steamroller. But it’s the same faith that also led them to pull off a remarkable result in Munich and last year against Milan. It’s the same one that led to Kanu’s hatrick all those years ago and the same one that has led to many an unlikely top four finish of late.
It’s not that they never lose their belief, in fact for large swathes of the season this seems to happen. It’s just that, even if they have temporarily forgotten, at any given moment the Arsenal squad can remember that they have been built around the cult of Wenger, and that, somehow, all can be well if they stick to its commandments.
Maybe, just maybe, the Bayern Munich result saw Wenger’s inflexible, often logic-defying belief return to the players once again. Just in time for the big finish.