The world of football is a fickle one. After embarrassment at Bradford some were calling for Arsène Wenger’s head. Yet victory last week at Reading caused some of the dissension to simmer. Saturday’s victory at Wigan papered over the cracks, but the jury for Arsène and his team is very much still out.
An issue that has taken up as many column inches as Wenger’s supposed decline is Theo Walcott’s reluctance to sign a new contract. On Saturday his plea to play a central role were answered; Wenger perhaps becoming more pliable the more a new contact is resisted. Bewilderingly however, he played Walcott up front without a strike partner. Time and time again the forward was forced to drop deep to pick up the ball, when his obvious strength involves sitting off the last defender and using his pace to get in behind the defence. The one time he managed to do this in the game; Arsenal were rewarded with the match-winning penalty (albeit a highly dubious one).
Having Walcott as the sole striking outlet also affected Arsenal’s style of approach play. On several occasions Gibbs found himself in crossing space on the left, but elected to cut inside to his central midfielders – the diminutive Walcott does not offer much of an aerial threat. As such Wilshere and Cazorla repeatedly tried to force play through the middle of the defence where the inevitable swarm of blue and white shirts ensured that not a clear cut opening was created throughout the match.
Wigan also had their fair share of opportunities. For much of the afternoon they were beating Arsenal at their own game. They were afforded far too much leisure on the ball by Arsenal’s three central midfielders and comfortably worked openings around the pitch; a statement reflected in the fact that Dave Jones did not misplace a single one of his 47 passes in the first half.
However, Wigan were as wasteful as they were industrious. Arouna Koné missed two clear cut openings, with Beausejour and Stam consistently getting into good wide positions but failing to deliver.
Ultimately, it was an unconvincing win for Wenger’s side, yet the bare facts remain that it brought them 3 points and their 3rd straight league victory – the first time they have maintained such a run since March. At the close of play Arsenal sat at 3rd the league, making far happier viewing for Arsenal fans who have seen their team drop as low as 10th in recent weeks. This apparent turnaround is as much a testament to the tight nature of this premier league this season: along with Arsenal are three other clubs on 30 points all vying for lucrative Champions League qualification.
The murmurings of discord have subsided in North London for now. Earlier in the week Arsenal made a fan-fare of securing the long-term signatures of five young British players. Carl Jenkinson, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, and Kieran Gibbs are touted are the long-term core of the Arsenal team. The future and security of Arsène Wenger is by no means as certain.
After a shambolic night at the San Siro and a toothless capitulation at the Stadium of Light, Thierry Henry must be asking himself two questions. The first must be: what has happened to the slick, dominant, and ruthless Arsenal team with which he lifted two league titles and an FA cup; went forty-nine games unbeaten, and came to within fourteen minutes of lifting the Champions League? He must also be thinking: ‘When can I come back?’
His arrival was presented by player and manager as subordinate and supplementary to the new main man at the Emirates: Robin Van Persie. After all, Thierry was only here to help. They certainly needed him. Henry demonstrated the touch; composure and finishing that won him his legendary status at Arsenal with his winning goal in the FA cup against Leeds. He got on the score sheet once more against Blackburn, and pulled Arsenal out of the mire with a last-gasp winner at Sunderland, ensuring that Arsenal continued to hold a tenuous grasp on the all-important fourth place in the Premier League.
Such performances left Arsenal fans with a question of their own. What the hell is he still doing in the MLS? His pace may have waned through natural progression of years, but his work rate, awareness and class remain. I think it is reasonable to assume that had the misfiring Gervinho or Chamakh found themselves in the same position against Leeds, Arsenal would have been forced to suffer a replay.
In the MLS Henry averages just under a goal every two games. In his return to Arsenal he managed just that figure, scoring three goals in his six appearances; one less than Gervinho has achieved in his entire Arsenal career to date. These figures illustrate that Henry is still good enough to compete at the top level, let alone in the pedestrian MLS. He provided more than just cover for Arsenal’s strike force, but for a short period was a reliable and dangerous option in Wenger’s armoury.
Of course one may say that it is precisely players like Henry transferring to the MLS that will allow it to one day become a truly competitive league. However, these problems run far deeper and are much more bureaucratic than simply a case of attracting more Thierry Henry’s and David Beckham’s. The MLS administrators repeatedly refuse to synch their season with FIFA’s calendar. This means that major international summer tournaments such as the Gold Cup or the World Cup provoke a mass exodus of international players from the league to play international football. Such administrative disruption is the league’s real down fall, rather than the allure of a few stars among a throng of mediocrity.
At the final whistle in the San Siro, Thierry Henry rushed over to the travelling Arsenal fans to say farewell. You could sense that he wasn’t quite ready to leave just yet, and there are many Arsenal fans that are wishing he hadn’t.
The chances for Andy Murray to win a Grand Slam, not unlike Arsenal’s own prospects at a Premier League or Champions League win, are shot. For Murray, the latest disappointment comes at the hands of World No. 1 and winner of the last three major tournaments, Novak Djokovic. For the Gunners, Manchester United posted the team’s newest setback by a score of 1-2.
The Scottish World No. 4, who took on eight-time Grand Slam champion Ivan Lendl as coach recently, now suffers a 0-3 record in Grand Slam finals. He’s reached the semifinals on six other occasions, proving he has the talent.
This time, however, may add a little more insult to injury; the match against Djokovic was supremely close. Murry held two break points on the Serb’s serve at two sets apiece and five games all. Regardless, he couldn’t convert at the most crucial moment. This latest loss at the Sunny Slam comes after a three set thrashing from Djokovic in the 2010 Aussie Open final.
Murray, no stranger to critics in a country without a major champion since Virginia Wade’s 1977 Wimbledon win, said: “You’re always going to have people that doubt me and say, ‘He’s not that good’ and ‘He’s not as good as them’. I am aware that I still need to prove some things and win a match like this. It was so close.”
He remains positive this year, stating that the year’s goal is to claim the No. 1 spot from Djokovic.
Meanwhile, World No. 2 and 10-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal took aim at Murray. He said: “The level is there. When you are able to play how many, five Grand Slams in a row playing semifinals or final, it’s only a mental thing.”
Although Arsenal’s loss on January 22 was nowhere near their horrendous 8-2 routing by Manchester United in August. It cement their current lackluster No. 5 position in the league.
Even beloved Manager Arsene Wenger, according to a recent Globe and Mail article, isn’t safe from the effects of the loss. It reads: “For so long a hero to Arsenal fans, manager…Wenger was jeered during last weekend’s 2-1 Premier League defeat against Manchester United.”
While Murray’s battle is one of mostly mentality at this point, Arsenal simply has been suffering too many injuries to contend for the Premier League title. In fact, according to the article, the team’s “been playing without specialist fullbacks since early December.” As a result, teenagers Nico Yennaris and Ignasi Miquel are being forced to fill in the open spots in upcoming games.
It’s been seven years without a trophy for Arsenal, and no Grand Slams for Murray in his eight years as pro. If things are going to change, the best time to start is, well, now. Otherwise, both will remain target practice for the top talent in their respective sports.
At my primary school there were two groups: the Arsenal fans and the Manchester United fans. There were a few more exotic teams; West Ham weren’t even in the Premiership for a while. Being a hipster I went for an obscure team called, erm, Liverpool. But when Arsenal played Manchester United everyone cared, there was an acceptance that this would decide the title or, if the game was in the cup, would decide who would go on to defeat Newcastle/Liverpool/Chelsea in the final. This season is different though – the match today will not be the most important played this weekend. Ironically it’s the two teams’ local rivals, Manchester City and Tottenham, who will have a bigger impact on the title race when they meet at Eastlands. However when Wenger and Ferguson have met over the last decade or so the games have tended to define English football in some way.
Manchester United 2 – 1 Arsenal – FA Cup semi-final replay, 1999
Back in 1999 Sir Alex Ferguson still cared about the FA Cup. A year later he would choose to compete in the World Club Championships instead of the tournament, and a little bit of the ‘magic of the cup’ that pundits still obsess over was gone forever. As a last hurrah for the cup’s respectability though this was a fitting game. In hindsight this games seems like a microcosm of an era in English football; David Beckham scored with a curling effort from outside the box, Dennis Bergkamp equalised with a perfectly placed shot, Roy Keane got sent off and Phil Neville gave away a penalty. Oh and Ryan Giggs took his shirt off.
After this Manchester United went on to win the treble, still the pinnacle in Fergie’s career (the world club championships didn’t go too well) and in many ways the football landscape changed after this. Although it would be another six years until Roman Ambramovich funded Chelsea to the title they began pushing up the table before this, whilst Liverpool and Newcastle both found themselves challenging for trophies and European qualification; this game was the highlight of the monopoly these clubs had for a few years.
Manchester United 0 – 0 Arsenal, Premier League, 21st September 2003
‘Goals are overrated’ is the motto of the Blizzard, and this game definitely supports that theory. Unfortunately it’s not brilliant defensive tactics or two passing teams constantly outmanoeuvring each other that made this game stand out. Both sides did line up defensively, with Arsene Wenger dropping Pires and Wiltord for the less glamorous Parlour and Ljunberg whilst Manchester United played a 4-3-2-1, with Roy Keane taking command in a defensively minded midfield. Even with the likes of Cristano Ronaldo, Ryan Giggs and Ruud van Nistlerooy in attack United only managed five shots on target in the game. Arsenal, with Henry and Bergkamp leading the line managed none. Viera, rather predictably, received a red card but it was a last minute penalty that made this game infamous as Van Nistlerooy blasted against the crossbar. Arsenal’s players, dignified as ever, shouted, screamed and generally lost all human control right in front of the Dutch striker, cue the inevitable fight at the final whistle; both clubs had players charged by the FA whilst Arsenal were also charged with failing to control their players.
Once again it defined what was happening in English football. The actual match was in truth dull, with neither side creating enough chances to make it a classic in the way the 1999 game was. Arsenal were about to go on their ‘invincible’ streak of 49 league games without a loss, and you could see the nucleus of this determined team in the way Keown and Toure led the backline. Had Sol Campbell not been out for this game then perhaps Arsenal would have been even stronger. At the same time Manchester United was in one of their rebuilding phases – life in a post-Beckham world was not looking so great and Ronaldo was still finding his feet. There was also something to be said for the kind of player emerging; one of the fines issued to Ashley Cole was for ‘involvement in a confrontation with Cristiano Ronaldo after the final whistle’, a phrase that makes the skin crawl. The players were becoming more than media stars, they were objects of entertainment for our pleasure. More and more every aspect of their lives was ours and the likes of Ronaldo and Cole could propel themselves into the public eye through more than good performances. The way this game was called ‘The Battle of Old Trafford’ highlights more than just the laziness of the media; it revealed that what the audience wanted was, more often than not, this kind of off the pitch event, rather than a great on the pitch performance.
Manchester United 8 – 2 Arsenal, Premier League, 28th August 2011
The moment Arsenal fans were dreading. After years of floating around meaninglessly, living only with the vague memories of Thierry Henry, Patrick Viera and Dennis Bergkamp and that invicible campaign that was so nearly bettered by Huddersfield, Arsenal finally had to live up to a decline. At the same time though, so does English football. Wenger’s continued insistence on a particular style of football was revolutionary when it first came. In fact I admire any team that sticks to its game plan, be they Barcelona with tikka takka or Jose Mourinho’s Inter with their calico style defending. However when that style doesn’t work something needs to be done. Since Wenger’s arrival nearly every club has adopted similar ideas, introducing nutrition programmes and different styles of training. Arsenal are no longer unique and, whilst they are undoubtedly a good team, Wenger’s insistence on his way and his methods will continue to hold them back.
The same is true of English football in general. Whilst we have rested on the laurels of our club teams’ Champions League performances for the last few years uncomfortable questions about the national team and the general state of football in England have gone unnoticed. Now, with Manchester United and Manchester City out of the Champions League, these questions are becoming less ignorable. The likes of Germany and Spain have already moved out of reach for the next few years at least, and the calls for Harry Redknapp to take over from Capello only make me despair even more. We seem unable to recognise the tactical side of the game, the side that requires a good manager and good teamwork instead of individual talent. Whilst we fail to understand this English football will remain in stagnation, like an Arsenal team who have been so content with ‘doing okay’ these past five years.
Let’s put it in perspective: if – as looks all-but-certain – Arsenal finish the season potless, will it be a blow for the club and the supporters? Yes, undoubtedly. This is a team which lost in catastrophic circumstances against Birmingham, blew a four-goal lead against Newcastle, a two-goal lead against Tottenham (twice), a one-goal lead in the last minute against Liverpool, and have been held to goalless draws at home by Sunderland and Blackburn. So only the most myopic of Wengerite ultras could say there weren’t things to improve upon.
But you’ve got to look at what Wenger is working with. The team that beat United on Sunday cost less than the combined price of Carrick and Anderson. It cost less than Chelsea spent on Fernando Torres. It cost less than Manchester City spent on Kolo Toure and Emanuel Adebayor. It cost less than Steve Bruce has spent at Sunderland. So he’s going to finish behind two teams with far bigger budgets and ahead of countless teams with bigger budgets. Over the last six years, he’s developed some of the most thrilling and exciting players in the Premier League and in Jack Wilshere, he’s developed a player who will go on to do big things for club and country.
He’s done all this while playing some of the most attractive football on the planet. For delivering European football on a budget, for playing with style, Wenger must stay.
There are few medals in football with less sheen than that awarded to losing League Cup finalists. Arsène Wenger might argue that finishing third in the Premier League is better than winning a trophy, but aside from these made-up, notional trophies, his club’s trophy cabinet remains untroubled since the 2005 FA Cup.
But hey, at least they play exciting football. After the hideous first hour of the first leg of Madrid-Barcelona, this oft-used defence of Wenger should not be sniffed at. If the raison d’être of Arsenal was entertaining neutrals, Wenger would be doing his job very well indeed. But in football, entertainment and success so often fail to come hand-in-hand. After all, Arsenal’s run to the 2006 Champions League final was not based on entertainment, but on grinding out 0-0 draws in the second leg of the Second Round, Quarter-Final and Semi-Final ties.
The Gunners have been a shadow of their former selves since the departure of Thierry Henry. Leading from the front, the standout, key player of years of Arsenal success has proved impossible to replace. Wenger gives the impression of stubbornly denying the obvious, that he needs to drastically change his style of management to return to those days. Putting on my best Lord Sugar voice, it is with a heavy heart that I say, remembering all the good he has done for Arsenal and for English football as a whole, that he must be fired. Unless – and it’s a big ask – a bit of good fortune means they actually end up winning the league. In which case, would you be a dear and forget I ever said any of this?