Thursday, June 16, 2011

BLOG: Arsene F.C.

by Omar Shamout of the LA Gooners

This off-season, many Arsenal fans, including myself, have been left with mixed feelings regarding Arsene Wenger.  For many years, Wenger has commanded the respect, and loyalty of Arsenal fans worldwide for his 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, which included the Double winning years of 1998 and 2002, and the unforgettable “Invincible” team of 2004.  Let’s face it, any manager could survive off the glow of an undefeated season for quite some time.  But, that shine has been wearing off for a while, as our fearless leader has become stuck in his ways, and refused to compromise his vision of winning trophies with younger players, who have either developed their skills at Arsenal in the youth team, or have been purchased from other clubs at not a penny over Wenger’s valuation of the player.  This philosophy was brought about in part by the financial realities of a club whose new stadium significantly lessened the clinking sound heard in the pockets of its Board members.  Justifiably, they desired to ensure without a shadow of a doubt the long-term stability of the club in the face of highly-publicized monetary troubles at Liverpool, Manchester United, Portsmouth, etc.  Finally, there’s the belief that permeates the club that things must be done the “Arsenal” way, with class and a respect for ethics.  This philosophy may as well be dubbed, the “Arsene” way, such is the impact the Frenchman has had on the club’s image and brand over the last six years.  I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that this image has been a bad thing for Arsenal F.C.

If you’re like me, this became a source of pride as an Arsenal supporter.  We would rather lose every year than do things the Chelsea way, or the Manchester City way, and sell our souls to the whims of mad billionaires who were attracted to football for all the wrong reasons.  Arsene preached this gospel, and we, his disciples, listened with open ears, hearts, and minds.  We viewed him as a beacon of sanity in a footballing world where the patients had begun to run the asylum, and no one else, not the media, the fans, and especially not the players on astronomical weekly salaries, was on his side.  The only one brave enough to stand against the tide and plug his finger in the dike of over-spending was Arsene Wenger, and we’ve been there to back him up every step of the way.  Arsenal fans (of the Wenger era) are not happy to win unless it’s done the right way.  The “Arsene” way.   That is, until now.  The dam has finally broken, and Arsene is drowning.

What’s happened?  As much as we hate to admit it, our ability to separate idealism from results has proven impossible to do any longer.  The first 2 years under this policy we chalked up to a transitional period where the old guard was moving on and new recruits were being brought in to mount a title charge.  It was going to take time and we were happy to grant it to them.  The 3rd and 4th years we excused as products of horrible luck and dastardly deeds.  Our injuries to star players piled up at the most inopportune times, and we became the targets of schoolyard bullies determined to knock us off our beautiful stride.  It felt good to feel sorry for ourselves, and that proved to be cathartic.  For the majority of supporters (certainly not all), the 2009-2010 season was the first year we began to seriously question Wenger’s guiding principles, and fundamental assurances that everything was going to be okay with our beloved club.  When our defense continued to concede the exact same headed goals it had gifted opponents for 5 years running, the logic of our minds could no longer be clouded by the love in our hearts.  Wenger’s mystique waned, and the frustration grew.  Hindsight would show that Manchester United and Chelsea all suffered from injuries too, yet their squads were better equipped to handle such blows.

It’s easy to say that all but three clubs in England would gladly trade places with Arsenal, and we certainly have a lot to be thankful for.  Our club will be playing in the Champions League (albeit through the playoffs), for the eleventh consecutive year, and for that Wenger is to be commended.  However, self-examination is always necessary for improvement, and questions must be asked.  At what point does consistency become stagnation?  Why have our second string players consistently under-performed when given opportunities due to injuries, and has Wenger achieved all he is capable of with Arsenal?

At this point, I would argue that the answer to the last question is a strong “maybe.”  Six years is a long time to ask any group of people to believe that someone who allows the same defensive mistakes to occur knows what to do to fix them.  For those who would argue that it’s the players who make the mistakes and not the manager, well, this is undoubtedly Wenger’s team from soup to nuts.  He has been responsible for every single transfer, and perhaps more importantly, every single non-transfer.  He is responsible for the coaching staff, and the buck stops with him.  For six years, by his own admission, he has put a team on the field that he wholeheartedly believes is capable of winning the Premier League title, and for six years he has been proven wrong.  The players he trusted implicitly, and of whom he asked the same of the supporters, have let him, and us, down.  This year, even more than the five previous, the league was there for the taking and they let it slip away.

I’m not going to get into game tactics, but what I will comment on is effort.  Beyond just picking the players, a manager’s job is to motivate and inspire the team when they hit a slump.  The Carling Cup Final this season was disastrous for Arsenal, not just for what happened on the pitch, but for what transpired after.  The team’s record following that miserable day was embarrassing, and not just by Arsenal standards.  Out of fourteen matches, Arsenal won a grand total of 3 matches, and one was against Leyton Orient in the FA Cup.  That record is indefensible for one of the top clubs in Europe.  Wenger was clearly not able to re-build his players’ belief in their cause, and in their own abilities.  They were not able to return to their early season form, and this time they had an almost fully fit first team at their disposal.  So, I would argue that questions should be asked not only about Wenger’s team player policy, but also his motivational abilities.  Even in mid-April, the team still had the power to control their own fate in the title race, yet the will and desire to exert that power was nowhere to be found.  If we look for reasons as to why this might have occurred, we must conclude that either the players Wenger recruited were not good enough, or he lacked the skill to get the best out of them tactically, mentally, or both.  None of these options reflects positively on Wenger. 

This summer brings with it the strong possibility that one or both of Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas will leave the club.  These are arguably our two best players, and considering Wenger has rarely even come close to spending £20M on a player, it leads me to believe that any replacement player(s) that come(s) in will be somewhat unproven, at least in the Premier League, since the thought of a tried and tested, top-quality Premier League player arriving for anything less than £25-30M seems highly unlikely.  This would mean a season or two of settling in might be required for any new player, making a title charge even more difficult.  Will Arsenal fans accept any transitional period hiccups after six years without a trophy?  I wouldn’t hold my breath.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, and both Samir and Cesc will be around next season.

I am still an admirer of Wenger.  I believe he is one of the good guys in football, and has the courage of his convictions to stand up for what he believes is right.  He won’t take the easy way out just because others have done it and succeeded.  What worries me is that he hasn’t come up with a way to make a good team great after six years of trying.  The day will come when Arsenal will have to face life without Arsene Wenger, and it does not serve us well to ignore his shortcomings, while continuing to watch our critics be proven right time and time again.  I want nothing more than for Wenger to prove everyone wrong, but the glow of the “Invincibles” is fading.

Omar is a founding member of the LA Gooners and is a frequent guest on the Arsenal Review USA Podcast. Stay tuned for more of his blog entries throughout the summer...