Arsenal are a zombie club because they’re built in the image of their manager. And where once Arsene Wenger used to push boundaries and excite, now he just conforms to the predictability in so many ways, writes Ewan MacKenna
This is a difficult one. Ask any journalist and they’ll tell you just how hard it can be. You see, we all grew up being told good things happen to good people. And even by relatively high standards, Arsene Wenger is a good person who tries to drag behind him a heavy sack of virtues to his day job.
They’re not hard to find in his philosophy. He enforces fair pay structures amongst players, balances books like that masters in economics consumes him every bit as much as the game, preaches the proud history of Arsenal, pushes exemplary player behaviour, enforces respect. But just like so many big businesses, football doesn’t reward all that; in fact it often punishes it. And it’s why these days Wenger isn’t so much the genius professor of his early days at Highbury, instead he shares much with Old Gil from The Simpsons. All in all, he’s now a far better human than he is a manager.
It’s not that he’s underachieving, it’s just that he doesn’t really achieve either. He and, by extension, his club are stagnant as the fourth richest team in England finish fourth. But contrast that with the Wenger that once swept us off our feet and made us dizzy. You’d never have slapped Mark Spitz on the back after watching him tread water; or tingled listening to Dylan in later years as his broken voice meant you couldn’t tell what song was what; or admired Castro lounging back, belt off, gut out, downing a McDonald’s in cushy leadership. That’s what we’re at with Wenger as where once he looked like he could bury you with wits, now he just reminds you of a solemn-faced father who scolds the kids for using an iPad when he never had to resort to so much as a mobile phone back in his day.
Today, he faces Chelsea and all who remember his pristine precision and dignified strength should cower. In most cases, Arsenal simply have better players to overcome their tactical deficits brought about by a merely functional and all-to-familiar system and it’s why Galatasaray and Aston Villa are still brushed aside. But against elite teams who match up with quality, its then that opposition organisation shows Wenger up as a shadow of the revolutionary. Just consider his big-game record.
In the last five seasons, in 26 meetings with teams that finished above him in the league, he’s won just five. In that spell, he’s taken 20 points from 78. In the last three seasons he’s won two of 16 meetings with an aggregate defeat of 39-16. His sides have shipped nearly two-and-a-half goals a game against top-four clubs over the last three terms. His record against Jose Mourinho across all 11 games is six defeats and not a single victory. In fact an uninspiring version of Chelsea got more points against the top four last season than Arsenal have in the last three years. That’s all very mid-table.
And it’s all obvious why. So much so that Alex Ferguson put it in black-and-white in his autobiography. “In later years, we learned more about Arsene’s thinking… Arsene had a template of how he sees his players and the way they play. We didn’t need to win the ball against Arsenal, we needed to intercept it. You need good players who can intercept… So we would say to our players: ‘Stay with the runner, then intercept the pass.’ Then we counter-attacked…” Wenger hasn’t veered from that straight and narrow so neither does any top team need to veer as they sit deep, break fast and beat him. That’s damning as sticking by your beliefs is only admirable so long as those beliefs are relevant.
When he first arrived in England, Wenger had three key advantages. His nutrition and conditioning were game-changing. His scouting – especially in France – was deeper and better connected. And his style of football was mind-blowing. But it’s not that he’s since been matched in those areas, he’s been surpassed and it’s all meant Arsenal are to the Premier League what Time Team is to television schedules – merely present, no more, no less. The problem with Wenger is that he’s not interested in running a football club, he wants a going concern. His most powerful weapon – his intelligence – is now his downfall because he’s so clever he can’t fathom that he could’ve been wrong all this time.
It’s left a self-defeating purism. For many years the excuse was about building a young team while Arsenal struggled with the financial shackles of building a new stadium. But by August 2008 – two years after it opened – Wenger talked of having £30m to buy a new player but how his side was already good enough to win a title even if they’d only peak around 2014. They lost that league by 18 points and you’d be surprised if they got much closer these six years on.
And that’s after Wenger finally broke what amounts to a 20-pound note in the relative terms of the modern game. Yet this summer’s purchases only served to highlight another flaw. In recent years there’s been a feeling with Wenger that his ego means he throws any player into any position and expects it to all come together because, basically, it’s his way. But no defensive midfielder was signed and all the while Chelsea made money in the market while turning a dull team into the league’s most exciting outfit. Mourinho did in a summer what Wenger failed at across later life.
We shouldn’t be surprised though as the same old Arsenal plod on in a very different world and the same old Wenger continues to be Mister Nice Guy. What he’s never noticed along the way though is that sadly nice guys don’t come first. Or second. Or third…
5 October, 2014
Sunday Business Post