It’s been a tough nine years for Arsenal fans. As is always widely reported, the Gunners’ last trophy came in 2005 in the form of the FA Cup. At the time, it would be hard to fathom, for any Arsenal fan, that they would have 36 challenges in different competitions without winning another trophy. Players have come and go in that period, Henry, Fabregas and Robin Van Persie being the most notable, but Arsenal have persisted with manager Arsene Wenger throughout that time.
There is no denying that what Wenger achieved in his first nine years was unbelievable, with the most notable achievement being the Invincibles of 2003/04. But since then, Arsenal have seemed more like the Vulnerables on the big stage against their direct rivals. Particularly this season, results in games that could have pushed Arsenal to a title challenge have not only been unfavourable, but often abject. The key question: is Arsene Wenger’s time up?
Wenger won 11 pieces of silverware in his first 500 games at the club. In his second 500 he has not been able to do so as of yet. What sticks out the most is the change in football in that period, both on the field and off it. Off the field, spending big money on top players has become the norm. For the most part, if you want quality, you must be prepared to spend cash in the fashion that Chelsea, Manchester City and now PSG have been known for doing. At the time of Wenger’s 500th game, the world record fee was Zinedine Zidane, at a reported 48 million euros. At the time of his 1000th game that fee now stood at closer to 100 million. Many feel Wenger’s reluctance to spend big has hurt him, but it has been his reluctance to buy in positions that is needed that has hurt the team for most.
Transfer market problems
Timing has also been a major issue for Wenger. His unwillingness to spend big has often seen Arsenal become involved in protracted, drawn-out transfer sagas which have either seen targets brought in without the opportunity for a pre-season, substandard players acquired or time wasted on players that weren’t even bought at all. Wenger may not be entirely to blame for this given that there are persistent rumours of Ivan Gazidis’ incompetency at executive level, but there is certainly some merit in the idea of bringing in a new manager, giving him sufficient funds and implementing a more decisive transfer strategy. The positive start made by Arsenal indicates that there is a decent enough core to the squad but the weaker elements must be addressed all at once, rather than the current policy of slowly fixing one area of concern while allowing others to develop.
For many years, Arsenal’s main problem was their defence. They always possessed a potent attacking line backed by a strong midfield, but after the departure of Sol Campbell, Arsenal’s defensive frailties became evident. From the 2006/07 season to the 2011/12 campaign, Arsenal had the worst goal difference in the top four every year. Each year he was implored to buy a recognised world class defender but he refused. It is only at the backend of last season that Wenger got his defence in order and for the first time in six years, Arsenal did not have the worst defensive record in the top four.
Once this problem was sorted, Wenger had a new one on his hands as for the first time in his tenure he was without a genuine top quality forward. Lobbied by the media to spend big, Wenger complied, but not in the way most thought he would. The signing of Mesut Ozil was one of intent, but it did not address the striking problem. Seven months later, the Olivier Giroud experiment could be seen as a failure, as Giroud has not scored against any of the top four despite starting every game. Arsenal have now scored the least in the top four this season and have watched on as a free-scoring Liverpool side has surged past them in the table, showing the difference quality goal scorers can make. The sluggish way in which Wenger has addressed problems in his squad has constantly caused the team difficulties.
Problems with tactics and the top four
The second way that football has changed is on the field. In Wenger’s first 500 games, 4-4-2 was the most common way to set up a team. Packing out the midfield in 4-5-1 was seen as a nullifying tactic, rather than one to keep possession and win a game. There is no doubt that Wenger’s sides thrived in a 4-4-2 with the power of a Patrick Vieira in the middle of the park. With football changing, Wenger changed to a more possession-based style. This style has often been the undoing of the Gunners with many of the goals they concede, particularly in the big games, coming on the counter attack. Wenger’s inflexibility in only playing one way and lacking a “Plan B”, has been especially exposed this season.
Particularly this season, Wenger and Arsenal have struggled in the big games. In games against the other members of the top four Arsenal’s record reads: P 6, L 3, D 2, W 1. So out of a possible 18 points, Arsenal gained just five. What is most alarming about this is that the goal difference of all these games is F 7, A 18. If we look at the away games against these three that record changes to F 4, A 17. It is in these games that Wenger has been completely outfoxed tactically by his opposite numbers. Many will point to the stubbornness of Wenger in not attempting to set his team up differently in these games. A hallmark of these games has been the number of goals the opposition’s scored on the counter attack, which has been Arsenal’s main weakness for many years.
Although some people may point to injuries of key players such as Aaron Ramsey, Mesut Ozil and Theo Walcott at some stages of the season, the manner in which the Gunners lost has been unacceptable. Games against your rivals are the ones in which a team wins or loses a league title as you are able to take points from them. Wenger’s approach to them has been the problem. Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers have been noted for altering their tactics and personnel for particular opposition. Wenger has continued to try and win all games in the same way, without any notion of changing for many years. Wenger has tried to dominate possession in all games, not taking into account the opposition and their strengths. Ultimately, that has been the Gunners’ undoing.
All of these results have culminated in Arsenal only winning three of their last 18 games against teams in the top four. This means they have taken a total of 13 points from a possible 54 in these fixtures. All these poor results have resulted in the Gunners finishing more than 15 points off the league leaders in the past two seasons. For any other team in the Premier League, this constant failure would be seen as unacceptable, but for the Arsenal board Wenger has remained the best man for the job.
Some may argue that 2013 was a fantastic year for the Gunners and that they amassed the most points in the calendar year. Unlike the World Player of the Year, the league table runs from August to May and not January to December. When the season ended during 2013, Arsenal were sat in 4th place. As the season is reaching a similar point in 2014, Arsenal again sit in 4th, but they face a fight to again retain that place. It all points to the fact that the league table does not lie and the constant underachievement cannot be forgiven forever.
Arsenal are still in the FA Cup this season and are favourites to win the competition. Even if they are triumphant, there are still questions over whether Wenger should be in charge. The FA Cup may end the drought, but one trophy in nine years is not the greatest record. Whether Wenger will want to leave on a high by winning the FA Cup is a feasible concept.
Looking at his second 500 games, it would be hard for anyone to justify Wenger remaining, other than the current lack of potential replacements. Diego Simeone and Jurgen Klopp would both be a good fit for the Gunners, but whether either are willing to leave their current posts remains a stumbling block. There are those who suggest that Wenger was forced to sell his best players and given little to spend after the stadium move. Klopp has shown that you can put together a team on a low budget that can become extremely competitive. Another prospective manager is German national team Joachim Low. With his contract running out this summer, he could be a potential replacement. Nonetheless, whatever decision is made by Wenger, the summer ahead will be an interesting one. It looks like any Wenger departure will be of his own accord, this summer may be the time he decides to do that.
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