No one can doubt Arsene Wenger’s quality as a manager. When the Frenchman arrived in the Premier League back in 1996 as one of its first overseas gaffers, his revolutionary views on diet, the consumption of alcohol, the role of the modern full-back and his emphasis on talented foreign youngsters changed the English game forever, not to mention the incredibly aesthetic brand of football he has continuously championed.
But nearly twenty years on from signing his first contract with Arsenal, a decade since Le Prof’s most defining campaign of undefeated, ‘Invincibles’ glory, and the Gunners gaffer can often come across as a manager slightly out of touch with the modern game.
That Invincibles season in 2003/04 represents the North London outfit’s last Premier League title, and likewise, should Arsenal fail to win the FA Cup this year, it will mark nine terms without any form of silverware.
The club’s move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium has undoubtedly played a significant, burdensome role, but with Wenger’s figure in the dugout the only remaining constant amid that baron, near decade-long silverware run, one feels compelled to question where it all went so askew for Arsenal and their manager.
Could the simple notion of ‘arrogance’ provide enough of an explanation into Arsenal’s ten-year title woes? Perhaps that description unfairly suggests an egotistical character flaw – you certainly wouldn’t actively label the Frenchman as ‘pig-headed’ or obnoxiously confident in his own abilities – but many, including myself, would certainly subscribe to the theory that Wenger’s stubbornness has stunted his club’s growth over the last decade.
There’s certainly something commendable about the philosophical approach Wenger has continuously insisted upon throughout his many years at the North London helm. Few managers would be brave or daring enough to maintain such an adventurous and technically demanding style of football for so long, when the rest of the Premier League has only become more defensively dogged and physically focused season upon season, although we have seen a slight buck in that trend this year.
But the flipside to that debate is that Wenger has refused to grow with the Premier League world evolving around him. Top English clubs now endure well over 50 fixtures per season, and accordingly, natural athletes have become more intrinsic to the beautiful game than ever before. At Chelsea for example, all of their central midfielders – baring Ramires – measure in at 6 foot or over, likewise at Manchester City.
Arsenal’s engine room is filled with tiny pass masters, with more emphasis on slight of turn than aerial prowess, and greater strength in controlling the ball than trying to physically dominate your opponent. Resultantly however, Arsenal’s injury list is always one of the Premier League’s largest. Some would attribute that to misfortune, but the simple fact is that 5 foot 7 Jack Wilsheres and 5 foot 10 Tomas Rosickys can’t handle the physical rigours of Premier League football whilst also competing on the FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League fronts at the same time.
Likewise, I would never debate that ‘Wenger’s Way’ is truly, in its most purest sense, the way the game should always be played. But with that view, an underlying hint of arrogance certainly accompanies it. We’ve seen clear evidence of this in the current campaign; whilst the brief from Arsene Wenger for any given Premier League fixture has been simply assuring that the players stick to their own strengths, opponents readily prepare for their many weaknesses.
The Frenchman doesn’t adopt such a Jose Mourinho, anti-football-esque approach, but that tacit dismissal of the opposition, as if the quality of Arsenal’s performances are decided in a vacuum with no influence from their opponents, has decisively cost the Gunners vital points in the title race this term. From Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, Arsenal have taken just six points out of a possible 18 this season.
On one hand you have this disturbing lack of tactical expediency, the refusal to adapt Arsenal’s game plan in any notable shape or form regardless of the style of opponent they face, and on the other, you have the nature in which the Gunners philosophy, especially without the speedy, penetrating presence of Theo Walcott, can become incredibly one-dimensional and easy to predict.
Although ‘Wenger’s way’ makes Arsenal perhaps the Premier League’s most unique side, the absence of any pragmatism in applying the Frenchman’s purist theories has often resulted in the Gunners greatest strength becoming their biggest weakness.
In the transfer market too, Wenger’s arrogance has become incredibly prevalent over the last decade. Gunners fans will be quick to point out that the Frenchman splashed out an eye-watering £47million on Mesut Ozil less than a year ago, but this is by far the exception to the rule rather than the norm; Arsenal’s £13million fee paid for Sylvain Wiltord back in 2000 remained the club’s record transfer fee for the next eight-and-a-half years.
In many ways, the North London boss is a victim of his own abilities. Some of Arsenal’s youthful alumni that Wenger has produced include the likes of Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Patrick Viera and Ashley Cole, all of whom transformed into world-class players under his leadership. There’s no doubt that more than any manager the Premier League has ever seen, Wenger has demonstrated a unique ability to turn talented youngsters – often sourced for a pittance fee – into some of the finest talents in world football.
But once again, the arrogant undertones have often done more harm than good. Why pay a premium fee for a premium player when you have a manager who can turn average players into good players, great players into exceptional players and exceptional players into worldly players simply through his influence and insight on the training pitch?
Well, because that process takes time, and constant transitions, plans revolving around five-year cycles and ten-year aims, has resulted in a paradox where by the time Arsenal’s latest batch of prospects have reached their optimum, the eager-for-silverware, fully-developed stars have sought to move on to new horizons. At the same time, as the Gunners came to realise last summer, once you exclude yourself from the top level of the transfer market, it’s an enormously difficult racket to break back into.
According to David Dein, Arsene Wenger once told him that the only guarantee with a big player is a big salary. But too assured in his own abilities to create his own big players, the Frenchman has overlooked the simple adage of getting what you pay for. As much as one can accuse the Gunners gaffer of penny-pinching, one has to question whether or not he’s merely over-ambitious, believing that his coaching abilities alone can rival the enormous financial strengths of Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea.
In many ways, Arsene Wenger is a victim of his own strengths. If he weren’t such a talented manager, capable of creating world-class players and coordinating an Arsenal side whose purist style is yet to be paralleled in terms of it’s aesthetic beauty and relative success, then there would undoubtedly be a few more, albeit rather slight, shades of Tony Pulis about the Gunners. Yet, the belief that this ability alone is all Arsenal need has become disturbingly outdated.
The rest of the Premier League, for morally better or worse, has decisively moved on. The transfer market can change things quicker than any manager, and as we’ve witnessed from the rises of Chelsea and Manchester City, finance is a more pivotal influence than anything that can be done on the training pitch.
Although a strong contingent of the Emirates faithful believe otherwise, I feel that Arsene Wenger is still capable of returning his club to their former glories. But in order to do so, the Frenchman must accept that his abilities alone – as almighty as they are – are simply not enough.