When Arsene Wenger arrived at Highbury in 1996 he inherited an Arsenal team that was sparse of attacking capability (Wright and Bergkamp aside), but forged in steel at the back.
The names of Seaman, Dixon, Keown, Bould, Adams and Winterburn are etched, not just in Arsenal history but in Premier League history as well.
Those six players allowed Wenger to set himself the task of making Arsenal more solid in the midfield, which he did with the signings of Patrick Vieira and Manu Petit; and more scorching in attack, which he achieved with the signings of Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, Nicolas Anelka and, of course Thierry Henry.
‘Boring, boring Arsenal’ became the entertainers of the English game and also the first team in the Premier League era to launch a sustained challenge to Manchester United’s supremacy.
Trophies followed and the previously unknown Frenchman became the toast of England, credited for improvements in diet and philosophy.
Now, fifteen years later it is those philosophies that are threatening to bring down the Wenger era. The chorus of boos that greeted the players at the end of the FRIENDLY match with the Red Bulls was a sign for concern.
There has been growing discontent amongst the Arsenal faithful about Wenger’s reluctance to spend big money married with his belief that he can nurture players from youth to full team. One such player, Denilson has recently been loaned back to Brazil due to his inability to perform effectively in the Premier League.
The single biggest issue to have affected Arsenal in six years since they last lifted a trophy is at the back.
Following the departure of Jens Lehmann in 2008 Arsenal have used four goalkeepers: Manuel Almunia, Lucasz Fabianski, Vito Mannone, Wojciech Szczesny (five if you count Lehman’s return). Compare this to their rivals during the same period: Man Utd – Van der Sar; Liverpool – Reina; Chelsea – Petr Cech. Even at Man City it’s not inconceivable that Joe Hart will be their keeper for the next decade. Wenger’s juggling in this vital position brings about instability, which leads to problems even before one considers the merits of the individual stoppers.
Last summer Arsenal flirted with bids for both Pep Reina and Mark Schwarzer. However, neither deal materialised and the club entered the season with the same set of keepers.
With such uncertainty behind them it’s little wonder that Arsenal’s defence has encountered such problems.
Wenger has tried a number of players (including bringing back Sol Campbell at one point). He also brought in Emanuel Eboue, Bacary Sagna, Thomas Vermaelen, Laurence Koscielny and Seb Squillaci with varying levels of success.
Vermaelen has looked a tidy defender with an eye for goal, but also with a susceptibility to injury. However, both Koscielny and Squillaci have shown themselves to be prone to error (for Koscielny, see his part in Birmingham’s winner in the Carling Cup final).
What all three of these central defenders possess is the ability to ‘get the ball down and play it’, which follows the Wenger philosophy of passing football. However, it can be argued that what those players DON’T possess is the ability to get down with the mud an’ studs and put their bodies on the line for the team.
It was interesting to watch Martin Keown (a stonewall member of the mud an’ studs brigade if ever there was one). He was working for ESPN at the Emirates Cup and was asked about the transfer rumours regarding Phil Jagielka and Chris Samba. Keown claimed he wasn’t sure they were ‘Arsenal type players’ as they wouldn’t necessarily be inclined to ‘bring the ball out’.
I would have thought that Keown, above many, would have realised the need to have a stopper in the side. Someone who can clear the lines. I couldn’t see Jagielka dithering at Wembley like Koscielny did in the Carling Cup. Alan Hansen developed a perspective whilst at Liverpool that ‘they can’t score from row Z’.
United have built so much of their recent success on the partnership between Ferdinand (the ball player) and Vidic (the stopper). Chelsea’s success under Mourinho came with a similar double-act in Terry and Carvalho. During Liverpool’s second place finish in 2009 it was primarily Carragher alongside Agger at the back.
The accusation of players like Jagielka and Samba ‘not being Arsenal players’ may actually be their greatest strength. After all, the Arsenal philosophy has become almost a joke term in how not to be successful.
Manchester United has as good as trademarked the style of mixing strength with skill; whilst Nani performs his flicks and tricks, there is Darren Fletcher protecting the back four.
Following the sale of Gael Clichy the Arsenal defence has begun to look very thin. Kieran Gibbs now appears to be the first choice full back and, whilst he’s appeared at various levels for England and served a couple of loan spells it’s a big ask to come into a defence as shaky as Arsenal’s and fit right in. When Ashley Cole was ‘blooded’ it was alongside organisers like Tony Adams.
The boos at the end of the recent match with NY Red Bulls were ominous. Most Premier League fans wait until the third of fourth game before they turn on the manager. However, Wenger’s relationship with the faithful has been decaying for some time. In the last six years they have teetered from the second best team in the country, to the third best. Now, with the ascent of Man City they are fourth best and as such are the ones to be looking behind (to Liverpool and Spurs) rather than ahead. It would be inconceivable for them to not make the Champions League. Their sound finances have been partly built on more than a decade amongst the elite.
Mark Twain was quoted (incorrectly as it turns out) as saying ‘rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated’. And so it is with predictions of Arsenal’s demise. Even when Liverpool and not Man City made up the ‘top four’ it was Arsenal who was always predicted to be the ones to drop out.
However, there is a feeling that Wenger has gone from being defensive to curmudgeonly in his beliefs and in his faith of his players. The fans, some of whom pay £100 for a match day ticket know that the back five is not good enough to win the title. So why doesn’t Wenger?
Article courtesy of Alan Bradburne from This is Futbol