It has been a well documented eight years since Arsenal last won a major trophy. Their victory over Manchester United on penalties in the FA Cup was the last time that an Arsenal captain lifted a piece of silverware. At that time, the Gunners started the season as the Premier League champions, looking to defend their title. They finished second, 12 points behind Chelsea.
But after the FA Cup win and an 8th consecutive season of finishing in the top two, Wenger continued to lead one of the most dangerous clubs in English football – If only the fans knew that they needed to savour that FA Cup victory. Since then, disappointment has hit the club’s supporters on numerous occasions. A 2-1 defeat in the Champions League final to Barcelona followed in 2006, as the club finished 24 points adrift of Premier League winners Chelsea.
League Cup final defeats in 2007 to Chelsea, and embarrassingly to Birmingham City in 2011 were the last finals the club would reach, as they finished either 3rd or 4th for the next 8 years since holding the FA Cup trophy. It has been a dramatic fall from the top for Arsenal, as they have gone from title contenders and cup winners to early-round exits and a 4th place club in the league. And yet Arsene Wenger remains as the club’s manager, despite over-half a dozen years since the Frenchman lifted a trophy, and despite nine years since the club won the Premier League.
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Every year, Arsenal supporters face disappointment. However, every year, the majority of fans defend Wenger, and remain confident that he is the right man for the club. But is their faith misplaced? Since they last won any competition, the Premier League has become significantly more difficult and competitive. Chelsea and Manchester City have used their financial powers to make themselves title contenders, and Tottenham have built a team ready to play in Europe’s elite competition.
Yet it seems Wenger hasn’t changed anything about his style or tactics since he last won the league. The Frenchman hasn’t adapted to other teams competing with Arsenal, and hasn’t learnt how to contest with them. When playing the three other teams that finished in the top four this season, Arsenal only took two points away from a possible 18 this season. A huge 16 points were shared across their rivals, who watched the Gunners struggle to qualify for the Champions League.
The main reason Arsenal have found it difficult to take points away from their rivals is Arsene Wenger, and his lack of tactics. The Frenchman loves to play flowing football, keeping the ball on the floor and pushing the fullbacks forward, as he hopes that his midfielders can unlock the opposition defence with precise passes. But there is no plan B. There is no second strategy if his club aren’t winning. He doesn’t include a substitute who plays with a different style of play that could change the fortunes at the club. There is only one way to play under Wenger, and no consideration for a back-up game plan.
Wenger refuses to play against the opposition too. He believes that his style of play can defeat every team, and no matter who the opposition are, they will crumble under his ‘mastermind plan’. The French manager doesn’t consider who the other team will play, or how they will try and move the ball against his side. Too many times, he doesn’t contemplate that the opposition wingers have the pace to get in behind Arsenal’s high playing fullbacks, or that his ‘tactics’ have left Mertesacker and Koscielny exposed and lonely in defence, open to be broken on the counter attack.
Wenger 100 per cent believes that he has the best way of playing football, that is capable of destroying any team in front of him so much so that he doesn’t need to think about who the other team is. Whether it’s Morecambe or Manchester United, the 63-year-old is adamant he knows best, otherwise he would change it. Chelsea highlighted Wenger’s lack of tactical knowledge last season. The Blues didn’t win the Champions League by playing the same entertaining style of football every match. Roberto Di Matteo went to the Camp Nou and the Allianz Arena, and played defensively. In the semi-finals he limited Barcelona’s options, getting his team to absorb the pressure and sit deep. But he also told his players how to expose the Catalan giants, waiting for space to emerge where the full-backs would normally be, and hit them on the break. It was the same strategy that Jose Mourinho brought to the Camp Nou when he was in charge of Inter Milan, who also went on to lift the most coveted trophy in Europe.
Chelsea were defensive in the final too. They were constantly pinned back by Bayern Munich’s superior play in the middle of the pitch. But Di Matteo got his players to restrict Bayern around Petr Cech’s goal, and absorb the pressure. They tried to counter attack, and eventually won the corner that led to their late equaliser. The rest is history for Chelsea, as they lifted a trophy Arsenal got so close to, but missed out on in Paris. Two perfect illustrations of playing against the opposition, and getting fantastic results from it. But Wenger remains adamant that his way is the best way. Arsenal tried to attack Schalke in the Champions League this year, where they lost 2-0 at home, and threw away a 2-0 lead away, because he refused to defend.
It seems he also believes that no matter how many goals they concede, they will always score more. With consistent reports saying that Steve Bould doesn’t get to coach the defenders, a position he played at for 20 years, it seems Wenger only wants his players to think about attacking, and not protecting Wojciech Szczesny in the Arsenal goal. In 2011, journalists asked Wenger whether he needed to bring in a defence specialist to coach his back four. The Arsenal boss responded: “I’ve just completed 30 years of coaching. I don’t want to answer this kind of question.” A hint that the Frenchman was again adamant that it’s his way or the highway. His focus on defence then changed this year too.
The media were quick to credit Steve Bould’s influence on Arsenal’s better defensive start to the season. Journalists started asking Arsene Wenger about it and after initially praising Bould’s influence, the French manager acted out. Reports emerged that at the start of the season, Bould was having extra defensive sessions with the team, but then Arsene put a stop to them when Bould started getting a lot of praise. Wenger didn’t want Bould to take too much credit for Arsenal’s defensive improvement because it might intensify feelings of disenchantment towards him from the fans. With his job security being questioned, Wenger wanted to take the full credit for Arsenal’s results, and went back to focusing purely on the team’s attacking game.
But it’s difficult to see how Arsenal can win another trophy with Wenger still in charge. With the Premier League becoming more competitive, the Frenchman needs to know how to play against every team, and what he needs to do differently in each match. But instead, Arsenal’s boss remains unyielding to change his style of play, in an almost arrogant fashion. His blind belief that he will win trophies without someone regularly coaching his defence, or without even contemplating who the opposition are, will just continue Arsenal’s long run of years without a piece of silverware.
The Arsenal boss has had a fantastic career, winning seven major trophies with the club, and going a whole season unbeaten. But it seems the French manager is stuck in his ways, and has failed to see the adaptation of the league, or managers around him. His style may have seen his team become the best club in the league nine years ago, but things today are very different.
Without defence, without a plan B and without a game plan against Europe’s best teams, Arsenal will fail to relive their golden years under Wenger.
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