Has Wenger’s dreams turned to nightmare?
Is his fantasy football ambition being scuppered by the need to win?
Arsene Wenger is for me undoubtedly the best manager in the Premiership and one of the greatest in the World. While Alex Ferguson has achieved greater trophy success, this must be weighted by the fact he has been at the helm of considerable resources at a giant football club. Mourinho, similarly, had untold resources at his fingertips and developed a mercenary winning style of play. In contrast, although Arsenal are also a very big club, Mr Wenger inherited it while it was still wallowing in its historic 37,000 stadium and with relatively limited resources. The fact that he has achieved his fair share of trophies, maintained top four finishes consistently amongst clubs with phenomenal transfer funds available to them, maintained the longest continual spell of Champions League qualification and turned Arsenal into a global brand for attractive football is testament to his genius. When you consider his transfers spend is comparable to a mid-lower table team and his use of players more youthful than other clubs might wish to risk, his brilliance is compounded further. But has he now reached a moral dilemma?
Seeing an early opportunity to exploit the deficiencies of an English game that had become defensive, functional and risk averse, his introduction of a new breed of super-skilled, super athletes simply destroyed everything in its path. With six-foot midfielders mixed with tough old campaigners, his trophy winning teams were prone to the occasional red card in the call of duty. They were certainly no pushovers and attuned to the physical demands of the English game. Yet despite his successes, the desire to develop a crop of young prodigies to produce trophy winning success with pure fantasy football remains his ultimate desire.
Away with the tough-tackling midfielder and robust striker and in with smaller more agile, multi-skilled players tasked with the roles of both attack and defence. Out went their familiar tall aggressive defensive pillars and in came smaller, more mobile, nimble-footed centre backs who might easily forge careers in the midfield of other teams. Without doubt, the new model has produced some scintillating football and has been a sight to behold on many occasions. However, they have also been equally inept on other days when faced with well organised, physical opponents, simply aimed at stopping them from playing. With no Viera, Parlour, Petit or Gilberto-like figures to take up the fight, this inadequacy becomes prevalent amongst the team. Like a skilful welterweight versus a heavyweight boxer, his team can on occasions seem unable to make any impact offensively or defensively before resorting to pitter-patter, duck and get out flurries to keep their more powerful opponent at bay and get through the fight without suffering too many heavy blows, often losing on points. This lack of defensive instinct and aggressive tenacity has also been their undoing in the latter stages of the Champions League where highly efficient opponents have again stifled their play and exploited their defensive deficiencies.
Has Wenger come to the end of the road with his approach to the game in the Premiership? He has certainly been personally responsible for instigating a greater tolerance from English supporters and officiators towards a more skilful game. But the purer football style of the continent is currently a change too far, bearing in mind the successful global TV product that is the Premiership’s unique spectacle of fast pace and bone-crunching tackles. To achieve technical excellence requires honing those skills on a day-to-day basis against opponents of similar ambition hence Barcelona’s achievement. Many Premiership teams have little ambition to provide football entertainment and simply the desire to win, or not lose, by whichever mode of play is necessary. A game against Arsenal is certainly not the platform for most to test their own passing skills and therein lays Mr Wenger’s dilemma. His current team are not geared for dogged physical battles and competing very often in this environment stifles their development towards his ambition of technical excellence. As such, their game although admirably attractive, remains in ‘no-mans land’ and too often falls short of the mark when faced with the highly efficient strategies of the very top sides in both the Premiership and in Europe.
It could be argued that his team are relatively young and still on something of a learning curve but will they simply become demoralised over time by the frustrating reality that to win in the Premiership means more often than not, winning the physical battle. Are they being fed false ambitions that they will one day be able to dominate the Premiership with Barcelona like interplay? Arsenal certainly has some exceptional young English talents racing through their ranks that already possess great physical presence. But at the ages of 17-19 they are at least a couple of seasons away from mixing it with the big boys.
Right now, a Viera-type midfield enforcer and rugged Tony Adams-like centre back would not go amiss in the current team and would certainly make Arsenal appear more tangible trophy contenders. However, this would represent a step backward in fantasy football terms and I am not sure it is one that Mr Wenger is prepared to take. Can Arsene Wenger afford to persist with his instinctive, fluid football strategy while the trophy cabinet remains bare for yet another season? Will he eventually have to succumb to the overbearing reality that Premier Leaguefootball is not an arena for the more beautiful aspects of the game and rebalance his vision to accommodate the steel and functionality that winning it demands.
My suspicion is that being a winner at heart, failure to collect silverware this term might result in a revised playing strategy and may even lead to changes in personnel come next season.