Arsenal: How Arsene Wenger's 2012/13 Performance Stacks Up to Years Past
Arsene Wenger's 2012/13 performance compares favorably with any achievement during his time in charge of Arsenal. By securing another top-four finish in the context of the 2012/13 season, Wenger has produced a minor miracle.
He has done it by cleverly boosting competition in arguably his weakest-ever squad. The Frenchman has also displayed a tactical flexibility few ever give him credit for.
Wenger began the season facing up to losing his most talented player, Robin van Persie. After the Dutchman had slyly manipulated his way through the exit door, Wenger was tasked with replacing a 37-goal striker.
That ruined the original intention to have Lukas Podolski provide greater support for van Persie. It sent Wenger scrambling into a market not containing a like-for-like replacement.
Even after signing the more bullish Olivier Giroud, Wenger still needed to identify the right type of forward to support Arsenal's combination play.
Podolski, Giroud, Gervinho and Theo Walcott were all auditioned to mixed success. Wenger had to find the right balance for a team with new players in key positions.
Not only did the forward line lack structure, but so did the midfield. The late sale of Alex Song left a void in midfield.
Wenger gambled that dropping veteran schemer Mikel Arteta deeper was the answer. Yet, while his new-look team lacked a structure and identity, Wenger relied on a new approach to team defending to yield early successes.
That involved working with new assistant manager Steve Bould to emphasize dropping more players behind the ball. Arsenal didn't press in numbers and had a more disciplined approach to defending deeper.
While that crafted some initial positive results, the balance of the attack suffered. That forced Wenger into another shift.
His search for balance continually led to parts of a winning formula but never a full picture. Like a master craftsman, it was up to Wenger to do the rendering.
However, he had to hone and reshape his grand design during the season, when results are all that counts. His necessary tweaking and retooling often led to failings on the pitch, most notably cup exits to Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers.
Yet despite the inevitable swarm of criticism that followed each high-profile loss, Wenger did not relent. He continued working feverishly to mold the right blend of players and tactics to keep Arsenal competitive.
When his new-look midfield balance was wrecked by yet another injury to Abou Diaby, Wenger brought Jack Wilshere into the fold. After it became evident that Wilshere and Santi Cazorla did not complement each other as a central partnership, Wenger made another adjustment.
He shifted Cazorla out wide, despite his successes in the middle, and pushed Wilshere further forward. That meant altering his original 4-3-3 dynamic to something more akin to a 4-5-1.
It was more defensive in structure and intent than Wenger has often favored, but it worked. Since Wenger moved Cazorla to the left, giving Arsenal four true midfielders, the Gunners have been a more cohesive team.
However, it is Wenger's handling of individual players that has been so impressive this season. The contract saga involving Theo Walcott grew into a distraction.
It added weight to the arguments that Arsenal had become too weak to retain star players and were now a selling club. Yet after dealing with the mercenary tactics of van Persie and the inflated ego of Song, Wenger used the Walcott dilemma to his advantage.
First, he stood firm and dropped Walcott from the starting 11. The message had the desired effect. Walcott took every opportunity he was given to prove he should be starting.
Whether he was doing it for Arsenal or for potential suitors was irrelevant. A player marked by chronic inconsistency was now delivering on a regular basis.
After letting Walcott stew in domestic cup duty, Wenger finally unleashed him back on the English Premier League. However, rather than let Walcott's improved form become a bargaining chip for the player to hold the club to ransom, Wenger kept Arsenal in the driving seat in negotiations.
He indulged Walcott's long-held desire to play as a central striker. This was not a capitulation in a contract standoff.
It was a calculated risk worth taking at the time. The move paid immediate dividends, leading Arsenal to some positive results at the turn of the year.
It also put the ball in Walcott's court. Arsenal had done all they had to do to keep him; now it was purely down to the player. By the time Walcott put pen to paper, he had proved his worth to the squad on the field and his commitment to his teammates off it.
Wenger's skill in resolving Walcott's contract problem left Arsenal with a better player and a more unified squad.
Similar man-management success stories occurred at goalkeeper and central defence. When Wenger dumped Wojciech Szczesny to the bench, it forced the cocky young stopper to commit to improving his game.
It let Szczesny know that despite a perceived lack of competition, his place was far from guaranteed without the performances to justify it.
Dumping club captain and starting centre-back Thomas Vermaelen sent a more team-wide message. Wenger let every player know they were not above reproach.
His recent squads have often been seen as too comfortable, but dropping Vermaelen showed the ruthless streak many felt Wenger lacked. He did what was necessary to improve Arsenal's fortunes.
He let Per Mertesacker become the leader at the back. The German formed a stout combination with Laurent Koscielny, who was magnificent in the season's final months.
Yet, as well as both played, neither can feel comfortable with Vermaelen lurking. In the same way, the Belgium international knows that if he wants to save his Arsenal career, he must make the most of his next chance.
While changes at the heart of his defence made Arsenal more solid, it was Wenger's willingness to adopt a more defensive structure that proved to be the key.
Once he paired Aaron Ramsey alongside Arteta, to form a two-man base in midfield, Arsenal became a stingy outfit. They still dropped off in deep areas, but Wenger and Bould encouraged more pressing in advanced positions.
They also got the team to defend in packs, particularly in wider areas. In the season's last two months, Wenger crafted a plan that enabled Arsenal to carve out wins and protect leads.
He is often portrayed as the symbol of football snobbery and intransigence. Wenger's insistence on playing the beautiful game, no matter what, is one of the favorite retorts of his critics.
However, he proved, not for the first time, that he is prepared to sacrifice flair if it means earning results. In the final 10 games of the season, a run which produced 26 points from 30, Arsenal kept five clean sheets and allowed only five goals.
That type of solidity wouldn't have been possible without tactical adjustments, and any other manager would receive plaudits for that improvement.
In the last two seasons Wenger has lost his three best players in van Persie, Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas. While he has struggled to reproduce the same quality, he has molded a squad based on greater resilience and unity.
He spent the 2012/13 season altering and adding to a new design on the fly. He moved players into different positions and developed them in new roles. He spurred other members of the squad to improve their form. Wenger kept Arsenal moving even after embarrassing defeats that might have crippled other clubs.
In doing so, he earned UEFA Champions League entry for an incredible 16th season in a row. He beat a Tottenham Hotspur club that boasted the Player of the Year and spent big to land Hugo Lloris, Jan Vertonghen, Moussa Dembele and others.
Becoming a major force in the EPL title race and a legitimate contender for the Champions League is the next step for Wenger. However, Arsenal's miracle worker proved in 2012/13 that he is still the best man for the job.
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