The Arsenal Football Club Conundrum (Part 2: The Reality)
"Patriotism Is the Last Refuge of a Scoundrel"
On many facets, Arsenal have demonstrated an informed understanding of what it takes to succeed as a football club at the highest level. The 2009-2010 season of spirit in which the North Londoners are constantly posing a threat as a title-holder only reaffirms these values.
However, with these tremendous qualities, it is easy to turn a blind eye to the shortcomings displayed by Wenger and Co. Nevertheless, it is not as much these faults that lead to the downfall of Arsenal; rather, it is the majority of Gunner fans’ inability to understand the philosophy of the club that produces this blissful ignorance.
The Arsenal Way—at least in the past decade—has featured tidbits of creativity cut across conservative pragmatism. Arsenal fans around the world share their passion for the club by not merely watching the team, but by also following every tabloid, editorial, opinion, and blog post. The high majority of which comes from an impatient, over-demanding, and short-sighted British media that creates a domino effect.
It is these fans’ belligerently blind patriotism to a club that masks the deep-rooted problems. Wenger’s wide-varying interests combined with a multicultural squad illustrate his belief in having an educated-cum-cultured perspective on football.
Despite this, Gunner fans across the world insist on short-term quick-fixes: Minor adjustments that need to be made to secure the title in the "best league in the world." Purchasing a player or changing a formation will repair all of Arsenal’s problems, including a historically weak mentality.
However, it can be stated that to determine a team’s value, you have to look at how they perform versus the crème de la récolte , and Arsenal’s results were not the most flattering this past season. Two losses to Manchester United—the second of which was over by half—as well as two losses to their cross-town rival Chelsea—the first of which was over in the 23rd minute—signal a deeper problem than fans allude to.
Furthermore, shocking results such as the Sunderland loss and the West Ham United draw—in which the Hammers scored two goals in the final 14 minutes—only add a layer of problems that get swept under the carpet.
Wenger’s failure in competing with the best is often a mask for Arsenal’s long-standing deficiencies. “Chelsea are more experienced—they are 29, we are 23” is his flavour-of-the-day line against the Blues.
Unsurprisingly, his besotted followers barely strike a counter-argument.
However, one player made quite possibly the most precise statement of Arsenal’s deep-rooted problems in the past few years. This came from none other than el capitano , Francesc “Cesc” Fàbregas.
“As a team, we need to be stronger,” the Arsenal midfielder declared. “We can't hide behind people saying we are too young or we have injuries. We just have to compete. People say you must learn from your mistakes, but you learn how to play football when you are 12, 13, 14, 15. You don't learn these things when you are 25...That is why I do not believe age is an excuse.
“In the past few years, we have been doing very well, but whenever it comes to important moments, maybe we haven’t been up where we need to be. We have always tried to play our football, but the goals we have conceded lately have come from defensive mistakes.
“We can keep playing the same style of football, but it is the mentality that will determine whether you win trophies or not. We need an extra edge in these big games. We want to do well and get better and better, that is for sure.”
Wenger’s response? An inherent contradiction.
“When we lost against Chelsea and Manchester United here, and I must say it was in a convincing way, everybody got a little bit carried away, and you have to go a bit overboard.”
Consistent losses versus the best teams and it’s the fans fault?
Wenger is so good at cover-ups, he should work for L'Oréal. Then again, "youth is on their side."
We have a young team and if we want to have a future then we have to show mental quality and not give up, no matter what happens.
Fàbregas’s reference to a weak mentality may be visibly accurate, but it may not hold enough weight, because the Gunners do play "beautiful football."
An aesthetically-pleasing style is often what entertains the crowd, and FC Barcelona’s internationally-renowned clever style has brought fortune and fame to the Catalans.
Nonetheless, it doesn’t necessarily contribute to the one category that matters—wins.
Pedro Garcia-del-Barrio and Stefan Szymanski’s “Goal! Profit Maximization Versus Win Maximization in Soccer” furthers the notion that winning professional games often lead to an increase in generated revenue and the potential to be a mega-brand.
Arsenal are a major club pioneered by their clustered success, and revitalized by their artistic style of play. Despite this, they have failed to register a mark on the international radar of European success where Manchester United, FC Barcelona, Real Madrid C.F, AC Milan, Liverpool FC, Juventus FC, and others currently inhabit.
The Gooners greatest Champions League triumph was reaching the finals in 2005-2006 before losing to Barça (despite breaking the record for the most consecutive clean sheets with 10).
Statistically, that puts them tied for 24th since the European Cup originated in 1955-56. It seems Arsenal has progressed, but has failed to get "over the hump." Thankfully, the players (and the fans) haven’t noticed.
"Passion Doesn’t Look Beyond the Moment of Its Existence"
Wenger’s loyalty to his squad is reciprocated by them, but there is often a disconnect between the fans and the players they support (for the time being). Wenger’s patience with Emmanuel Eboué and Nicklas Bendtner has provided dividends 10-fold.
Bendtner, who arrived at the Emirates at just 16, has shown flashes of brilliance even prior to this season. He is highly rated internationally and has been nothing short of a sensation for Denmark, yet he has often not demonstrated the same form for Arsenal.
Contrary to popular opinion, Bendtner’s inconsistency has less to do with desire and more to do with finding the right position and formation for him.
At 6’2'', Bendtner has the height to be a target-man, yet his penchant for dribbling in wide space in the final third is more natural for a 4-3-3 Winger or a 4-4-1-1 supporting striker. The man with No. 52 on his back likes having the ball and his confidence rarely wanes.
Even with these superb qualities, Bendtner has been the target of frustration and jeers from fans for his unpredictable form—at just 22. Recently, he has been in scintillating form, netting a hat trick in the Champions League against Porto and sealing Arsenal’s 2-1 victory against Hull City with a 90th minute strike.
“It shows you how football can change very quickly,” said Wenger. Is he talking about the player’s form or the fans’ support?
Emmanuel Eboué has proven to be a versatile player at both fullback and midfielder in a variety of formations. His dynamic style combines well with a number of players—arguably best with former Gunner Emmanuel Adebayor—and this is the reason up-and-coming team Fiorentina pressed hard to purchase him.
However, Arsenal fans want to forget one moment.
On December 7, 2008, after recovering from a six week injury, Eboué battled against Wigan. He was understandably struggling to adapt, and it resulted in Arsenal fans cheering his every mistake and applauding loudly when he was substituted despite his being visibly upset.
Neil Ashton at the Daily Mail wrote “Eboue was not even that bad” and I, for one, agree.
Many Arsenal fans will be quick to dismiss this as an isolated incident, but this is in character with their absurd, if not unfounded, expectations of players.
While this is not the first case of jeering a player, Wenger preaches patience and the development of his players.
Arsenal fans did not catch that speech.
This episode is one of the foremost reasons why I am embarrassed to be an Arsenal fan. Emotions aside, Chris McGrath at The Independent connects this occurrence with a broader meaning:
“Paying to watch Premier League football is an increasingly precarious luxury. But whatever they contribute to Eboué’s wages, the real problem is that these people feel the world owes them a living.”
Swiss international Philippe Senderos similarly faces a confidence issue. In 2005, at age 20, Senderos was one of the hottest centre back prospects in the world. The robust defender was slowly being featured in Arsenal’s Starting XI, highlighted by injury woes to William Gallas. His rise to prominence continued by playing a pivotal role for the Swiss national team, including scoring a goal in World Cup 2006.
Yet after several disappointing club showings—including a very poor performance against Didier Drogba, arguably the world’s best striker—he was berated by fans and in the media. A once poised Senderos looked in tatters as was frequently met with the absurd accusation that he "was not good enough for Arsenal."
Now loaned to Everton, the player who once was famed for his aerial power, has failed to regain his confidence and his career seems to be spiralling out of control.
However, to say he is not talented enough is in-congruent with the fact that Senderos has been capped over thirty times for the Swiss National team, all before the age of 24.
Similarly puzzling concerns on over-the-hill players like Mikaël Silvestre and, particularly, 35-year-old Sol Campbell speaks to the club's bizarre inability to find quality. Silvestre was a fourth-string centre back with the Red Devils while Campbell was a one-game superstar for powerhouse Notts County (all in the name of “rebuilding”). These are short-term fixes and even they can't be argued as truly being fixes.
One other player who, despite tremendous skill, finds his position with the squad being debated is Tomáš Rosický, "The Little Mozart."
He has remarkable vision, a soft touch, and is an excellent passer, but his history has been hampered by long spells of injuries. In May 2009 he returned to training after 18 months in the physiotherapy clinic only to injure his hamstring and subsequently re-visit the clinic for six weeks.
It is quite apparent that Rosický’s ability has declined from the class that he once was. However, what is more damaging is the inability to rely on Rosický if needed. At the back of many Arsenal fans’ mind is the countdown till Rosický is injured again.
I appreciate the subtleness of talent, such as the perennially under-appreciated Bulgarian Dimitar Berbatov, but at times Diaby seems more interested in religion, philosophy, and science than he does in football.
The 22-year-old’s courage is admirable, but his heavy-footed and slow-paced style is not the right fit for protection of Arsenal’s fluid attack. As previously mentioned, the Gunner’s style focuses on team play which requires players to go forward and allow for support.
As a result, Arsenal are left vulnerable to counter-attacks as there is space between the mid-line and the defending third.
A look at Arsenal’s past fixtures—especially against Chelsea and earlier in Champions League—shows the Gunners defending against the counter-attack with Song frequently unable to catch up and support the defenders. Song is more of a holding midfielder who, despite his stature, is often weak in the tackle. Furthermore, he is rather clumsy and can lose the ball under pressure.
To put it candidly, Song would be the third best defensive midfielder on mid-table Sunderland where former Marseille captain Lorik Cana and up-and-comer Lee Cattermole dwell. Song has demonstrated many strong similarities with Fullham’s Nigerian Dickson Etuhu, but are we saying a backup on Arsenal’s cross-town enemy is potentially the future to replace stalwarts such as Patrick Vieira and Gilberto Silva?
Goal.com put it brilliantly: “There is one key element missing from Arsenal’s midfield: steel.
The Future of Arsenal
Ultimately, Arsenal Football Club’s financial future is optimistic; Revenue will increase and the club will slowly close the gap between itself and Real Madrid.
On the field, it’s another story.Arsenal's artistic style has continued to attract followers, though many do not fully understand the club’s vision and philosophy. Club administration needs to stop relying on the Premiership Championships of 1997-98, 2001-02, and 2003-04. Arsenal’s rise to a mega-club will continue, but will its performance on the field catch up? At least one fan will be waiting to see.