Can Arsene Wenger Adapt to Mount a Serious Title Challenge Again?
Towards the end of Arsenal's defeat to Chelsea yesterday, Andy Gray made an interesting comment in commentary. How long can Arsene Wenger keep telling his young players that theirs is the only way to play? That his style of bringing in young players and avoiding the big money signings will pay dividends? After five long years without a trophy, how long will they retain their belief in Arsene Wenger, given that so few of the squad have experienced success?
At Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is untouchable. There is simply no way that the club would ever consider sacking him, so he has the managerial job for as long as he wants to continue in the game. The board are happy with his style of management, the job he has done in the transition from Highbury to the Emirates, and his financial management of the club, culminating in the record pre-tax profits of £56m this year.
However, had almost any other top four manager gone five years without a trophy while struggling to even mount a credible title challenge in that period, he would be under serious pressure.
Again, Arsenal's style of play fell short against one of the top teams. Now, it is important to bear in mind that they were without a number of important players—Fabregas, Van Persie and Walcott to name just three—but yesterday’s defeat makes it five straight defeats against Chelsea in all competitions. Similarly, they have lost four of the last five matches with Manchester United, whilst Manchester City did the double over them last season.
Yesterday, they did create a couple of decent opportunities, but for all their neat one-touch passing in and around the Chelsea penalty area, it was Chelsea who showed their strength in defence and a ruthless streak up front. As Wenger himself said, "We dominated the game surprisingly easily, but we go home with zero points. We have to transform that into points."ugh
He can take heart from the fact that they were not simply brushed aside as they were last year. The second goal from Chelsea somewhat flatters them and the scoreline does not tell the whole story. However, nice passing and intricate movement does not equal points. Arsenal need to find something different against the top teams.
It is here that Arsene Wenger's transfer policy comes under scrutiny.
Marouane Chamakh was a good signing for Arsenal in the summer as he helps to give them something different. He provides an aerial and physical threat up front, that previously only Nicklas Bendtner was able to provide. The advantage of this is that it gives Arsenal a Plan B. They can now look to shift the ball wide and deliver crosses into the area, or hit the ball longer toward Chamakh as a target man.
When Arsenal are on form, particularly against the smaller teams, Plan A has the ability to rip teams to shreds. The short, intricate passes and quick movement leave teams standing, and fans purring.
However, against the top teams, this has often not worked. Against the likes of Chelsea in particular, with their excellent organisation, strong defence and screening midfielders, Arsenal often find themselves passing around in increasingly tight spaces, meaning that everything has to be 100% accurate. Even the slightest misjudgement results in the ball being given away to the opposition.
This is not just a criticism of Arsenal. We have seen similar issues with Barcelona and Spain in recent months. Against Inter in the Champions League last season, Barcelona were struggling to breach their well-organised defence and had no real alternative strategy to turn to. Similarly, Spain often struggled in the World Cup to break teams down with their short passing game.
Although not necessarily the most popular with Arsenal fans, the return of Bendtner will be a big boost. He will help to provide that Plan B alongside Chamakh if the traditional Arsenal game is not working. He also brings a physical aspect to the game that is lacking from a lot of the Arsenal players.
Another aspect that I believe is missing from Arsenal’s team is an experienced holding midfielder. Alex Song is developing into a very good holding midfielder, but he is only 23 years old. If we look at the Arsenal midfield against Chelsea yesterday, there was a distinct lack of experience.
Alex Song and Samir Nasri at 23, Abou Diaby at 24 and Jack Wilshere at 18 are all talented players, but lack something. Whether that is leadership, experience or something else, I don’t know, but the addition of another, more experienced holding midfielder would benefit them. Fabregas has the experience, but he is more of an asset further forward for Arsenal.
All of the top teams, even playing the Arsenal style of football, have a destroyer type player. It was no coincidence that Spain won their first tournament in 2008 when Marcos Senna had developed into a quality player. He was one of Spain's best players in that tournament, as well as one of the most underappreciated.
For Barcelona, Sergio Busquets plays that role, and Javier Mascherano has come in as well. Claude Makelele was one of the most important players for Chelsea as they grew into one of the country's best teams.
Chelsea yesterday demonstrated the benefits of quality players in this position. The trio of John Obi Mikel, Ramires and Michael Essien screened the defence wonderfully, and you always believed that Chelsea could withstand the pressure that was being put on them. If it had been the other way around, how much confidence would you have had in Arsenal to hold out?
The goalkeeper situation has been discussed to death, so I will not go into that in too much depth here, but it is clear that something needs to be done. Almunia is a decent keeper, but is not top class. Lukas Fabianski has had two good games against Partizan and Chelsea, but is still to prove whether he has what it takes. The great hope, Wojciech Szczesny, is still to make his Premiership debut and has only one Carling Cup appearance to his name.
Every top team in history has had a top keeper. The late Brian Clough knew the value of having a top quality keeper. In his words, "It was like buying a painting, like a Constable or a Turner. You know in a year or two's time it's going to be worth twice what it cost you. Peter Shilton was the deciding factor. I'd have paid almost any price. A team with an OK goalkeeper is always looking over its shoulder. At the back of its mind, it's thinking 'it doesn't matter what we do - the fella between the posts might make a mistake'. With Shilton in goal, it gave everyone else more confidence. It spread throughout the side. We were full of ourselves."
It will be interesting to see what happens in January. Manuel Almunia has been given the benefit of the doubt for this season after Wenger failed to bring in a keeper over the summer. However, he has failed once again.
Shay Given is the obvious choice. He is unsettled at being demoted from first choice at Manchester City, and would almost certainly jump at the chance of a move to Arsenal. At 34 years old, he still has a number of years ahead of him. Edwin van der Sar and Brad Friedel remain two of the best keepers at the age of 39.
If he does not fancy Given for some reason, Wenger has to look for an experienced and proven keeper. He cannot keep with Almunia, and testing youngsters has the potential to cost Arsenal. Bringing in a proven shot-stopper and maybe allowing either Fabianski or Szczesny to go out on loan to get regular first team football would be the obvious move.
The final aspect to look at is that of a winning mentality. It is always said that success breeds success. The top teams always have players with a winning mentality that have experience at winning trophies. At Arsenal, the experience of winning is lacking. Only Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy have ever won a trophy with Arsenal. And few of their players have ever experienced winning a league title.
The young players are fiercely loyal to Arsene Wenger, given that he was responsible for bringing them all through the system. However, they are also players that want to win trophies. The worry for Arsenal fans is what happens when they decide that the time to win trophies at Arsenal is running out.
Five years have passed without a trophy. Not even an FA Cup or Carling Cup triumph. Fabregas will move to Barcelona in the near future—that is one of the worst kept secrets in football. They managed to hang onto him this year, but the speculation and pressure will return next summer, especially if Arsenal experience another trophy-less season.
If he leaves, that will further hamper their ability to challenge unless Wenger spends to replace him. And he has no past record to suggest that he will. He sees Aaron Ramsey as the future replacement for the Spaniard. Maybe he will be. Much depends on how he recovers from his horrific injury. However, if Ramsey is the replacement, that further decreases the experience in the midfield. Other players may begin to get itchy feet.
Arsenal undoubtedly play the most attractive football in the Premiership. However, the Premiership is no beauty contest. There are no prizes for the best football. Arsene Wenger may have to adapt his style to incorporate a Plan B and Plan C if Plan A does not work. And whilst everybody loves to see talented youngsters, some experience is needed to bring them together.
That is the big challenge facing Wenger in January and next summer. His current style is not bringing success. Whether he can adapt is a different question. Maybe he is content with regular top four finishes and a job for life.
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