Arsenal FC: Why Arsene Wenger Is Finally at the Crossroads
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It has now been six years since Arsenal won a trophy.
Six long years, during which their rivals have stolen a significant march on the Gunners. In the time which has elapsed since Patrick Vieira scored the decisive penalty that extraordinary afternoon in Cardiff, we have seen Manchester United win a further three league titles and another Champions League title, Chelsea have won three league titles and Liverpool have won an FA Cup and a fifth European Cup/Champions League.
Heck, even Portsmouth and Birmingham have managed to win a couple of trophies between them!
After that victory at The Millennium Stadium, Arsene Wenger began a shift in strategy, both in terms of buying policy and playing philosophy. He eschewed big money signings and instead concentrated on harvesting the best youngsters from around the world in attempt to create a team of wunderkind.
He also moved away from the strapping, intimidating players that Arsenal were renowned for such as Keown, Campbell, Adams and Vieira. In support of his new policies, fresh blood was introduced with lithe and nimble, mainly young, players like Aleksandr Hleb, Denilson, Tomas Rosicky, Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Andre Arshavin.
This policy came during a period which saw Wenger oversee the move from the venerable, but severely restricted, Highbury to the palatial surroundings of The Emirates.
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Wenger suggested that Arsenal, due to the debts incurred from their stadium move, would not be able to add big name players for some time, and that that was the reason to go with youth. Arsenal supporters accepted this explanation for a time, as Wenger insisted that once his young group of players matured, the team would make strides towards the trophies he and the supporters craved.
However, nearly six years on and Arsenal seem no nearer to winning that all-elusive trophy. A golden chance came and went against the minnows of Birmingham City in the League Cup Final, Barcelona shattered their European dreams for the second year in a row, while Manchester United put paid to their FA Cup dreams for another year.
Meanwhile, in the league, Arsenal continue to press the self-destruct button, summed up by a draw away to West Bromwich Albion. The rumblings that have been growing will rise to a huge crescendo if Arsenal end the season empty-handed for the sixth year in a row.
What is starting to grate with the Arsenal fans is that Wenger has been trotting out the same lines, year after year. This team is maturing, they will grow into men, they are young men who need to be nurtured. These platitudes have been peddled by Wenger for far too long.
The reality is that some of the players that Wenger has been so loyal to will never be top players capable of competing for the game's top prizes.
I'm talking about the likes of Djorou, Denilson, Vela and Bendtner. Add to this recent purchases such as Laurent Koscielny, Sebastien Squillachi and Marouane Chamakh—who were never of the top grade anyway—and you have a team that is woefully short on the calibre of players required to make that next leap and win a trophy.
A fact also painfully obvious to seemingly all but Wenger is the lack of leaders in his team. Where are the men who would grind that extra 10 percent out of their colleagues, who would lay their bodies on the line for the cause, who would stare into the eyes of any team that dared to try and intimidate them or their teammates?
Men such as the likes of Keown, Adams, Winterburn, Vieira and Petit would stand shoulder to shoulder and sweat blood for the cause. Wenger has no one to undertake this role anymore.
It's the very reason why the likes of Chelsea and Man United are able to grind out wins against Arsenal; simply play tough and rough the Gunners stars up to knock them off their stride.
Wenger's current captain is Cesc Fabregas. A stellar player, no doubt, but does he really measure up to the Arsenal captains of old?
What Cesc requires is a strong combative midfielder beside him who would undertake the tough tackling, allowing Fabregas to get on with the creative side of his game. But all Wenger has for that area is Alex Song—a good player for sure, but not one who measures up to the likes of Vieira or Petit or even Gilberto Silva.
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A final source of frustration for Arsenal's fans is Wenger's inability to strengthen the spine of his team by bringing in top-class recruitments. Even Wenger's goalkeepers are all a disaster waiting to happen. Only Szczesny looks like he has the makings of a decent keeper, but he has been thrown in far too early because his rivals for the role—Almunia and Fabianski—have been too flaky to be trusted.
Wenger's central defence is also an error-strewn wasteland, barring the excellent Thomas Vermaelen. And oh, wasn't it inspired poetic justice that the goal that ultimately cost Arsenal dear in the League Cup Final should be as result of a mix-up between a goalkeeper and central defender?!
Look further up the field and you see Alex Song living in the shadows of his illustrious defensive midfield forefathers, and Marouane Chamakh proving manfully just why he was a waste of money—even on a free transfer!
Arsenal fans have been crying out for a strong goalkeeper like Mark Schwarzer, who Wenger baulked at paying an extra one million for in the summer. They have been willing for Wenger to sign a robust defender like Gary Cahill, but Wenger felt he would be harming the development of Koscielny and Squillachi—25 and 30 years old respectively, by the way.
Wenger refuses to break the bank for a top-level striker because he believed that Bendtner will shed the ugly duckling role and develop into a swan. This myopic and misguided belief that you can win the modern Premier League with cheap, young imports is the reason that Arsenal fans are finally beginning to question whether Wenger has finally run his course at Arsenal.
For long enough, the mantra going round the Emirates has been "Arsene knows." The blind faith Arsenal supporters have shown in Wenger is testament to a man who altered the face of English football forever with his continental methods when he arrived on these shores in September 1996.
He has build three distinctly different title-winning teams. He has changed the philosophy of Arsenal forever and been the driving force behind the move to The Emirates Stadium.
But even messiahs fall. Even heroes stumble. Even wise men stray from the right path. And even the most loyal of followers eventually lose faith if their hero/messiah does not deliver on their promises.
Arsenal still have the league title to go for this season. But if they finish the season empty-handed for the sixth year in a row, Arsene Wenger will face the toughest and most agonising decision of his career.
Does he persevere with his long-term plan of developing a team of young, inexpensive starlets? Or does he finally admit that his project has failed and rip up the blueprints and start again?
The answers will be revealed in the coming months. But one thing is for sure: Arsenal will never be the same again after this summer and Arsene Wenger is facing the most crucial two months of his Arsenal career.
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