Wenger's Reign Haunted by Ghosts of Arsenal's Past
For Arsene Wenger, these are troubling times. His team's five minutes of madness in the North London derby, followed up by a poor display against Stoke City that saw his team go down 2-1, have only increased the pressure.
His defence appears shaky and leaks goals, Manuel Almunia has gone from appearing to be a future England international to the error-prone 'keeper he was when he first appeared in the Premier League.
Elsewhere his team have found themselves out-fought and out-battled far too often and there appears to be a real leadership vacuum on the pitch as William Gallas continues to appear a somewhat underwhelming figurehead for his team.
For Wenger and Arsenal fans alike this has been a worrying week. The team appear to have forgotten the lessons of last season, where they set at teams apace, fought for every ball, and stood up to be counted against the bully boys—instead of progression there appears to be regression, and after four years of talking up the potential of this team, this is not a positive thing for Wenger.
As such, pressure continues to build on Wenger. Once considered one of the securest managers in the Premiership, now he is beginning to face mounting criticism. There is a growing feeling that Wenger's style of play and philosophy are not conducive to Premier League success, while his trust in both young players and certain senior players alike have caused some fans to ask questions of the great man.
On reflection, Wenger can probably easily see what the missing ingredients are in this team, a real stomach for the fight, a figurehead to provide leadership on the pitch, a defence which knows the art of defending inside out, and some players who can do the so-called "dirty-work" on the pitch, giving a platform for the more skillful players to be successful.
When he reflects on the differences between this current Arsenal teams and his most successful teams, as astute a manager as Wenger could easily observe that perhaps what his team is missing most is a bit of good old English backbone.
When Wenger first arrived, he was lucky enough to inherit a defensive unit which is one of the most legendary in English football history. Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Martin Keown, Steve Bould, and Nigel Winterburn were defenders who knew the ins and outs of defending. They formed one of the tightest defences around, able to deal with attacks both on the pitch and in the air, and all were very willing to put their head in where it hurts.
Wenger was lucky to take over such a talented defence, and he made them the base of his first title winning team, and they were still of utmost importance to him when they won the title in 2002. While in Martin Keown, the legendary defence still had a member playing an active role in the teams "unbeaten" season when they last won the title in 2004—a team that also relied on the spirit of Sol Campbell.
It is with their departure that Wenger and Arsenal's changed fortunes. His reign as manager can be very much split in half—the first half when he had this defence, which was his most successful time, and the second half where his team have been less successful, and have not challenged for the title—when he has missed this legendary core in his defence.
While Wenger has undoubtedly been successful in keeping Arsenal competitive on a domestic basis, it is one part of his title-winning sides that he has been unable to replicate that is costing him and Arsenal dearly. Since their retirement, Arsenal's teams have been marked as easy targets and vulnerable in the air—two things which the aforementioned defence could not be accused.
Perhaps it is precisely this fact that is haunting Arsene Wenger and Arsenal's team at the moment—the ghosts of Arsenal's past. His teams and his defence have yet to move out of their predecessors' shadows, and prove that they can stand up to the weekly rigours of Premier League football and do the basics of defending well.
It is perhaps this which is hurting Arsenal and Wenger most, and until they can prove that they can do the basics as well as their legendary predecessors, then they could struggle to step out of their shadows for some time yet.
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