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Arsene Wenger Must Stick to His Principles to End Arsenal Slump

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistNovember 24, 2014

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 21:  Arsene Wenger of Arsenal during a training session at London Colney on October 21, 2014 in St Albans, England.  (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
Clive Rose/Getty Images

Modern football doesn't really make room for principles. When you're a manager who's won just one trophy in nearly 10 years, can you really afford them?

That's the dilemma facing Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger. His team's latest slump in form has stirred up agitation among the fanbase and media pundits that was always just simmering beneath the surface to begin with.

Some of that ire is certainly understandable. Arsenal are currently eighth in the Premier League, their worst start to a domestic campaign since 1982, and already out of one cup competition.

But even with mediocrity and criticism trying to grab his throat in a vice-like grip that won't ever let go, Wenger must stick to his principles. That's the only way he'll end Arsenal's current slump.

That current slump could be defined by the Gunners' latest folly, the recent 2-1 home defeat to Manchester United. All of the recent and, for some, all too familiar failings were on display.

Arsenal's slip to let United off the hook summed up this season.
Arsenal's slip to let United off the hook summed up this season.Michael Regan/Getty Images

There was profligacy in front of goal that wasted the lion's share of possession and some sublime approach play. There was reckless defending that may as well have left a welcome mat in front of the Arsenal box for oncoming counter-attacking forwards to wipe their boots on before scoring.

In short, the United game provided every calamity that has befallen the Gunners since this arduous season began. Naturally, a hefty amount of consternation and downright vitriol has followed.

Piers Morgan, an ardent Arsenal fan, who himself is every bit as contentious a figure as Wenger, bemoaned losing to what he called a "weak" team. He made the comments during an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live show 606 (h/t London Evening Standard):

Arsene Wenger was brilliant for eight years and that has bought him a very long time at mediocre.

This was the weakest Manchester United team that we have faced in two decades and we still lost at home to them. At what point do Arsenal fans wake up and smell the cappuccino and say enough is enough.

Well, personally I don't drink cappuccino, so I may miss out on the aroma of change. But Morgan's comments strike at the heart of a major issue regarding how Arsenal's results, good or bad, are viewed and analysed.

Too many Arsenal fans have struggled to separate past struggles from the current state of the club.
Too many Arsenal fans have struggled to separate past struggles from the current state of the club.Tonya Wise/Associated Press

They are never allowed to exist or be considered in isolation. Every result, particularly the negative ones, are wedged into an overarching narrative borne from Wenger's barren years, the period Morgan described as a "very long time at mediocre."

So a defeat to United, the manner of which would simply be rued as bad luck by another team's fans, as well as a gift from the gods of fortune for United, has to be a much deeper wound.

This loss isn't allowed to exist in the context of early season struggles derived from a search for continuity amid a lengthy list of injuries. Instead, it's depicted as a symbol of every Arsenal failing against the biggest clubs in Europe during the last decade.

Well, why stop there? Why not take it back even further?

What about when Freddie Ljungberg scored first at Highbury in August 1999, only to see his goal cancelled out by two Roy Keane strikes that allowed United to snatch the win? Why didn't the Gunners simply shut up shop after Ljungberg scored, the way this season's team couldn't do when leading against Swansea City and Anderlecht?

A defeat against United from '99 says nothing about this season's team, so why should one from 2008 or 2010?
A defeat against United from '99 says nothing about this season's team, so why should one from 2008 or 2010?Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Of course, it's just ridiculous to compare a game from that far back with Arsenal's latest defeat. But that's exactly the point.

Why must every one of Arsenal's bad results this season be stitched to the fabric of struggles that began nearly a decade ago? What purpose does that serve? How can it help fix this season's woes now?

How about a little context instead? Let's start with the idea Arsenal faced a particularly weak United team. Weak? Really?

Only in modern football could a team starting with Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Angel Di Maria in attack, with David de Gea in goal, be referred to as weak. Only in today's game could a midfield comprised of decorated trophy winners Michael Carrick and £27.5 million signing Marouane Fellaini be considered part of a weak team.

No team is weak that fields players of this calibre.
No team is weak that fields players of this calibre.Michael Regan/Getty Images

But what about all of United's injuries in defence? Consider these scores from the three games the Red Devils played prior to facing Arsenal: 1-1 at home against Chelsea, 1-0 at Manchester City, 1-0 at home against Crystal Palace.

If that constitutes a defensive crisis, surely many Arsenal fans would take it. Speaking of Arsenal, why is Wenger's team not also considered weakened by injuries when the starting 11 is missing Mathieu Debuchy, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil, Theo Walcott and Olivier Giroud?

Context used to be king. Now it's not even a peasant, just an inconvenient truth.

The real truth about Arsenal's struggles this season lies in fragile confidence and a catalogue of injuries. It's those same injuries that's robbed the Gunners of Giroud, a key link player in Wenger's version of intricate, passing football.

That's the version of football that's also missed Ozil, the squad's most quick-witted and accurate passer. He and Giroud have been out since late-August. Missing the club's best striker and most astute playmaker, is it any wonder Arsenal's attack has lacked fluidity and cohesion at times this season?

Not enough is made of Arsenal's own injury problems.
Not enough is made of Arsenal's own injury problems.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Is it any wonder the Gunners' defence has struggled when half of the first-choice back four has been on the treatment table? Some bright spark is now saying, "but every team gets injuries."

Funny how every fan says that until it's their team who suffers. Why? Because injuries do make a difference. Ask a United fan.

So does faltering confidence. Mental fragility isn't the exclusive purview of Wenger's teams, even if it does sometimes feel that way. In fact, it's more accurate to say the Frenchman's teams are afflicted with temperamental or erratic psyches.

That's why they have often been guilty of throwing away leads. Remember when Arsenal let a 2-0 lead slip at Bolton in 2003, all but guaranteeing a resurgent United the title? The problem doesn't just belong to the post-Henry, Pires, Vieira era.

Of course, the common denominator is Wenger. A team-wide erratic temperament is one of the few justifiable criticisms of Wenger's tenure.

It's why his teams usually take so long to recover from setbacks. Consider the current misfortune. Arsenal let a three-goal lead slip against Anderlecht on November 4.

Despite playing two subsequent league games and experiencing an international break, the Gunners still haven't gotten over that disappointment.

Wenger needs to rally his players behind a single idea.
Wenger needs to rally his players behind a single idea.Geert Vanden Wijngaert/Associated Press

Maybe that's a sign of a lack of resolve in the squad. But that doesn't explain how this same group of players scored so many late goals last season and overcame a 2-0 deficit to win the FA Cup.

Like all of Wenger's squads, this vintage of Arsenal is very much a confidence team. That confidence is always deeply rooted in the type of game Wenger insists upon.

While the passing style he's made so distinctive at Arsenal is free-flowing in practice, it's actually very rigid and intricate in theory. When Arsenal's passing football is flowing, the confidence grows.

That's visible in each player every time a combination move clicks. But like even the finest designed watch, it only takes one small thing to go wrong and the football is disrupted, while Arsenal's confidence erodes along with it.

That small thing could be not taking a chance early on in a big game, inevitably leading to nerves. Those nerves soon undermine the quality of play and the structure of the team. That's what happened against United.

Arsenal's confidence comes from the quality of their game, a game underpinned by Wenger's principles about how football should be played. His fidelity to setting an attacking tempo and a team's responsibility to impose itself on an opponent and not hide behind the shroud of negativity.

Only those principles can drag the Gunners out of their current malaise. That means continuing to pass, continuing to attack between the lines and continuing to play a forward-thinking game.

That's how this Arsenal team will win games this season. When that game is clicking suddenly the team will find the structure its been lacking. Suddenly the group will show more defensive awareness.

Cohesion will come from confidence, as Wenger noted after the United defeat, per Arsenal.com:

That will be linked with confidence and the fact that we have to be a bit more calm and patient. At the moment we are after success and there’s a discordance with our possession, our chances we create and our result. It’s very difficult but we have to keep faith in what we do.

Right now, the Gunners are fighting to overcome the rising tide of their own anxiety. It's an anxiety to please a hostile crowd, to silence a blood-sniffing, peevish press and to justify the faith of a beleaguered manager.

It's that level of anxiety that probably encouraged otherwise sane old pros like Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker to leave their defensive posts when only trailing by a goal against United with ample time to restore parity.

Making every bad result, every near miss a trial of Wenger's career may satisfy those who want change. But really, this isn't about the eight trophyless seasons. That period has been and gone. It was gone as soon as Aaron Ramsey netted the winner at Wembley back in May.

The trophy drought has been and gone. It's time to leave it in the past.
The trophy drought has been and gone. It's time to leave it in the past.Clive Mason/Getty Images

It isn't about whether you think Wenger should be sacked, now or in the summer, or whether he should step down himself. Since neither of those things seem very likely, at least at the moment, it's better to focus instead on what can help now.

New players won't arrive until January, if at all. Frankly, it's much more important for Wenger to make things work with the players he's already got.

Sticking to his core beliefs is the best way to do it. I've used the word principles here, but the phrase football philosophy works just as well.

Given his team's current struggles and the pressure they've put on his own position, few would blame Wenger for ditching his philosophy. In fact, many would implore the manager to fall back on a more pragmatic—read cautious and defensive—approach.

But principles aren't principles if they're abandoned when they're no longer convenient. Wenger needs more pragmatism in key areas, but he doesn't need it to become a team mantra.

What he really needs is balance. For a Wenger team, that balance usually starts with fluency and efficiency with the ball.

It's Wenger's philosophy of how to win games that can end this slump now and restore hope about THIS season. Shutting up shop and hoping to simply survive a few games isn't the way to fight out of this particular corner. It's certainly no time to hide.

Only staying faithful to the game Wenger believes in, the one he's made Arsenal's staple, can awaken this season's team from its slump.

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