Wenger badly let down by his players

It is often said that the best way to deal with an emotional setback is to talk or write about it. Talking or writing is meant to be therapeutic, and if so, it is a measure of the pain caused by Arsenal’s defeat that I immediately felt the urge to write about it in its aftermath. By delaying that process for a while longer, I only found my repressed emotions about the match had a knock-on effect on other little things that impact one’s mood throughout the day.

Nor is there any cause on this occasion for non-football fans to scorn at the oft-justified lack of perspective that us fans can display about a win or a loss. This loss was about more than a simple match; it was about one man’s legacy, the shame in seeing a fine oeuvre unjustifiably sacrificed by the brittleness of his players, and the pain of knowing it all seems to be heading towards a very unhappy end. Arsene Wenger is no ordinary manager, and just as he is held to a seemingly impossible standard in comparison with managers who have trodden a more familiar career path, so the pain caused by seeing his career come to the type of end suffered by so many in this profession is also unique.

The performance encapsulated the promise and bitter failure of so many post-2006 performances: a rousing first 48 minutes in which Arsenal looked every inch a team with the right balance between flair, steel and cunning, followed by the rest of the second half in which they characteristically threw away all their good work in stunningly naïve fashion. Not even on a school pitch would you see players perform as abjectly as Wenger’s did for him in the moments after Bayern went 2-1 up.

The sense of Wenger as martyr is increased by signs all around him of the necessary, functional ingredients other teams enjoying success have which, for practical or principled reasons, he has been unable or unwilling to acquire. For all their class, Bayern Munich are essentially an unimaginative football team who owe their success to the sense of entitlement that money can buy. While Wenger was being assailed by his fans yet again for lacking tactical nous, Carlo Ancelotti could get away with the respect of football fans the world over despite fielding the same 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger is derided for and owing his champions league trophies (another thing Wenger is derided for) to working with the most brilliant players of their respective periods. Bayern’s arrogance in victory yesterday underlined a sense of entitlement born of riches and access to the best players, which merely heightens the frustration that Arsenal – a team that, despite all their problems, still carried the unique Wenger stamp of free flowing football in patches yesterday – could not be a more consistent match for them and thereby stand in stark contrast as a standard-bearer for the best qualities in football. If Bayern represent the mechanised evolution of football in the era of pressing and mammoth clubs, Wenger’s failure to adapt has at least preserved Arsenal’s status as a club trying to do things the right way on the pitch, committed to a strategy that others would deem foolhardy. For Wenger undoubtedly manages players with lesser talent than many of his opponents; for all the claims that Arsenal match up on paper to the best in the Premier League, they are far below what Chelsea or Bayern can boast.

In this age of mechanised football, it is impossible to totally rule out the suspicion that Wenger is missing one more ingredient which has distanced the gap between Arsenal and the rest: drugs. The stats will show Bayern ran as much as Arsenal yesterday, but Arsenal consistently look outpaced and slower in 50-50 challenges compared to their immediate rivals (not to mention suffering injuries on a far more believably human level than the Clark Kents at other clubs). While giving football the benefit of the doubt, the history in German football of doping, the lack of thorough testing in football, and the history of other sports means it would be foolish to take everything we see at face value.
For all these reasons – finances, the players at his disposal, the injuries he has suffered and, above all, the manager he has been and the man he is – there is no way this blog will come even close to adding to the vitriol now being poured on his head.

Instead, the fans should turn their attention to the players towards whom he has only been guilty of one fault: affording them his trust and patience for too long. The manner in which they collapsed yesterday made it clear that it did not directly emanate from the dressing room, in the sense of tactical misdirection, but rather from a childlike inability to deal with the disappointment of going a goal down in the second half. From that moment on, Arsenal played with a callowness that is unbecoming of professional players and indicative of a subconscious complacency which has taken advantage of the loyalty of their manager. From the time that Flamini left for AC Milan, Arsenal players have shown a selfish disregard for the idealism and vision of their manager to create a unique project at Arsenal. This applies to the dumpers like Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie and, perhaps on a lesser scale, to those who have not developed to the level which would have been expected of them by now, and even to those such as Sanchez who have sometimes shown a tendency to hog the ball on the pitch in a manner antithetical to Wenger’s vision of dazzling, collective attacks. The sense now that he is approaching the end on his own, with a storm raging all around him, is galling to those to whom he has meant so much over the years.

The Beauty of Ozil

Of the many myopic views seizing the airwaves in the narcissistic culture that surrounds football these days, none is more misplaced and dangerous than the ceaseless scapegoating of Mesut Ozil. For in continually hanging him out to dry for no other reason than a lack of originality and desire to be heard, football fans and pundits alike are threatening to bury the rare joy of what Ozil brings to the game. Ozil represents the game’s most precious qualities: a blessed mix of vision, technique and intelligence. Every pass and movement he makes reveals him to be one step ahead of the opposition; every failure on his part to find a player or control the ball normally means his team-mates are not quite at his level. So it is galling to find that there are those who believe the sole measure of Ozil’s game must be how much he is prepared to run after the opposition without the ball, like some sort of expensive breed of dog that was brought in merely to be run into the ground. Admittedly, Ozil’s unique gift does not extend to seizing a game by the scruff of its neck and dictating in the manner of Cesc Fabregas or David Silva; but if a team can adapt itself to his game, he promises both successful results and performances adorned with a grace even the formerly-mentioned players cannot quite replicate.

The scapegoating of Ozil is part of a wider trend in Premier League football that has prioritised athletic prowess and pressing at the expense of creativity and improvisation. Look no further than the slow corralling of David Silva at Manchester City, the inability to appreciate the gifts of Sergio Aguero and Cesc Fabregas, and of course, the baying for blood by Arsenal fans towards Mesut Ozil. While the tactical insights brought in by Pep Guardiola and Antonio Conte are undoubtedly impressive, there is something that causes one to pause for thought when their plans cannot accommodate nor adapt themselves to the gifts of players who inspire children to follow the game in the first place. If a manager cannot appreciate the gifts of one of the purest, predatory strikers the game has seen in Aguero, is he perhaps guilty of the charge that his ideas have warped him to the fundamental managerial task of enhancing the beautiful game? If the fans applaud a player like Alexis Sanchez for tracking back yet turn a blind eye to the way his dalliance on the ball kills space, are they ignorant to the beating heart of football itself? The beauty of football lies in the rapid, improvised exploitation of space by players gifted with phenomenal speed of thought, vision and technique, at least as much as in the pre-meditated, collective, tactical rehearsal that prizes athleticism over those former qualities.

In the heated atmosphere of Youtube fan channels and 24/7 punditry, players and pundits alike project more of their frustrated idea of what the game should be onto managers and players (the primary protagonists). Yes, our world is about themes such as competition and “heart”, but one can’t help feeling that the constant resort to such platitudes on football airwaves (and via Facebook memes) has twisted our ideals to the point where it is impossible to appreciate the finest qualities of the game. Simply put, Ozil must be protected and his role preserved rather than adapted for the necessities of short-termism and whimsical competitive urges. The game is about competition, but it is also about art and beauty and there is no-one who quite personifies that like the sensitive, intelligent German-Turkish no.10 at Arsenal.