…while Wenger mixes unswerving faith with welcome dose of pragmatism

It is for the opposite reasons to those spelt out in my post about Alex Ferguson below (http://talksportblog.com/2012/08/20/ferguson-driven-silly-by-citys-relentless-spending/) that Arsene Wenger grows in stature year upon year. Which other manager sticks to his principles quite as bravely in the face of an overwhelming chorus of criticism, and in the conviction that football has so much more to offer its exponents and supporters than just a glittering piece of silverware? As Alex Song left, he was talking as much about what it would mean for his strategy as he did about how they had endeavoured to give him a meaningful education: “Part of our club is to influence people’s lives in a positive way.” If this also means demonstrating to them and supporters that the onus is on coaches to put in the hours to develop their players, rather than risk financial meltdown through adopting a model that no-one in the real world abides by, then so be it. Arsenal have slipped as a result of his determination, but there is no other elite manager who has even attempted to deal with the football-specific problems he faces every day. Ferguson’s instinctive reaction to the first sign of danger was to panic-spend on the best striker currently in the Premier League in a way that financially burdens his club; Wenger has instead made brave sacrifices because he wishes to protect a long-term vision of his club’s prosperity that doesn’t even enter the thinking of his counterparts.

However, today I want to instead applaud the more pragmatic measures Wenger is taking in the knowledge that a long-term vision can only be fulfilled if short-term goals are accomplished. Arsenal must find themselves in the Champions League places again at the end of the season to avoid permanent divorce with their fans, and Wenger has realised (surprisingly, some would say) that this is threatened currently by the lack of requisite quality in his midfield. His remark that Arsenal were maybe “one creative player short” after the Sunderland game tied in with the opinion of fans that the club still needs to compensate for the departure of Van Persie by adding more quality to their team. A player of Nuri Sahin’s reported characteristics and discipline will add to Arsenal’s technical excellence, and take some of the burden of responsibility in that area off Cazorla’s shoulders (as of Monday night, Arsenal were still locked in negotiations with Madrid over aspects of the transfer, and overcoming any stumbling blocks could prove a ‘swing’ factor to whether they maintain their residency in the top four this year). Equally encouragingly, Wenger is alert to the threat of falling short in defence should injury strike once again and has promised that Arsenal are trying to bring in “maybe one more defender.”

More generally, amid the doom and gloom, there are flashes of hope that Arsenal fans can justifiably entertain. Wenger has finally adopted a more pre-emptive, necessarily selfish approach to culling bad influences from the club by selling one of his more ungrateful students in Alex Song. Spending on new blood also means that, for the first time in a while, important players in the team have not yet had their heads turned by more glitzy proposals from other clubs and are fully behind Wenger’s plans. Cazorla in particular has already voiced his opinion in various matters concerning Arsenal, and his engaged presence bears all the hallmarks of a player with the ability to develop into the inspiring general that Wenger has been missing for years (mainly as a result of player disloyalty). It is also inevitable that a leading player like Jack Wilshere will, despite his best intentions, have his loyalty tested by subliminal doubts in the wake of another star’s departure from Arsenal. Negative thinking is contagious, breeds negative performances and thus contributes to the vicious cycle where players eventually have their doubts confirmed and want out of the club. Cazorla has happily arrived with exactly the opposite mindset, and should his commitment translate to success on the pitch, it will provide the earnestly loyal Wilshere with the reason he is looking for to banish those lingering doubts and play wholeheartedly for his boyhood club once again.

Wenger and fans in accord over Song

It is heartening to see Arsene Wenger’s unsentimental reaction to Alex Song’s latent courting of interest from Barcelona and other rivals. So used to having to beg players who invariably display a lack of regard for the loyalty he has shown them to stay, he is finally adopting a business-like approach to hiring and firing that recognises Arsenal will no longer be held hostage by any one player. The club ably demonstrated that it could move past the feared ravaging effect of Cesc Fabregas’s loss last year, and that has rightly emboldened them to play hardball with wantaway players this summer.

Song’s betrayal of Wenger’s faith in him was apparent long before he encouraged the advances of Barcelona in the way that he constantly shirked the holding midfield duty Wenger had asked him to perform on the field. Arsenal were roundly mocked for their defensive troubles last season, but that was to ignore how much an attacking 4-3-3 system relied on the holding midfielder protecting the back four to be successful. Much like Sergio Busquets for Barcelona, Wenger would have instructed Song to stay in position to shield an exposed defence whenever Arsenal lost the ball up the field in recognition of the fact that the repurcussions of the holding midfielder neglecting his duty in their system would be far worse than for most teams. Instead Song’s insatiable lust to play the killer pass often contributed to starting opponents’ lethal counter-attacks, while his willfull indiscipline in straying from his position meant that Arsenal’s defenders were often deserted and made to look more silly than they deserved by the goals they conceded. Furthermore his desire to keep the ball to himself for a few additional seconds, while well-executed, displayed a lack of understanding that Arsenal’s possession game required quick exchanges to ensure that the opposition did not settle into premeditated defensive positions and blunt their attacking edge. As a player whose conversion from a central defender to a holding midfielder revealed his footballing intelligence, these acts of sabotage against Wenger and Arsenal’s plans can only have stemmed from a desire to indulge his tendency to do as he pleases overriding his sense of duty to the team.

In the context of enduring such frustration from a player whose position holds the key to so much of Arsenal’s success, it is no wonder that Song’s calm willingness to consider a future away from Arsenal is approaching something teeteringly close to a final straw for Wenger. Financially too, it would make no sense to allow Song to use external interest to hold the club to ransom for a contract once his current one expires in 2015 or to follow Nasri and van Persie in attempting to walk away from the club for free. The new Wenger, hardened by his experiences with three key players who have deserted him in the last twelve months, has finally come to view the transfer market as a means of strengthening the club rather than a destabilising act. If Barcelona follow through with their interest on Alex Song, it will provide Arsenal the funds to go after a different player with a greater sense of team responsibility, whose embracing of the holding midfield role would finally allow them to negotiate the thin margin of error allowed by their system between attack and defence.