Reply to Ian Herbert on Wenger

Ian Herbert recently wrote an article on the Arsenal-Wenger situation, in which he joined the growing number of writers who seem to view the current state of the club as one of crisis presided over by Wenger:

http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenals-majority-shareholder-stan-kroenke-more-motivated-by-money-a7619426.html#commentsDiv

I’m slightly shocked by the rapidity with which respectable, balanced football writers are turning on Wenger and striking the same notes as many of the “Wenger Out” brigade. Why have none of them pointed out that there are two ways to view Wenger’s current situation? One is that he is dragging the club inexorably towards professional mediocrity and unrealised ambition; the other is that he at most guilty of a certain tactical stagnation, but that this current dip is a small price to pay next to the long-term financial stability and professional consistency he has brought. Above all in this view is the acknowledgement that his many years of service and contributions to the game deserve a special view to be taken of his “failures”, in which the club and its fans stick by him longer than at other clubs in recognition of how much he has become part of the same emotional journey they are on. The acknowledgement of the possibility of a new story here, in which narratives and inspiring figures are not sacrificed on the altar of a cut-throat professional competition that prides short-termism and financial delusion over all other values, would be gratefully received if voiced by football writers.

Roberto Martinez brave and right to protect Wigan from becoming a Man United satellite

Roberto Martinez’s willingness to speak up against the big forces at work in the Premier League, and particularly the way they revolve around Manchester United at Old Trafford, was admirably on display once again over the weekend. He aired his view that the referee’s award of a penalty for a dive of the highest order by Danny Welbeck was yet another example of an official being worked over by the Old Trafford occasion. Upon viewing the incident (http://watchhighlightsonline.blogspot.sg/2012/09/video-welbeck-dive-vs-wigan-and-win.html), it is not only striking how easily Welbeck went to ground, but how suddenly the referee was willing to point to the spot after the incident without pausing to consult his fellow officials or take a moment’s thought. His arm shot to his right in an overly eager manner which suggested the occasion had got to him in some way. This kind of thing has happened time and again to teams unlucky enough to come up against Manchester United at Old Trafford: Arsenal were leading 1-0 after 57 minutes in 2009, when Wayne Rooney produced a dive to match Welbeck’s in its crassness (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O0UdpLNiD-o) to give United a way back into a match that they eventually won.

There is no suggestion of blatant conspiracy here, but of the latent psychological pressure that Sir Alex Ferguson and Manchester United exert on the Premier League. Junior British managers such as Sam Allardyce routinely extol the virtues of Sir Alex before matches in which their teams are regularly given a hiding, and there have to be questions asked if the Scot’s reciprocated patronage and praise has the detrimental effect of softening up their ability to infuse their teams with a competitive edge. At the height of the Ferguson-Wenger rivalry and during Arsenal’s strongest years, Arsene Wenger used to insist on maintaining a distance from managerial colleagues who he was required to beat in competition. Similarly, Jose Mourinho makes a point of stoking up antagonism before match-ups with various rivals in order to get the best out of his players. As long as Ferguson keeps putting his arm around men like Allardyce and Mark Hughes, it is hard to believe they can inspire their teams with the fire required to thrive in such difficult ties.

Similarly, the stigma that has built around foreign players diving has benefited Manchester United, that quintessential “British club.” Despite video evidence to the contrary, fans – and referees – are still slow to accept that Rooney and Welbeck are as guilty of diving as any foreign player and fully deserve the close censure from referees that now hounds players like Suarez who have had a reputation tacked onto them by the British press. If that were the case, United might not have won as many as 11 penalties last season (three more than any other team), and Sir Alex’s apparent reputation for “having a quiet word” with players on his roster who dive would be met with greater scepticism.

The brutal truth is that Manchester United, and their steely manager, exercise any advantage available to them to maintain their foot on the throat of the rest and if this means cosying up to British managers to set in chain a weakening of resolve, or subtly reinforcing their reputation as a British club to British referees, they are not averse to doing so. It is notable how Wigan under Roberto Martinez, a foreign manager of principle and poise, have always given United a game and the more credit to them for doing so. The FA can charge him on as many counts as they like for his comments over the weekend, but the point has been made and hopefully its force will be felt by the managers of other smaller teams when they prepare their players to visit Old Trafford.

…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.

van Persie-United talk hits Arsenal fans where it hurts

Both Manchester clubs have given Arsenal plenty of grief in the recent past, but it will still hurt more if Robin van Persie were to go to Alex Ferguson’s team rather than Roberto Mancini’s. City’s recent picking of Arsenal’s ripe talent has its roots in the club’s overall expansion and is devoid of any personal undertones. However, United’s bolstering at Arsenal’s expense, by acquiring their best player, cuts more deeply for a welter of personal reasons. It was not too long ago that Arsenal were United’s strongest rivals, and Wenger Ferguson’s greatest managerial foe. It would have been unthinkable then for Arsenal to be forced to sell their best player for the benefit of their most important rival. For Arsenal to now effectively play the feeder club role to Manchester United through the van Persie sale would be a painful and fresh reminder of how they have diminished in stature while United have kept growing. Add to that the image of van Persie and Rooney dovetailing together to score against Arsenal next season, and it is easy to see why his possible switch to United provokes stronger feelings than to his other two suitors.

Tactically speaking, fans may also wonder what Arsenal’s voluntary strengthening of both their Manchester rivals says about their ambition for the new Premier League season. This is a club that should not accept the status quo proposed last season of both Manchester clubs being a cut above the rest, and preventing United from becoming the first club to reach City’s plane through the acquisition of van Persie would demonstrate this.

If he has to go, better Arsenal explore and exhaust these options in the following order: Juventus, then City and then – only if the price is agreed on Arsenal’s terms without compromise – United.

Arsenal’s “mystery injuries”

There are few clubs whose fate in recent seasons can be tied as strongly to their management of player injuries as Arsenal. It remains a bittersweet proposition to imagine how Arsenal might have fared in 2009-10 if they had managed to field a team containing Thomas Vermaelen, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Jack Wilshere and Andrey Arshavin on a consistent basis. On one of the few occasions that they did, Arsenal produced one of the games of the season enroute to beating Barcelona 2-1 in a thrilling contest at the Emirates. It appeared the sky was the limit, but by the time of the second leg, Vermaelen, Walcott and Arshavin were injured, van Persie barely made it and Fabregas started the match in such a bad state that he later admitted he could barely run.

Alongside the well-documented defensive lapses, and inability to adapt to games of attrition that hamper their fluid passing style, it can be argued that failing to keep his best players fit has had an equally important role to play in the deconstruction of Arsene Wenger’s work over the last few years. Fabregas and van Persie, the club’s fulcrums in midfield and attack, were constantly prevented by injury from developing a partnership that might have led to titles and them reconsidering their hastiness in wanting to leave. Many of these injuries were the result of tough tackles tailored for Arsenal’s perceived flimsiness (Diaby, Eduardo) or natural wear and tear (Fabregas’s hamstrings have all the makings of a chronic problem ).

However, more worrying have been the “mystery injuries” that have claimed large chunks of Tomas Rosicky’s, Thomas Vermaelen’s and Jack Wilshere’s careers; in each case, a standard and relatively minor initial diagnosis was somehow enlarged under the care of Arsenal’s medical staff into a head-scratching situation that required multiples surgeries and incredulously long absences. Rosicky’s simple hamstring injury ended up keeping him out for eighteen months, and Vermaelen’s three-month Achilles injury prevented him from playing for an entire season. In Wilshere’s case, Arsenal initially failed to determine that he needed surgery and confidently predicted his stress fracture would heal within six weeks. Who can tell whether their tardiness in sending him for the surgery he eventually had to undergo in October led to the further complications that arose in January and April, and that eventually required a second surgery on his knee? Wenger has now predicted his return in October (almost a year later), but given Arsenal’s incompetency or deliberately misleading information thus far, there should be no guarantee attached to his words.

The apparent misdiagnosis of Jack Wilshere’s injury by the Arsenal medical staff, coupled with the infuriating fact that it is only at Arsenal that so many injury situations seem to develop into career-threatening crises harming both player and team, should at the very least be prompting internal scrutiny. It is understandable that Arsene Wenger wants to protect his players and staff by presenting a unified front to the outside world, but that shouldn’t preclude him from conducting the urgent review of Arsenal’s set-up that is required to maintain excellence and is often dependent on the pressure exerted by external opinion. Wenger stoutly defended Pat Rice for many years, and frequently laments how “everyone has an opinion and everyone thinks they’re right”, but a thorough inquiry would be the only way to clear the suspicion hanging over yet another facet of the club’s operations.

Manchester City recently conducted a fascinatingly detailed feature with BBC (http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/18887653) about their methodology for player injuries and injury prevention. That kind of open and accountable ethos has not existed around Arsenal’s communication of Rosicky, Vermaelen and Wilshere’s injuries, and one can only hope that is not because they were either in the dark about the problem or unwittingly guilty of mistakes they’d rather not disclose.

One thing is for sure: if any more of Arsenal’s players disappear for a similarly unfathomable length of time, it will be increasingly hard to put it down to coincidence.