When Arsene Wenger arrived in England 21 years ago he revolutionised the English Premier League. Wenger delivered the final blow to drinking culture that had permeated English football and introduced ideas about diet and fitness that have changed the makeup of your average Premiership footballer.
However, as the league has adopted Wenger’s ideas the legendary Arsenal coach has failed to remain current. Monday night’s humiliating 3-0 defeat to Crystal Palace has confirmed that he is no longer a man with a plan.
Tactical awareness has never been Wenger’s strongest suit, even his best teams played with a very simple system relying on the sheer quality at their disposal to overpower the opposition. His football philosophy has always put the power in the hands of his players to solve the problems that arise on the pitch without interference from the sideline.
This was all very well when you had players with the quality and force of character to change the flow of a game when the tide turned against Arsenal. Patrick Vieira, Tony Adams, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp were all players who could take a game by the scruff of the neck and drag it in Arsenal’s favour.
Wenger’s role was simply to release his hounds on the opposition and more often not they would absolutely savage their opponents. Many players from that era talk about winning games in the tunnel before a ball was kicked, about looking across at the other team, seeing absolute terror in their eyes and at that point knowing the game was won.
This is not to demean Wenger’s talent, he was the supreme architect of those teams, the man who combined the sublime talent at his disposal into some of the most frightening teams the league has ever seen.
What has changed since then is that teams are far more tactically, physically and mentally able to deal with the pressure Wenger’s teams exert on them. This combined with a drop in the quality of Arsenal squads over the past decade have meant Wenger has needed to adapt. Recently it has become painfully obvious he has failed to do so.
Far too often over the last decade of watching Arsenal there has simply been no plan. No plan as to how we are going to hurt the opposition and certainly no plan as to how we are going stop them from playing.
The message from Wenger always seems to be ‘go out and express yourself boys and your talent will win through’. When it works it is fantastic to watch but all to regularly we are left feeling how we did on Monday night.
The game against Palace was a perfect example of Wenger’s tactical arrogance. It was incredibly clear how Crystal Palace were going to play – use the power of Christian Benteke to win long balls and the pace of Andros Townsend and Wilfried Zaha to hurt Arsenal on the counterattack. Yet there seemed to be no plan in place to prevent this.
There was no sign of midfielders Granit Xhaka and Mohamed Elneny forming a screen in front of Gabriel and Mustafi to prevent Benteke from dominating aerially. There was no awareness of damage Zaha and Townsend could cause with their pace. All there was was blind faith in the technical superiority of Arsenal’s players.
Going forward there was a similar lack of a coherent plan. There were some nice moments when Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Ignacio Monreal combined well down the left and caused some dangerous situations.
However, once establishing this as a potential route to goal Arsenal utterly failed to capitalise on this mismatch reverting to playing sterile football and lumping the occasional long ball up to Olivier Giroud as the game got increasingly out go hand.
The problem I have with Wenger’s approach to the game is that it puts no plan in place for when players don’t perform at their very best.
In all successful teams when things aren’t going well the players have a clear system to fall back on, a clearly defined role for each man to fill.
At Arsenal the players are asked to define their own roles as the singular demands of the game unfold and more often then not look confused, ill prepared and out of their depth.
For years I had sympathy for Arsene as I felt he was at least squeezing the most out of some fairly average squads.
However, over the past two seasons this good will has evaporated. The current squad is one of the best we have had in years and really should be performing at a much higher level.
For Arsenal to succeed either Wenger must change his philosophy or the club must change their manager. Unfortunately I can only see one outcome, two more years of stagnation under Arsene, two more years of toxic infighting between fans and two more years of underwhelming performances on the pitch.
It is a shame that Wenger’s glorious reign at the club will end this way, but I see no other future.
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