This season has been an unremitting series of miserable results for Arsene Wenger. Many column inches have been and will continue to be expended on the reasons for Arsenal’s failures. We can talk about the way the board is running the club, or how Wenger is getting his tactics wrong, or the fact that the continued lack of trophies is obliging star players to seek new pastures. But what has been particularly noticeable in the past 2-3 years is how different the mentality and behaviour of Arsenal players are compared to 10 years ago. Most illustrative of this are the following two pictures (actually, one is a gif):
This is Martin Keown’s notorious harassing of Ruud Van Nistelrooy after the Dutchman missed a penalty at Old Trafford in September 2003, in what would become Arsenal’s Invincibles season. Hoving into view in the gif are a gleeful Ashley Cole, a snarling Lauren and a raging Ray Parlour, while Gilberto is seen in the foreground distracting Roy Keane, the one man in the United team at the time who might have gone to Van Nistelrooy’s defense. Not in the scene is Patrick Vieira, no slouch in the aggro department. Almost a decade later, in the dispiriting 1-3 defeat at home to Bayern Munchen, we see this:
It’s retrograde, I suppose, to talk about passion, and commitment, and soft foreigners who don’t care about the team, etc. But in Arsenal’s case, what has so clearly happened is that Wenger has seen, or let, some very tough, nasty, ugly, abrasive, rather-cut-my-head-off-than-lose characters go, and replaced them with players who have great first touch and can keep the ball but who don’t seem all that bothered when either they or their teammates play badly or fall short. Tomas Rosicky made headlines last season when he did this:
The pseudo-cynical explanation he gave for that incident as well as a similar reaction against Sunderland (“I don’t have to turn around. When I see his [the scorer’s] face and he is celebrating, why should I turn around? When it was struck, I knew it was going in.”) is good for a beat poet but not ideal when it comes to a top flight footballer playing for a team with aspirations of being competitive in the league.
People talk about the 2004-5 season, when Arsenal last won a trophy, as a watershed moment, also pointing out that that was when Vieira was sold to Juventus. But in fact there were two moments which followed that truly signaled the end of an era of success for Arsenal. First was the departures of Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell in 2006 – the year Arsenal reached the Champions League final – who were the last Arsenal defenders to be truly comfortable both playing a physical game and speaking their minds to their teammates on the pitch. They were replaced by the likes of Gael Clichy, Laurent Koscielny, Thomas Vermaelen and Per Mertesacker, all talented players but whose game is not built for the unique mental and physical requirements Arsenal desperately needed to address. The other moment was Mathieu Flamini leaving for Milan in 2008. Flamini was tailor-made for Arsenal midfield, playing alongside Cesc Fabregas. His abundant energy allowed Fabregas to focus on creating and scoring, and when the two occupied the central berth in midfield Arsenal had their best such pairing since Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. Both he and Cole left because the club would not or could not offer them the new contracts they thought they deserved. Flamini was rumoured to be on less than £20,000 a week, and Arsenal were only prepared to go up to £50,000; Cole, infamously, wasn’t impressed with £55,000, and signed with Chelsea for £90,000. Both were criticized for supposed greed, but it’s worthwhile to remind ourselves that Wenger, for want of £30,000, has yet to come up with a central midfield as good as Flamini-Fabregas, and gave up on the best left back England has ever had so that the club could save £35,000. Cole is a particularly sore one, since Wenger would go on to spend almost £15m to buy more left backs, as well as millions more on wages for Clichy, Andre Santos, Kieran Gibbs and now Nacho Monreal.
The so-called philosophy that fans and pundits credit Wenger with – and Wenger himself has often trumpeted its virtue – is that Arsenal will buy or develop young, talented players fairly affordably, mould them into following Wenger’s tactical approach, and thus go on to become a successful team that has grown up together and was built without ‘financial doping’. This has ensured that Arsenal retain the services of some very good players: Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wilshere, and others. And to Wenger’s credit much of this was necessitated by having to move to the Emirates Stadium. What shouldn’t be so easily overlooked is the fact that with the exception of the remarkable Wilshere none of the players that Wenger has introduced to the first team is a patch on the players we see in the gif in terms of character, mentality and simple cojones. Giroud, Arteta, Ramsey, Cazorla – all look like a bunch of well-adjusted nice guys who are good on the ball. Can you imagine any of these players acting like Keown did here?
Passion and commitment are an overused term worn down by lazy old school pundits, but just because it’s unfashionable doesn’t mean that it has no effect on players. Football has seen many times that having a number of highly motivated, charismatic, determined individuals who not only care about winning but will rub others the wrong way when they don’t measure up can influence a team to play better or become hard to beat. Manchester United in their late-90s peak had Peter Schmeichel, Roy Keane and Gary Neville, who inspired, shouted at, cajoled and bollocked those around them to step up, play better and maintain high standards. Same with Arsenal when they had Vieira, Tony Adams, Campbell and Cole. Cole took his mean streak and winning mentality over to Chelsea, where he was joined by that renowned practitioner of bastardry John Terry and the sheer focus and desire of Didier Drogba.
Arsenal have Wilshere, but just one player isn’t enough to spread a mindset across the squad. Other than him, I just cannot imagine any current Arsenal player setting a remorseless example, or engaging in a post-game shouting/shoving match with a teammate over a misplaced pass or a shirked challenge. Hate to second guess the second-longest serving manager in the league, but you wonder what might have happened had Wenger invested in some real character, someone who would jab fingers in his teammates’ chests and tell them to pull theirs out. It doesn’t help that Wenger doesn’t seem to be doing that himself. While it’s unfair to compare him with Alex Ferguson, because of their very different styles as well as the fact that Wenger has achieved considerable success in his own way, Fergie’s great strength is that as well as being able to severely lay into his players, he doesn’t fear having spiky characters in his dressing room who will talk back like Rooney and Ferdinand. Such players don’t have to be thuggish ankle breakers , but have the courage of their conviction and the alpha-male leadership to make sure that a certain minimum level of quality and application was adhered to.
I’m sure Wenger tells his players off every now and then when they play badly, but from what we can see the manner and the language of his criticism has the effect of removing responsibility from his charges. After the FA Cup exit at the hands of Blackburn Rovers, Wenger spoke of the ‘immaturity’ of the Arsenal team, but this is a line that he has been using for too long. His Arsenal have been waiting to grow up for years, all the while players who do reach the desired level of maturity such as Van Persie and Alex Song seek to leave because during that period Arsenal talked of maturing instead of actually winning things. Another typical Wenger response in the aftermath of poor results against inferior opposition for a long time was that Arsenal were prevented from implementing the attractive play that they are renowned for, because of rough neanderthal tactics from sides like Stoke and Bolton that supposedly go against the grain of how football is meant to be played. Facing off against tough tackling route-one merchants was never a problem back in the early 2000s, when tough customers like Keown, Lauren and Vieira roamed the Premier League pitches. It only started to become an issue once these players left, and the aesthetes that replaced them were maimed by horrific tackles from the likes of Martin Taylor and Ryan Shawcross. Wenger strongly condemned these defenders at the time, as he should, but this charge that Arsenal were not getting the results they deserved because of opponents’ destructive playing style became an albatross of sorts, and offered another excuse for mostly young, slender and technique-based Arsenal players to hide behind. Wenger’s frustration at having three of his most promising players (Eduardo, Ramsey and Diaby) having their legs mangled was expressed in complaints that Arsenal were being targeted, but this only served to encourage other teams, and placed a mental block on his own players who were now constantly reminded of their mortality as well as nursing a querulous sense of injustice, best exemplified by William Gallas in that Birmingham match.
Wenger is unique among top-level managers in that no player of his both past and present has anything bad to say about him. He has never had a feud with one of his players, nor has he remained on bad terms with anyone that he has managed. Henry, Vieira, Bergkamp, Campbell and Fabregas all look up to him like a father. Even Pires, painfully substituted after just 18 minutes in the 2006 Champions League, could not bring himself to attack him, while Flamini, who was criticized by Wenger for supposed greed, refused to bite back. Emmanuel Adebayor, who also left under a cloud in 2009 and usually never spares a kind word for former clubs or managers, had to admit his ‘huge respect’ for Wenger whilst trying to have a dig in a BBC interview.
Interestingly, Adebayor also said the following:
“Compared to Manchester United, Arsenal have the better players, individually, but they need something more. The manager has to ask more from them…He has to tell them: ‘you have done good, but you have to do better. You have to fight more, you have to run more and fight for every ball.’ That is what will win Arsenal titles. They are not far off.”
Back then it sounded like sour grapes, but of all people Adebayor’s words probably cut closest to the bone. If there is one thing that runs common in all great managers, it is that they invariably fall out with players. Fergie did with Keane, Mark Hughes and David Beckham; Roberto Mancini has spent half the season literally grappling with Mario Balotelli before giving up on him; Mourinho is at war with half the Madrid first team. Even the sainted Pep Guardiola quarreled with Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Samuel Eto’o. Wenger in this instance is very much a players’ manager, and is probably the most similar to Carlo Ancelotti, another avuncular figure not known for dressing room conflicts. But Ancelotti always made sure to keep experienced veterans – Maldini, Constacurta and inzaghi at Milan, Terry, Drogba and Lampard at Chelsea – who could lead younger players in the squad. Wenger hasn’t. Obviously falling out with players isn’t a requirement to winning football, but it is a byproduct of a manager’s pursuit of excellence. And great managers will use whatever means in their disposal to motivate players. Motivation isn’t just encouragement, but also criticism applied sharply and judiciously. If a player is underperforming, you need to let him know; if he underperforms regularly, he needs to be jolted out of his comfort zone. Sometimes that can be done by other players, but clearly it’s best if managers, the highest football authority at any given club, do it.
What we see at Arsenal is a group of players who are not driven by fear of failure or hunger for success. They have too much talent, and too much respect for Wenger, to completely lose the plot and tumble out of the top half or anything like that, but they are being kept on too long a leash by an indulgent manager who is patient to a fault. Unless Arsene Wenger starts laying down the law to his players or brings in players who will do it for him, it’s difficult to see Arsenal winning anything.