I usually make a few notes as I watch Arsenal games to help me write this blog, but today I stopped after 20 minutes. I couldn’t believe that no lessons had been learned from the humiliation at Anfield and that we could get battered again in exactly the same way. Instead I found myself jotting down my grievances and frustrations, so instead of a match report I’m going to give my view on where Wenger is going wrong. I know we sit comfortably in 4th place and are in the FA Cup semi finals, but that’s not enough anymore — bear with me and I’ll explain why.
Wenger’s reign can be divided into three stages — the Highbury years (1996 – 2005/6), the Emirates era (2006/7 – 2011/12) and the period we are in right now, the supposed Promised Land (2012/13 onwards).
I call it the Promised Land because the whole point of the Emirates move was to compete financially with the Manchester Uniteds of this world. That was how it was sold to us fans — if we build a new stadium, we can generate bigger matchday and sponsorship revenues whereas if we stay at tiny Highbury we would be left behind. It was absolutely the right decision, but to make it work in the short term we needed a manager who could keep us in the Champions League places whilst simultaneously generating a transfer profit every season to service our huge £400m debt. It was a massive, massive ask, but fortunately we had an excellent manager with a degree in Economics who did the job brilliantly.
For the five years of the Emirates Era we finished in the top four every season as Wenger concentrated on bringing through cheap young talent, polishing it up and selling it on for a profit. It didn’t matter too much that we weren’t winning any trophies because the whole point was to get us to the Promised Land on a sound financial footing, ready to fight for titles and trophies as a self-sustainable club. It’s safe to say Wenger has achieved that. We sold van Persie in the summer of 2012, but he was the last big name to leave us and that was the last act of the Emirates era. A few months later we signed a £150m sponsorship deal with Emirates and although we still had some debt, it was down to very manageable levels at low interest rates. Indeed, Wenger’s prudence during the Emirates era meant we’d managed to accumulate a staggering cash balance as the following graphic shows:
The above was taken from an excellent football finance blog called The Swiss Ramble. His financial analysis of Arsenal written a couple of weeks before we signed Ozil is well worth a read, but for those who don’t have the time, here’s the bottom line: as at the end of the 2011/12 season (the latest year when football clubs have published their accounts), Arsenal had an incredible £154 million of cash. Anywhere between £70m – £100m of that is available for transfers.
So well done Arsene, you got us through the lean times to the promised land. We now have the finances, a first class stadium and state of the art training and medical facilities. So why aren’t you building a world class team to go with it?
The excuses for not spending have run out and it was a disgrace that he failed to strengthen in January. We had a chance of winning the league in a season where our rivals all changed their managers, but Wenger’s reluctance to spend robbed us of it. While Mourinho bought the superb Matic and Man Utd signed Mata, we got in an injured 31 year old who still hasn’t even played for us. Fast forward two months and we’ve collapsed in the league as usual thanks to a small, unbalanced squad and the usual spate of injuries.
Which brings me nicely on to my second major grievance — his track record when it comes to the physical well-being of our players is shocking. Think our constant injury problems are down to bad luck? Think again. It’s impossible for bad luck to last this long with so many different players. A more realistic explanation comes in this interesting Daily Mirror interview with a renowned fitness coach: Arsenal’s injury problems are down to incompetent training methods, and tantamount to ”self-destruction”, claims Raymond Verheijen. The key quote for me was how he explained Theo Walcott’s injury:
“Look what happened with Theo Walcott, he was out for a long period. They brought him back really well [in November]; he played 25 minutes, then 25 minutes then 45 minutes — so phase 1 of that rehab is building up match fitness — they gradually built up the game minutes and they did that really well.
[But then] they played Theo five times in 16 days (90 mins) so instead of edging him in, they played him 90, 90, 90, 90, 90, so you accumulate fatigue, your nervous system becomes slower and fatigue is one of the biggest reasons for ACL injuries.”
At the time of his injury I remember thinking why was he even on the pitch so late on — the game was won, surely he should’ve been brought off earlier? I looked up the numbers to see if Verheijen was right, and in fact Walcott started six games in a row over the busy Christmas period from the Man City defeat, playing 90, 90, 90, 90, 80, 90. That’s six matches in 22 days and gives some weight to Verheijen’s argument. At least Wenger has finally twigged that something is not right on the injury front and he has belatedly launched an investigation into the matter. Out of interest, want to know what Wenger’s explanation for Walcott’s injury is?
“I am concerned that that happens,” [Wenger] said. “If you look at our overall injury list going into such a final decisive part of the season, we have no Wilshere, Walcott, Ozil, Ramsey. Walcott it was completely bad luck.”
That he thinks it’s bad luck worries me, especially as fitness coaches like Verheijen offer a very plausible explanation. Injuries have been crippling us for too long and preventing them is a part of the game Wenger and his fitness team really need to get to grips with.
The third grievance I scribbled down was the lack of tactical nous. I could not believe that we went into such a difficult away match with a midfield duo of Arteta and Oxlade-Chamberlain. Now the Ox may well become an excellent central midfielder one day, but that day wasn’t today and we suffered for it. A shocking pass for the first goal and a rush of blood for the penalty. Everyone has the occasional ‘mare, but you have more when you’re a raw youngster playing in an unfamiliar position and therein lies the problem with Wenger — he’s always building teams for tomorrow. The only trouble is, tomorrow never comes and I’m fed up with it. Instead of actually putting together a squad capable of challenging for this year’s title, he’s still trying to build for the future, managing the squad like it’s the Emirates era and plugging the gaps with free transfers like Sanogo and loan signings like Kallstrom.
The Ox should have started out wide in place of Podolski and Flamini should’ve played in the double pivot with Arteta. How can you leave the only proper defensive midfielder we have on the bench for a game at Chelsea?! Mourinho played two defensive midfielders (Luiz and Matic) and he was at home! But that’s because, much as it pains me to say it, Mourinho understands the game better than Wenger. He understands that you need a solid base in midfield, he understands that every great team has at least one excellent defensive midfielder, and most of all he understands how to outwit Wenger. Our title winning sides featured the likes of Gilberto, Petit and Vieira, so why Wenger thinks he doesn’t need a defensive midfielder nowadays is beyond me (and no, Arteta is not a defensive midfielder just because he sits deep). How ironic that Flamini came on at halftime with us 4-0 down — I think the horse had already bolted, Arsene.
So in summation: we have reached the promised land but Wenger is not even trying to assemble a team to match our wonderful stadium and delight our patient fans. He bangs on about consistency and finishing in the top four every year, but we should now be aiming higher. I’ve said that I’d be happy with 4th place and the FA Cup this season, but only if it’s used as a platform to build upon. After today’s performance though I’m not so sure Wenger can make us genuine title contenders again, even if we do get the morale boost of an FA Cup win. If he’s incapable of improving us by adapting tactically, changing the current fitness and conditioning regime and using the vast financial resources he did so well to build up, he should leave so we can get in a forward thinking, dynamic young manager cut from the same cloth as Brendan Rodgers or Roberto Martinez.
The ball is in your court Arsene — you are rightly a club legend and I will forever be grateful for the Highbury years and the Emirates era, but improve or go because you’re holding us back now.