Friday, 20 May 2011

The only benchmark...

Words 1,062. Estimated reading time: 3 minutes, 55 seconds As we approach the end of another season with a sense of underachievement, my reluctant conclusion now is that Arsene Wenger deserves to be replaced.

Let us start at the beginning – August 13, 2010, to be precise; two days before we kicked off the campaign at Liverpool and a day before it was confirmed that Wenger had signed a new contract until 2014.

“Signing a new deal means that I can see this talented group of players reach their potential. Trust me, they are ready to deliver,” he announced at his weekly press conference.

“What will be success is to improve from last year, which is to win the league - that is the only benchmark.

“We know people want more from us and we are ready to give more, but success is to win the league.”

Could you find a better definition of making a rod for your own back? Here was our leader laying down his expectations and spelling out his belief that this squad of players were capable of winning the league (ignoring the little fact that improving on last year could have actually been achieved by coming second in the league).

Fast forward to today and it is clear that, to put it bluntly, he got it completely wrong. Not only have we failed to win the league, we’ve won fewer games, secured fewer points and dropped out of the title race even earlier. Add in another disappointing European exit and there has been virtually no progress at all.

Final malaise
As Wenger himself has said, this probably would have all been different had we won the Carling Cup Final. Ironically, the winners Birmingham, still fighting against relegation with one game remaining, have suffered just as big a slump in form as us but had we ended our silverware ‘drought’ we would have gone into the run-in with spirits and belief renewed which surely would have been reflected in an improved points tally.

That match serves as a useful illustration of just why I, and so many supporters, feel Wenger has used up his store of goodwill. To rub salt into the wounds, it was the much-maligned Emmanuel Adebayor who laid the facts out in an interview last week saying the big difference between Jose Mourinho and Wenger was there would be no way the former would let a team of his lose a final to the likes of Birmingham.

With the players at his disposal, Wenger should be able to create a cogent, united side that wins even when things do not run smoothly. That conclusion is not based on just that single disappointment. The faults of this Arsenal –so frustratingly obvious and easily remedied to most onlookers – have existed for years.

A soft underbelly, an inability to cope with adversity, tactical inflexibility, disregard for even the basics of defending, an overly rigid system of play, stubborn devotion to mediocre talent, a lack of aggression. The list goes on and these weaknesses are not issues that will be addressed with the number of transfers that can be accommodated in one close season. They require fundamental changes in the way the team is managed.

The Reyes-Ronaldo divergence
Wenger has brought clear benefits to the club, not least in creating a production line of young players with world class technique. Imagine earlier generations of youth products likes Hillier and Selley even attempting the pass-and-move fluidity of our current academy teams. Jack Wilshere is the prototype creation of the Wenger model and we certainly have no complaints about that.

And yet, Wenger’s record in developing older players looks increasingly flawed. Arshavin, the star of Euro 2008, has been a disappointment overall. Chamakh – a player I admire greatly – has looked lost in these last few months. Rosicky and Squillaci look worse now compared to when they first arrived.

Think of the varying successes this season of Javier Hernandez, who is completing a dream first year at Man U, and his compatriot Carlos Vela, four months his senior but labouring on loan at WBA. The comparison reminds me of the divergence in the careers of Jose Antonio Reyes and Cristiano Ronaldo.

Signed by Wenger and Alex Ferguson within six months of each other in 2003/04, they arrived with similar pedigree and characteristics; slightly flashy, hit and miss and ultimately disappointing. Each of them improved but while Reyes’ development never recovered from the battering he received in the 49th Invincibles game, Ronaldo went on to become one of the best players of his generation.

What kind of player would he have become if Wenger had been his boss? Would he have practiced his free-kicks until they became unstoppable? Would he have developed his heading to become a genuine threat in the air? Would he have become the same determined character driven to improve himself? Or would he have turned into Jose Antonio Reyes, a good and technically proficient professional but no more?

But he won’t go yet
In an age when so much of football is spoiled by greed, unfair play and a win-at-all-costs attitude, Wenger stands out as a noble man. His philosophy and outlook on the game, devotion to beautiful football, is rightly admired and applauded. I would never opt for the type of manager – looking not too far away in this article for a particular ‘special’ suspect - who is adored by the media but spoils the image of the game more than he enhances it.

But by his own benchmark, Wenger has failed. And failed at a time when we have come through a period of self-imposed prudence and now have the resources to achieve. He deserves to be sacked. But that isn’t to say necessarily that I want him to be sacked, mainly for the same reason that there is no way he will be sacked: which manager of better pedigree could, realistically, take over?

Pep Guardiola is often said to fancy a spell in England (although I contest any manager of a team featuring Lionel Messi has his work cut out to make it unsuccessful) but he is likely to stay in Barcelona for a year or two longer. The list of other potential candidates is practically non-existent. Next summer there will be more choice with an international competition creating managerial vacancies aplenty. We just have to hope that by that stage the problems Wenger has continually failed to address haven’t led to us slipping out of Europe’s elite.

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