Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Something missing from the Arsenal?

After a lamentable Champions League exit to Manchester United, where, despite the momentum-sapping quality of United's early lead, a fightback never seemed likely to materialise, questions began to hover again over Arsene Wenger's brood.

Then the Emirates was sacked by Chelsea five days later. Whatever the progress made by the Arsenal youth project since November, when the title challenge foundered on the rocks of defeat to Fulham, Hull, Aston Villa, Stoke and Manchester City, the shortcomings of Wenger's squad were twice brutally exposed within the space of a week.

Arsenal is a subject I try to keep close to my heart but far from this blog. Partisanship doesn't often make for sober, cogent analysis ... but sometimes subjectivity can offer its own insight. As someone who welcomes the cosmopolitan mix of players brought to this country by the likes of Arsenal, I'm loath to light upon the hoary old 'foreigners don't care' argument; but after a classic post-defeat bout of soul-searching with my fellow Gooner brother, Ross, we'd settled on a hypothesis or two.

Maybe there is a case, chest-beating chauvinism aside, that a collection of largely foreign players don't 'want it' quite so much as ones who are wedded to the badge. This is perhaps symptomatic of the increasingly footballer-as-businessman nature of the game - but certainly Arsenal seem to lack a Rooney, a Gerrard, a Terry, who will always give their utmost for the cause.

Is this because they are English? Or because Cesc Fabregas isn't? Such a postulation would surely apply to various domestic leagues around the world, in that locally sourced players may well feel more than a casual affinity for their club. Arsenal undoubtedly have a squad of committed professionals, but does each individual view the arrangement as more of an employer-employee relationship than, say, Jamie Carragher does at Liverpool?

Arsenal rarely overwhelm teams as often as they did in their glorious late-90s, early 2000s heyday, when players of Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry's quality blended with the likes of Tony Adams, Ray Parlour and Sol Campbell. Does the current collection of elite graduates from the Gunners' global scouting network lack a heartbeat - or at least someone who understands the fans' chants, knows why they turn up evey week?

Perhaps, too, there is an excessive focus on cold technique within the Arsenal side, at the expense of passion and grab-the-game-by-its-scruff dynamism. Certainly Wenger has emphasised that aspect of the current team's play - perhaps influenced by criticisms of more robust, combative, possibly cynical, Arsenal line-ups of the past. There was a time when the aesthetes of north London were perceived as an indisciplined, bully-boy side, lest we forget.

Whatever the case, it is painful to see your side fail to raise its game in the cauldron of a must-win Champions League semi-final against one of the oldest of enemies. Easy answers there are none, and Wenger will doubtless tread his own path. But unless Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott start stamping their personalities on the team soon, our doubts and questions will linger ...

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Blogger David Bartram said...

For some reason several months after you posted this it has just appeared on my (evidently outdated) Google reader, so I'll respond.

I've disliked Arsenal longer than I can remember - Wenger is by far and away the most egregious manager in the Premier League, the club has had more than its fair share of petulant twats (Gallas, van Persie, Adebayor and Eboue being the current stars) and, at least post-The Invincibles, I think Arsenal's 'beautiful' football has been wildly overstated. That said, in the current climate they are slipping well down my 'clubs to hate' list.

I think Arsenal's problems are both self-inflicted and unavoidable. Wenger is horrendously stubborn, and doesn't really seem to learn from his mistakes. His transfer policy has kept Arsenal ahead of the rest of the Premiership, if not quite up with the 'big three', but it has also caused a lot of the problems that fans are bemoaning.

For one, the very nature of it means that Arsenal will always struggle sign players loyal and 100% committed to the club. The sort of player who ups sticks at 16 to travel half-way across Europe against the will of childhood club is unlikely to turn down mega-bucks from a European giant a few years later. I get the impression that Wenger doesn't really consider personality when he makes a signing (see the four mentioned above, and Theo Walcott's lack thereof.) This is probably a luxury he can't afford, but it seems, at least next to Ferguson and Benitez's sides, that there is no real common ethos running through Arsenal.

Every so often a (normally ex) Arsenal player makes a comment about the dressing room and the lack of 'togetherness', and it seems Ferguson is a lot more careful when signing players to ensure they integrate. One of the reasons Benitez sold Owen was the break the English 'sect' at Liverpool, and it seems to work.

Wenger's concerns seem entirely focused on footballing talent, which is commendable. It has kept the side ahead of Villa and Spurs over the last couple of years, and I suspect they have spent similar sums of money. But when it comes to challenging for silverware, I think this might be where Arsenal fall short.

11:44 PM, July 16, 2009  
Blogger allrounder said...

Actually, this had just lain as an unfinished draft until recently ... but as most of it still stood/stands, I published it when I put up the Ashes piece last week. Hence the original timestamp being now dated.

As for the Arse, certainly Wenger has become more and more unbending in his philosophy - perhaps detrimentally so, in the short term. Personality is an interesting point; Wenger clearly scrutinises technique far closer than he does temperament.

I have a similar view about his approach to building a defence. As long as all four are technically adept he seems comfortable to let them work out their own system - which has led to some less than sparkling defending in recent years.

However, technique is the crucial barometer - because Gallas is really no more of a prick than Patrick Vieira. He's just not as good. I will concede shipping out Adebayor can only be a good thing, though.

I think its also worth noting that the Chelski/Abramovich revolution had a scarring impact on the man. At the point Wenger's ethos reached its apogee on the pitch (the Invincibles), Chelsea and Mourinho changed the game.

But there are green shoots, from a English-Arsenal perspective, as evinced by the FA Youth Cup triumph. Still time for a homegrown, fourth league title ... at least I hope.

6:01 PM, July 20, 2009  

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