When criticising Arsenal for not taking enough risks, there is plenty to choose from.
Apart from the odd bit of vision and courage shown by David Dein in the 80s and 90s (not least the recruitment and unwavering support for Arsene Wenger), the less successful appointment of Billy Wright in the early 60s, and the odd surprising transfer investment when the club has been in the doldrums, the club has lacked the same desire to dominate that categorises most European superclubs.
It’s easy to start going down the route of questioning the Manger’s invariable reluctance to invest in the playing staff from a position of strength, or the majority of the previous board (and Kroenke and Usmanov) refusing to invest their own money short term to allow the club’s position, status, trophy count and brand to grow at a time when a little judicious risk taking could have helped the club become a true European powerhouse.
These observations are always easy to make in hindsight however, even if some of us could see them at the time. The balance between prudence and paralysis is a tough one to call at times, and of course the likes of Leeds United offer cautionary tales.
Money, money, money
Sure there is no doubt that missed opportunities following the Invincible season can be attributed to the greed of certain board members who never once put their money where their mouth was and sold out for vast sums as soon as they collectively convinced themselves it was the right time. The likes of David Dein and Diamond Danny get a pass because they did at times put their money into the club when it was needed, and were driving forces behind dragging us into the 21st century.
That said, bemoaning previous failures of long-term strategy isn’t all that interesting given the club’s current health and the total disinterest of our absentee owner. And ultimately, it is what happens on the pitch that is rather more interesting to us all anyway.
Which is another area where, rather more immediately, the balance between courage and conservatism has been out of balance.
There have been criticisms of the manager being too cavalier, either tactically or in terms of seemingly making unrealistic assumptions about squad strength and the health of certain injury prone players. That said, his reluctance to reinforce can be attributed in part to fears about destabilising a collective mentality and ‘togetherness’ within the harmonious groups he likes to build.
For me, though, questions have to be asked about over-conservatism when it comes to utilising existing resources.
The here and now
Recent performances against Tottenham, Everton and Watford have shown that perhaps there were personnel decisions that could have been made much sooner into our extended collapse in both form and results. While there is little the manager could have done (without external recruitment) about the absence of Danny Welbeck, and the movement, energy and tactical flexibility he provides, in other positions Wenger was far too reticent to experiment with changes to a formula that had clearly stopped working.
His reluctance to integrate Mohamed Elneny (on whose belated signature he deserves measured praise) into a spectacularly imbalanced and non-functioning central midfield looks an increasingly bewildering one. As a player whose energy, commitment and tidy efficiency had been self-evident for over two years, it was very easy to come up with arguments for his selection even without witnessing the flexibility, speed of thought and positional intelligence that have caught the eye in recent weeks. Instead we persisted with pairing Ramsey with either Flamini or Coquelin in a double pivot spectacularly devoid of control.
This is not to denigrate any of those players, but empirical evidence has illustrated that all three are much better when paired with a deep lying distributer. While Elneny is hardly prototypical of someone who would fill that role, he is very competent at recycling possession, as evidenced by breaking this season’s record for the most successful passes in a Premier League game, against an admittedly lacklustre Watford. More importantly 36 of the 122 in question were to Mesut Ozil, and having your highest passing lane to the resident creative genius is a fairly sound strategy! What he may lack in terms of top end creativity is more than compensated for by sufficient positional awareness and recovery pace to allow his partner greater freedom to integrate into play.
As Wenger himself remarked after Watford were put to the sword:
“He has brought something to the team. He is a very intelligent player who is also very mobile and works very hard for the team. He gives us tactical stability. He made a very good pair with Coquelin in terms of winning the ball back, and also in the distribution as well.”
The fact it took six weeks to see him in the league, and that even after initial competent forays into the first team he remained unused, seemed odd at the time and astonishing in hindsight.
Earlier over-conservatism has also been exposed by the sun-burst arrival of Alex Iwobi. I have more sympathy for Arsene in this instance because of the player’s total lack of first team experience (and the unpredictability that comes with it), but by the time he was thrust into the Nou Camp limelight from out of the blue, he had already several times served notice of being ready to contribute after Emirates Cup cameos and standout performances in earlier FA Cup ties. Again, under normal circumstances, the manager’s gradual introduction of an emerging player would have been seen as excellently handled given recent results, but one can’t forget the context of a team flailing around for two months, lacking both creativity and composure, two qualities our newest youth product seems to have in abundance.
For me, despite being a great lover of developing young talent, Wenger’s integration of academy products seems very hit and miss, with too many departing in recent years without the opportunity to prove they can elevate their game to the higher level. Sure, he watches them in training and we don’t, but some characters just elevate their performance level on the bigger stages. As an actor I’ve seen plenty examples, for better or worse, of the massive disparity that can exist between what happens on a dress rehearsal and what happens in front of a full house. Accordingly, I think you have to throw these players into the fray when you can. The ever absolutist Myles Palmer has his own take;
“If Alex Iwobi can do what he’s been doing with such authority at 19, he should have been in the team sooner. He wasn’t selected because of the conservative Wenger’s precious pecking order.”
And on the basis of the last three months, it’s hard to argue with the wider point he is making. The emergence and then comparative discarding of Joel Campbell is a case in point. At a time when Theo Walcott seemed to fall deeper and deeper into a chasm of form, Alexis looked ready to spontaneously combust in frustration at his rotten run, and Giroud’s goals and energy levels had both disappeared into the ether, Campbell found himself increasingly marginalised.
While it was clear that his ceiling is not as high as those he is directly competing with, and his form was fluctuating, his work rate and desire to make things happen still made him a better option than some others, particularly given his impressive understanding with Giroud. His absence has done nothing to help the Frenchman’s output. At present, the emergence of Iwobi and return to form of Alexis mean that the bench is the right place for him, but I’m not sure we can honestly say that it has been the case over the majority of the last couple of months.
Ultimately, whether by luck or judgement (though most likely a delayed latter, given Wenger’s track record at eventually righting sinking ships), Arsenal have temporarily at least stumbled across as formula that has the team functioning again and playing the kind of football we associate with the manager’s vision. But the time it has taken to find the courage to try this formula may leave us with spilt milk worth crying over.
With the league challenge being not quite in the mortuary yet, and the prospect of catching Spurs still a realistic one, now is not quite the time for those tears. But the questions raised will still loom large in the summer.
Will the manager seek to retain his ‘mentally pure’ squad as it is, with only a couple of reinforcements to replace those departing, or will he show the boldness that most fans feel is necessary?
Given his tendency towards loyalty to those incumbent, I wouldn’t hold my breath.