Another week of underachievement in a season where, since November, disillusionment has never been far away.
Sunday’s draw against Palace was suitably microcosmic of all the elements that have left Arsenal fans with itchy feet about the manager. The team exhibited naivety, a criminal lack of killer instinct, and an endless capacity to find negative results from positive situations. And Wenger’s only attempts to change things up were the usual, pre-scripted substitutions, and were totally counter-productive.
Once again the team’s tempo, albeit inhibited by Palace’s nine men behind the ball rope-a-dope tactics, was largely one-paced, with the attacking structure totally lacking in variation. While recycling possession against an opposition defending deep in an attempt to draw them out is very sensible as an overall default position, endless repetition of the same is easy to counter for those who apply themselves correctly.
There were no long balls into the channels from deep, very few quick one-two’s or similar interchanges, and virtually no positional rotation up front. Accordingly, Pardew’s men could hold their positions and look for the same two or three attacking movements (invariably the wide men making out-to-in runs) and just stay patient. The result was a stodgy performance against a disciplined but limited opposition and made for a very dull spectacle, with the tedium only broken by booing the pantomime villain and the frustration following their equaliser.
This, of course, happens to every big team from time to time. Even the likes of Barcelona can be stifled, as Diego Simeone showed us last week. But for a club of Arsenal’s size, resources and supposed ambition, it is an all too regular occurrence.
That this is the case in the first half of matches shows a lack of inbuilt flexibility, but is understandable to a degree. Most teams have an initial set-up that can be countered with careful planning. What is far harder to take, year after year, is that once a match’s pattern has been established, this team only seems to shake out of its autopilot when it either scores or concedes a goal, and even then, it often takes two.
That the players seem relatively unable to take the responsibility for adjusting on the fly is worrying enough, but what is far more damning is the influence of the manager, who unless all the wheels have already fallen on the chariot, seldom intervenes or adjusts. For a man of such intelligence, experience and exposure to different things, it’s hard to forgive his Nero-like approach, fiddling while Rome burns.
It’s all the more frustrating because, even in this year of squandered opportunity, the manager has made significant tactical adjustments between games, but short of throwing on attackers when dropping points, or defenders when protecting them, his in-game management makes the rest of us look like geniuses. It’s almost as though he lacks the capacity to analyse the action as it unfolds in real time. And hasn’t learnt how to do so in the decades of experience he keeps reminding us of when challenged in press conferences.
Against Palace, this was illustrated perfectly by his patented 72nd-minute substitutions. Although Ramsey and Giroud coming on made some sense given that the game had gone flat, the collective loss of pace from the Arsenal front line allowed Palace to play five yards further up the pitch and press more in midfield without fear of being countered. The change in their approach was almost instantaneous, but Arsenal just continued as they had left off, except with a few more crosses being elevated rather than on the floor, and a few more attempts at playing wall passes off the front man.
In the end, the whole team, and sadly Petr Cech in particular, seemed relatively content sleepwalking to the outcome we all saw unfolding long in advance.
This passivity, as I have written before, is not just confined to on the pitch affairs. As the manager has become more out-thought tactically, he has become more conservative in the transfer market. For the most part, gone are the signings that ‘swing for the fences’ like Overmars, Petit, Henry or Toure, the high risk/high reward star-shooters. Except when the likes of Ozil or Sanchez find themselves virtually being escorted from the premises at schizophrenically run Spanish giants, his recent modus operandi has been cheap-ish kids or solid citizens from lower leagues. And his prevaricating over potential big boom/bust transfers has become legendary in football circles.
It’s sometimes hard to remember how different things were. He arrived in North London as an innovator, a risk taker and a breath of fresh air. Whether in terms of transfers, style of play and scale of ambition, or elements as prosaic as dietary approach, he undoubtedly transformed much of the club.
However, once the new Stadium plans became a tangible reality, and a financial burden, his approach has been much more one of pragmatic stability. Even before David Dein was removed from the board, Arsene was effectively overseeing every aspect of the sporting side of the club, and our ex-board of largely status quo preserving custodians, followed by our absentee landlord, have been more than happy to let him get on with it.
As such, a man who used to spend his enormous energies thinking about the minutiae of team performance and player development has become increasingly diluted. Comparing his press conferences alone, it’s obvious that his focus has gradually broadened out, as would be entirely expected in someone who is simultaneously a monomaniac and a polymath. As a result, for over a decade, he has been operating with at least one eye on the bigger picture. Which is very laudable, but not always very helpful.
In American sports, you have the General Manager and the Head Coach. The former is focused on the long-term and bigger picture, and the latter with winning NOW (partly because his employment prospects depend on it!). That creates a fundamental level of challenge and conflict in even the most harmonious relationships. The best coaches can encourage the GM to shape the team according to their desires, and the best GMs can influence coaching strategy and team selection.
Arsenal’s problem is that Arsene Wenger is both, and has that natural conflict within himself. Hence the indecision over signings. Perhaps it also impacts on short-term decision making within games. Without being a fly on the wall, it is impossible to know how deep the inertia runs.
As a General Manager, Sporting Director or whatever other model you like, a steady hand on the tiller is, for the most part, not only an excellent thing but an owners dream, as it is in any organisation. However, in the nitty-gritty of day-to-day competition, a little more inspiration is required.
As a GM, it’s hard to fault Wenger’s work. He’s provided stability, enhanced the club’s reputation, kept a high-level squad ticking over (with a few inspired signings) and redeveloped training facilities, the medical team and the academy. No owner or board in its right mind would sack a man with such a record, unless they are planning to throw money at the club and fundamentally change its direction.
It’s as a coach, where he is being left behind
As a whole, coaches don’t have lengthy tenures at one team in any major sport. A certain destruction and renewal is invariably needed for continued evolution. Even the legendary Scotty Bowman in the NHL, who is basically the best coach in every measurable category after a stellar 35-year career at the top level (as well as being a key behind the scenes guy for multiple teams in the subsequent decade or so), never spent more than nine years in one place, despite a limited range of possible destinations.
As such, Alex Ferguson is a phenomenon. Sure, he had significant financial advantages domestically for over a decade of his tenure, but what really sets him and that other great endurer, Arsene Wenger, apart was his utter determination to winning ahead of all other considerations, and his recognition of the need for his management team to change if he wasn’t going to move on. Different voices, different knowledge, different techniques and different challenges.
Wenger’s omnipresence and omnipotence within Arsenal are holding him and the club back. I have no doubt that he is generally willing to embrace new ideas he comes across, but his incredible loyalty to his colleagues, though often uncharitably interpreted as a deliberate refusal to be challenged, does mean that things get stale and the same ideas get continually re-percolated.
But no-one wants to tell him to shake things up.
Going back to the US sports analogy, there is no challenge to his overall management from a coaching perspective (demanding better players, a different balance of styles etc), and no challenge to his coaching from a management perspective, from himself or higher up the food chain.
Essentially, because it is easier for those running the club, at present it is his excellent work as a GM that his keeping him employed as an increasingly mediocre coach.
And until he decides to walk away or reduce the breadth of his workload, or until results (and by extension the fans) go against him in a big way, nothing will change. For an owner who is now quite open about prizing stable growth over sporting triumph, the Arsene Wenger of 2016 is more attractive than the less powerful, more successful model of a decade or so ago. As long as the ship stays ‘steady as she goes’, Kroenke can focus on building shopping malls, moving NFL teams and road-testing toupees.
Appropriately, we find ourselves in fourth spot again as I write this, Arsenal’s luke-warm bath league position. So comfortable and familiar, we can all just drift off…