“Be careful what you wish for.”
If I had a pound for every time I’d heard that, I wouldn’t need to spend my spare time penning Arsenal columns on Christmas Eve!
I’m amazed quite how extreme and speedy the swing from “potential champions” to “complete wasters” has been, following two disappointing results in the last week. Yes, I wrote last week’s offering bemoaning our mistakes at Everton only to see us repeat those same mistakes on Sunday at the Etihad. Still, no two game spell changes the true ability (or lack thereof, depending on your viewpoint) of this team.
But irrespective of whether it’s derived from two games or two years’ of games, there’s definitely a distinct subset of Arsenal fans who think the manager’s time is up. Hence the re-emergence of “be careful what you wish for”.
Better the devil you know?
One of the most interesting things is that many of those who would brand themselves Arsene’s staunchest supporters have ceased trying to convince the rest of the fanbase that he is indeed the right man for the job.
Maybe they too now feel his time is up. Or maybe they just feel the argument is futile these days.
Whatever the reason, the argument has become less about Arsene being the right man, and more that the alternatives are the wrong men.
There is an element of truth there.
Alan Brazil was blathering on this week on TalkSport, on the wind up as usual. Apparently Mourinho would have won the league with our current squad. So would Simeone. So would Pep.
I mean, sure, there’s a chance, but it’s hardly the nailed on guarantee that Brazil and his cohosts would suggest.
I’m less interested in the alternatives, and more interested in whether our current strategy is fatally flawed at the outset. If there’s still room to grow, room for us to improve incrementally, then we could yet hit the dizzy heights with some minor improvements. If, however, the changing landscape of the Premier League means that allowing players that level freedom is no longer a viable strategy then we have no choice but to change paths.
There’s largely two main schools of managerial thought. There’s the pragmatist, and there’s the philosopher.
These types of manager don’t particularly care how they win, as long as they win. If there’s pressure to play good football, they just have to deliver it against the lesser lights. As long as results follow, they’re off the hook against the big sides. Mourinho does this and Pulis does this.
They tend to rely on extremely high work ethic, and have a number of players in their squad who may not be the most talented footballers, but they are able to cover a lot of mileage and give more cultured opponents no time on the ball. If they can kick them up in the air at the same time, so much the better.
These types of managers tend to have very, very consistent results because their system does not rely on any one player. The impact of injuries or suspensions is mitigated by a squad of similar players who are square pegs to fill square holes.
These types of managers design their sides in their own image, purchasing and developing players to fit their exact style. Players are capable of individual brilliance, even within the team structure. This means that often the backbone of the team have limited or no like-for-like replacements. This style encompasses Guardiola, Klopp and Pochettino.
We’ve seen at City this year how important it was to Guardiola to get his own type of players in. Stones and Bravo were pretty much non-negotiable purchases. In much the same way, Arsene refuses to buy “just anyone” as we know from his transfer window refrains. There’s always money available if a top, top, top quality player becomes available…
Equally, we’ve seen all four of the above sides struggle when missing some of their key men. Liverpool have dropped unexpected points without Coutinho. Spurs failed to score from open play in about 183641 games without Kane. City have been garbage in many a game, despite allegedly having the best manager in the world.
Wenger is also a philosopher, and perhaps more than any of the other managers mentioned above, he designs his teams to be all pegs of all different shapes and sizes. When things are going well, this means the team can bamboozle oppositions because they don’t know where the next attack is coming from. Changing one player in the team can change the attacking dynamics.
However, that’s desirable only when those changes are by choice. When things aren’t going so well, it means that a single injury can hamstring the entire team.
Our squad has a number of players who are the envy of Europe. It’s probably why there’s so much criticism at the moment of Wenger, and the perception that he is unable to get the maximum from them. It’s easy to assume, then, that another manager with the same players could deliver many more trophies. And maybe they could.
But I have my doubts. It’s got nothing to do with Arsene and defending him – he has his flaws just as any other manager – and everything to do with this team which is built in his image.
Whenever I think about Wenger leaving – either now or whenever he walks away – I get a growing uneasiness about what that would mean for Arsenal as we know it.
Revolution not evolution
I don’t mean the club itself – we’ve survived 130 years, after all – but simply what Arsenal is currently about. Great football, great players, and an undeniable style, even if it’s still a work in progress.
Brazil and friends think it’s all about the manager,. I dread to imagine the car crash that would ensue if Jose Mourinho managed this current crop of Arsenal players though? Can you imagine watching us trying to play for 0-0 draws even against teams in the bottom half? No, the best parts of our team under the current philosophy would be shorn off in favour of hard-working, hard-running ground pounders.
Mourinho ruined Eden Hazard, making him look more suited to Sunday League than Premier League level of football. Only under Conte is the Belgian now making a recovery, with less defensive responsibility and more attacking freedom. So just imagine what would happen to someone like, say, Mesut Ozil under a pragmatic manager.
Imagine Tony Pulis managing Mesut Ozil.
No, I firmly believe that the pieces are all interlinked. The very things that make us weak at times are the same things that make us brilliant on our day. The question for me is whether the philosophy is inherently flawed to the point that we will never be able to make it “our day” often enough in this most competitive of leagues to finish on top of the pile any more.
Either way, though, you cannot simply swap from a highly philosophical manager to a pragmatic one and expect to go from nearly men to champions without so much as a stumble. If we truly believe that we need a more pragmatic approach then fine. However, it will require a root and branch overhaul. Revolution not evolution.
If Arsene went, the balance of our squad is so indelibly linked to his plans, his tactics and his methodologies. I can’t see a new manager simply ‘tweaking’ a few details here and there (the famed winning mentality for example, or reintroducing man-marking at corners, depending on your chosen hobby horse) and all of a sudden we’re winning back-to-back league titles.
To expect so misunderstands the complexities of modern football. I think of it a bit like whackamole. Each time you knock one problem on the head, another one appears. After all, if there was a perfect solution then everyone would be at it.
We’re either in to the hilt with a philosophy, or we’re heading back to the drawing board.
So I’m not saying don’t let Arsene go. I’m just saying that if we do, make sure it’s with eyes open.