I don’t know if I’ve ever said this but I started 7amkickoff in 2008 because I was tired of the constant stream of criticism against Arsene Wenger. I insisted on context: Wenger’s youth plan was audacious – the likes of which you will never see again in a top club – and most importantly he was doing all of it on a budget, so that we could have the new stadium. He was sacrificing himself for the club. Yes, he was well paid to do so, but I doubt you’ll see such loyalty to the club from Pochettino as they move to their new stadium.
That was the Cesc era. And if you look at what the core players went on to become after they left Arsenal – Sagna, Clichy, Toure, van Persie, and Fabregas all won the Premier League at least once – you have to say that Wenger nearly got it right. Nearly.
Over the years, my position on Wenger softened. I could see that there were familiar failings every season. That core above was joined with a midfield of Flamini, Gilberto, Alex Song and Denilson, backed by captain William Gallas, and featured Manuel Almunia in goal. Flamini and Gilberto both left the club, Song became the starter and despite Wenger crafting him into one hell of a throughball passer, Arsene couldn’t quite get the balance correct and it all fell apart: Cesc demanded a trade and Wenger’s Arsenal, a side which once beat Barcelona in the Champions League lost 8-2 to Man U and followed that up with a 4-3 loss to Blackburn. Wenger’s youth team was dead, and he did the one thing he seemed to hate the most, he went into the market to get in seasoned professionals.
That was his worst season at Arsenal – until this one. And that summer, to cap it all off, van Persie wrote his “hey guys” letter.
I know what happened next and it’s kind of harsh on Wenger. I’m going to be as honest as I can and just say that I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes. What it looked like from outside of the club, as a fan, was weird and erratic behavior.
He appointed Vermaelen captain, then dropped him after a high profile mistake against Tottenham. Before he dropped him I called dropping Vermaelen, captain of the club, “the nuclear option” in that it would lay waste to the squad.
After that Wenger dropped his defenders whenever they made mistakes. And they were bound to make mistakes. The system Wenger plays exposes defenders so that there will inevitably be a collapse. It doesn’t happen in every game, Koscielny was the king of last minute tackles and interceptions, but there would inevitably come a game where Arsenal’s defensive scheme, which seemed to rely on individual precision, would be exposed.
That’s why Mourinho had so much joy over Wenger down the years. His system is designed to maximize mistakes in his opponents, it’s more than just parking the bus, it’s a provocative system that looks to exploit mistakes. And soon nearly every team adopted this approach to Arsenal. And statistically Wenger’s side just peaked at 4th-ish place every year.
What I mean by that last sentence is that Wenger’s career is incredible for its lack of variation. It didn’t matter who he brought in or sold, Arsenal played the same kind of football and basically got the same points per game. It wasn’t until this year that Wenger’s approach really started to collapse. Teams at home started playing two up top and started attacking Arsenal in possession (which was unthinkable in the 2006-2010 version of Arsenal, the Barca-lite version).
There were other factors there as well. The money that City have spent is incredible as is the buying power of United. But Chelsea*, Tottenham and Liverpool have challenged for the title without spending, with good coaching and a lot of luck (Tottenham wouldn’t be a top club without Kane, a once-in-a-lifetime gem). I think that’s the future for Arsenal. The league is awash with money and top quality players are being snapped up by clubs that previously couldn’t afford them. Moreover, it’s almost impossible for Arsenal to unearth gems anymore. Both because fans run out of patience and because the football scouting network is so well informed. The days when Wenger could swoop for Vieira or pick Fabregas from Barcelona are long dead. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some to be found, Mavropanos looks a right good buy and obviously someone discovered Kane, Kante, Gueye, and Mahrez. But building a whole team from outstanding transfer business is much more difficult than it was in 1996.
The one thing that most perplexes me about Wenger’s recent teams is that he had a blueprint to win the League in the Invincibles: physically intimidating bastards who could play football. That was every Chelsea team from 2005-2015, every United team that ever played football, that’s what Tottenham do now as well. Maybe we are heading back in that direction. Holding and Mavropanos look like they are bit tough and Kolasinac is certainly a “unit”. Xhaka is also kind of a big guy.
That question, though, lingers: what’s the future of this club now that Wenger is gone? There’s been a lot of talk about the mess that he’s left behind – Per has retired, Koscielny is done, Cech looks done, Monreal is done, and Arsenal only have one left back and one right back. In midfield Cazorla is done, there are questions over Jack Wilshere, Xhaka has some obvious defensive problems that I’m not sure coaching will fix, and Ramsey has a history of not playing many minutes due to injury. The next manager has a lot to sort out.
But Wenger also left the club with some incredibly talented attacking up front. Aubameyang and Lacazette are both 20%+ finishers. Ozil is still the key pass king in Europe and Arsenal have players like Iwobi coming through the ranks. There are problems, but the core of the attack is very solid at Arsenal. And attack is what wins you championships.
What does the future hold for Arsenal? Where we are now is that in the void of being able to criticize Wenger for Arsenal’s failings, I’ve noticed that the bloggers, former players, writers, journos, and fans have all started to attack the players. It’s Ozil’s turn this week because he’s out with a back injury. Someone noticed that he’s missed every away match against Newcastle and that he gets a winter break and now they are saying that he’s out sick every away game, not giving everything for the club, etc. I hope this isn’t going to be the next four years of being an Arsenal supporter because that will absolutely suck. I think winning something will keep this down to a dull roar but it won’t be long before we are calling for some player/manager/owner’s head.
I also wonder about the future for Arsene? He’s said for many years that he doesn’t want a job with a national side because he likes working with youth, developing youth. I could see him instead starting an academy. That’s not a joke. I mean it. He’s said that the only reason why there are no African Formula One drivers is because no one gives them the chance. I could see him starting an academy with branches all over the world, giving disadvantaged youth a chance.
I don’t know if he will get more chances at the club level or if he will want them. He’s such a well-known quantity, his tactics are so predictable now, that I wouldn’t be surprised if he only gets one more job at club level. Which I don’t say out of hatred for the man but rather that football is a cruel sport, it demands only excellence and anything less is punished ruthlessly (unless you’re an old English manager, until this year).
But ultimately, it’s Wenger’s final words to the fans that stick with me. “I will miss you” he said while clearly choking up. There he was once again picking the exact right phrase, the phrase that gives us some insight into life, death, art, and beauty. In the end, everything falls apart. And because we love, because we care about each other, when they are gone, we miss them.
I will miss you too, Arsene.
*Chelsea is weird – they seem to have gone into a financial mode where they are relying on player sales at inflated prices, that seems unsustainable, but they also have the best youth team in England (they won the Youth FA Cup five times in a row now) and literally dozens of top prospects on loan across the globe. I can’t say for sure but it looks like Abramovich isn’t going to pump blood money into them any more.