The early part of Arsène Wenger’s reign at Arsenal sparked a transformation of the club that was probably completely unexpected to all of us that followed the team in those days. For those of us brought up on the George Graham ‘1-0 to the Arsenal’ days, it was astounding. He removed the drinking culture that had gone before and introduced new ideas on nutrition, fitness, stretching and training as well as completely revolutionising the style of football. He introduced unknown or untrusted players from abroad, most notably France, to augment the steel and defensive discipline of George Graham’s highly drilled ‘Famous Back Four’ with a new level of continental flair.
In his first full season in charge he toppled Manchester United from their perch atop the Premier League, winning the club its second double. United responded in kind but Arsène continued to evolve his team, adding astute new signings, and nurtured a team that added another double, followed by an unprecedented unbeaten league season. The Invincibles had a style of play that saw them blow teams away with a combination of pace, power and flair.
It was however in the years leading up to the Invincibles season that the decision had been taken that the club had outgrown Highbury and in order to be able to compete at the top of world football in the future, a new stadium was required which would generate matchday revenues never achieved before. The required trade-off to finance the building of the Emirates Stadium meant that funds had to be diverted from the playing squad, both in terms of transfer fees and wages, and towards the building costs.
Through all this and in a context of increasing fan frustration, as we continued to lose our best players and were only able retain the more mediocre ones; Arsène somehow found a way to keep the team in the top four and to secure qualification for the Champions League each year.
As the club began to emerge from the burden of the stadium debt, the landscape of English football had changed; first Chelsea and then Manchester City were acquired by multi-billionaires who were prepared to pump millions after millions into building squads; they now joined Manchester United as the financial powerhouses of the Premier League.
Despite claims from the Club of a new dawn and now being able to sign pretty much anyone in world football; the top level acquisitions that have been made have amounted to two, albeit very talented, players who had been judged to be surplus to requirements at Real Madrid and Barcelona; followed by the long-overdue acquisition of a world class goalkeeper, who only became available as a result of being replaced by a younger version at Chelsea.
At the same time obvious, even to those of us ‘who haven’t worked a single day in football’, deficiencies in the team and squad were consistently ignored while millions remained untouched in the club’s coffers.
This season, the most wide-open Premier League title race in years, should have been the year that Arsène and Arsenal reaped the rewards of the strict budget management of previous years. On the 21st of December, after defeating Manchester City, Arsenal were level on points at the top of the table with Leicester but since then have managed to pick up just 23 points out of a possible 45, and they now find themselves 6 points behind Tottenham and 13 behind Leicester, albeit with a game in hand.
In a season where the title was there for the taking, Arsenal have failed spectacularly. In recent years Arsène has been able to disguise the underachievement of the team behind claims of the financial doping of other clubs, and the financial burden of the stadium development; but with the debts having been largely cleared and teams like Leicester, Spurs and West Ham, to name but three, showing that success can be founded on player development, astute recruitment from lower levels, tactical organisation and team spirt rather than recourse to vast financial resources, those arguments carry little weight any more.
Instead the harsh light of analysis points to familiar issues with regard to the mentality of the team, the types of players that are in it, the tactical set-up, attacking inefficiency and the lack of even the most basic defensive organisation. All of these issues could and should have been addressed by the manager, either through coaching and/or recruitment of new and better players; yet we are led to believe that going into the season, Arsène felt that there wasn’t a single outfield player that could have improved our side, nor was there anything we could do to improve our tactical approach and system.
The failure to sustain a credible challenge for the title, sits within the context of yet another season where the team has been humbled when facing Europe’s best; the only difference this time being that we almost managed to get eliminated in the group stage of the Champions League as a result of complacency, tactical disorganisation and basic errors in the early games.
Out of loyalty and gratitude for his past achievements and the way in which he kept the club in the top four despite the financial restraints; it would be tempting to put this season down to bad luck and a missed opportunity. However if we think that anything will change heading into the summer and the new season, I think we are probably kidding ourselves. In all reality the game has evolved beyond Arsène’s philosophy and approach, and he is showing little sign of either admitting it or doing anything to address it.