Only so much Arsene Wenger can achieve at Arsenal, and maybe it is time for him to leave English Premier League club

The English Premier League club are playing steady football, but the inability to beat their rivals is a result of limited coaching, not budget, writes Jonathan Wilson.
If Arsene Wenger resigns as Arsenal manager today, he will have left the club in better shape, writes our columnist. Eddie Keogh / Reuters
If Arsene Wenger resigns as Arsenal manager today, he will have left the club in better shape, writes our columnist. Eddie Keogh / Reuters

Years of achievement. Years of trophies. Years of regularly finishing in the top four but not actually winning a trophy until last year’s FA Cup.

Years – 15 of them – of qualifying for the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League. A move to a new stadium completed while Liverpool, Everton and, most relevantly, Tottenham Hotspur, looked on enviously. A club in robust financial health.

The plus column for Arsene Wenger looks pretty strong, certainly when viewed with perspective.

And yet, on a platform at Stoke railway station last Saturday, he was abused by Arsenal fans. Not a couple of distant jeers, but booing and snarling in his face. “Get out while you still can,” they shouted at the peripheral Costa Rican forward Joel Campbell.

It is true, of course, that this was a handful of Arsenal fans and that the vast majority would be appalled by the thought of a mob verbally attacking a 65-year-old man on a railway platform.

But it also is true that discontent is becoming ever more common at the Emirates and that, even if most Arsenal fans would express their frustration in a different way, they understand what led to that confrontation.

Arsenal are masters at doing just enough to release the pressure. Every time they reach what seems a critical point, they win a couple of games and tensions ease.

The Stoke City game was that process in microcosm. What if Bojan Krkic’s second goal had not been ruled out? What if it had got to 4-0? What if it had got worse? Would that have been the tipping point? But it did not, Arsenal pulled it back to 3-2 and the defeat became an irritation rather than a humiliation.

A 4-1 win away to a Galatasaray side that cannot defend, including a brilliant goal from Aaron Ramsey, means Arsenal probably go into today’s home game against Newcastle United in relatively good spirits – although in typical Arsenal fashion, optimism that Ramsey may be getting back to the sort of form he showed last season has been extinguished by news he will miss the game through injury, as will Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal.

But the issue really is the bigger picture. Step back and it seems absurd that anybody could criticise Wenger.

If he walked away from the club today, he would leave it in an immeasurably stronger position than he found it in 1997. He may even, as he always promised he would, have seen the club through financial disadvantage.

With Financial Fair Play regulations, the stadium becomes a huge advantage, while the benefits enjoyed by Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea and other deep-pocket are negated.

Arsenal’s wage bill this season crept above Chelsea’s for the first time in a decade.

In that sense, his stewardship of the club has been masterful. And yet it may be that Wenger is not the best man to take advantage of the changed economic environment.

This week, he was again insisting that “if everybody is fit, then we don’t need to go into the transfer market”. Can he really believe that? Really believe that he does not need a holding midfielder? Really believe that six defenders is sufficient?

But even those issues do not really get to the heart of the matter, which is the way Arsenal are so habitually outclassed by good opponents – by Barcelona and Bayern Munich repeatedly in the Champions League, by other top four sides in the Premier League (last season, Arsenal’s record against the teams that finished above them was one victory, two draws and three defeats. They were outscored 17-6. Again and again, the aspect in which they fall down is their pressing.

Arsenal at their peak, in 1997/98 and 2003/04, did not press high up the field. They had elite holding midfielders who could protect the defence. They would absorb pressure and strike on the break through the pace of Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Thierry Henry, Fredrik Ljungberg and Robert Pires. Now they do neither. They do not press high and they do not absorb.

They have the team to press but not the coherence. And that is not a matter of money or budget, but one of coaching. And if that is accepted, perhaps the time has come to thank Wenger for an extraordinary body of work and look to a different future.

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Published: December 13, 2014 04:00 AM


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