Sunday, October 05, 2014

Arsene Wenger: The Testimonial Years

Few thoughts on today, this week, and this season:

* We came into the game on a high, battering Galatasaray in the Champions League on Wednesday in one of those games that we still seem able to cruise through. Unfortunately, this leads to the conflation of our ability to win games against mediocre opposition to our overall ability to challenge for trophies. We are capable of the first, but a million miles away from the latter. As long as the two are confused, AW defenders will continue to trot out the same defences for his tenure, and the club will not progress. Anyway, I digress...

* There were a lot of things about this game that served as subtle indictments of Arsene's current management of the club. One of these was the happiness that we had not conceded three goals in the first ten minutes, as we did during out meltdown at the Bridge last year.  Really, that should be the absolute least you can expect of an elite football team - to not be comprehensively destroyed in the first minutes of a match. Yet that is where we are as Arsenal fans nowadays.

* The reason for this was, however, somewhat positive. Clearly, lessons had been learned (to an extent) and our suicidal defensive line of last year had been abandoned. Chambers and Gibbs only pushed forward with caution, and Mertesacker, Koscielny and Flamini actually formed a decent defensive triangle for good portions of the first half. Chelsea played a high pressing game, predictably, but we were not overawed and kept our composure for the main part. Arsene, at last, seems to have realized that we can't just play versus the big teams away in the same way that we would against weaker teams at home. But would this be enough?

* Well, no. Because, predictably, a calamitous defensive error undid our good work. Hazard (another player we missed the opportunity to sign) made a brilliant surging run from midfield, ghosting past two players before arriving in the area. Koz thought "why not stick out a leg?" So he did. And thus a penalty. Koscielny, for all the hype, is an accident waiting to happen in every single game he plays. According to Orbinho on Twitter, he has given away more penalties than any other player in the premier league since 2010. Any other player. This is on top of the red cards, own goals, and general errors that blemish his otherwise good defensive performances. Essentially, you have a player who has the potential to be world class, but who is always a moment away from disaster. That's not really good enough, and it's why I advocated to buy a central defender this summer who would challenge Mert and Koz, rather than just being a back-up. Of course, we did neither, so there you go.

* Despite playing quite well in the first half, we really didn't do much with the ball. We'd win the ball, counter briskly, then things would fall apart at the edge of the area. After Welbz's goals vs. Galatasaray, I'd hoped that there would be a little more incision to our attacking play. Instead, we allowed CFC enough time to organize, and things would gently fall apart. Indeed, the real highlight of the first half was Wenger beasting Mourinho on the sideline after Cahill should've been sent off for a challenge on Sanchez. Small victories.

* I thought we actually also started the second half well too. But again, where was the cutting edge? A goal in the first 10-15 minutes after half-time would've thrown the game wide open. Instead, our final pass was lacking, and repeated periods of good pressure fell apart. With the introduction of Mikel, there was the slightly odd sight of Chelsea, at home, parking the bus. But really, they were just biding their time for the right moment, content to keep us at arm's length while we feigned danger.

* The moment, when it came, was utterly, utterly predictable. I'm not a betting man, but this was the type of bet you take out a 2nd, 3rd, 4th mortgage to make. Fabregas with a killer assist to Costa, who danced through our defence and chipped the ball over Szcz's head. Again, massive questions to be asked about Koscielny's positioning for the goal, while Mertesacker's lack of pace was completely exposed. But it was the sheer predictability of it. Fabregas playing an inch perfect long ball, Costa beasting our defenders. This was every Arsenal/Chelsea game in the last ten years in ten seconds.

* And a word on Fabregas and Costa - let's be absolutely clear on this: we could've afforded both. We could've signed both players. They could literally be playing for Arsenal right now. Instead, Arsene refuses to work with Jorge Mendes, so we couldn't get Costa. You might say it's a bit of a problem if our manager refuses to work with the world's biggest agent. You might. And then Fabregas. Again, Orbinho tweeted a killer stat during the game: Fabregas has more assists than the entire Arsenal team this season. The decision to not re-sign Fabregas was yet another self-inflicted wound in the transfer market, borne from Arsene's hubris. Given our inability to make and score chances when he left, to not sign him was an act of gross negligence, which will pay for heavily this season.

* So what of our attacking options? I like Ozil but I increasingly get the feeling that there is a poor fit between what we need from him and what he can provide. For 42m, we need and want the next Bergkamp - a guy that not only runs a game, but who will step up and seize the moment when required. Instead, Ozil seems content to drop deep and try and orchestrate things from afar, picking passes that are effective in terms of maintaining pressure and possession but not necessarily ones that are going to scythe through the opposition ranks. Now, part of this is due to the lack of runners in front of him. Yet theses are the games that you want Ozil to dominate, and he is not doing that at the moment. If we're going to build the team around him, you expect more.

* I would still say, contrary to many, that Ozil was one of our better attacking options. Sanchez, for example - I love his attitude and his pressing, but he gives the ball away far too frequently. Cazorla did not take the chances that fell his way, despite playing well in a deeper role than normal. And Jack continues to confuse. What is his role in the side? An attacking midfielder? Deep-lying playmaker? Box-to-box player? Who knows - and this is a problem.

* After the second goal, the game might as well ended. Wenger sent on two of his biggest frauds - Podolski and Rosicky - who contributed next to nothing as the clock ticked down. And for all our attacking options, we did not manage a shot on goal till stoppage time. That is a massive concern, no matter how nicely we countered and knocked the ball around at times. In many of these away games, we simply seem to end up in a holding pattern of sterile domination. Too many of our players are unable or unwilling to seize the moment, time slowly slips away, and more dripped points have been recorded before you know it.

* To sum it all up: this is it. This is the next three years - same as the last three years. I tweeted at the end of the game that expectations have now been lowered under Wenger to the extent where not getting a thumping at the bridge is considered some form of minor triumph, and I said that only partly in jest. Wenger's record against Mourinho says it all - he simply cannot beat the man. He's tried everything- taking the game to him, not taking the game to him, even playing a team of kids in the 2007 league cup final. Wenger cannot get the best of him. And so Wenger's record against Mourinho stands as perhaps one of the most damning pieces of evidence for his decline as a manager. The start of his travails against Mourinho lines up almost exactly to the start of the "one trophy" era that has spanned approximately the last ten years. Mourinho may be a monster, but he's a modern manager. Arsene increasingly looks like a dinosaur with each passing game.

Wenger has been left behind. Sure, we can all celebrate the cup win last season, but that should have been the triumphant endnote to his Arsenal career, a moment to say goodbye on a high. Instead, we've gone into the season after another transfer window in which we failed to build a squad capable of challenging for the league. We look like we will continue to lose the big away games that decide the CL and the league. Wenger is either out of ideas, or he's unwilling to change. And so the next three years have become his testimonial seasons; a long, sad unwinding, a few great wins interwoven with long periods of dross. As long as Kroenke gets to keep lining his pockets with higher ticket prices, he won't intervene. The club will continue to do the bare minimum required to be considered "elite". And we'll have to keep watching YouTube vids to remember what is was like to see a title winning team under Wenger.