After tiring business trip, the blog is back online
Perhaps if I were a better blogger, I wouldn’t need to have a job that required me to be out of the country and unable to write my blog. Perhaps if I were smarter, I would have travelled with a computer allowing me to write my blog. Unfortunately, I do need a job and I didn’t travel with my computer and as a result, I was unable to write a blog entry during some fascinating moments in Arsenal’s season. Tonight, I will attempt to summarize my thoughts on the past events, and tomorrow I’ll try to dive deeper into the relationship between Arsene Wenger and Arsenal FC.
There’s so much that I missed but we can all agree that the most important issues pertaining to Arsenal over the past four days had nothing to do with the United game which saw the Red Devils win the league before our very eyes. It was a nice effort from the Gunners and might have resulted in a win on another day. But we must also acknowledge that United took a cautious approach to the game and for all our possession, we weren’t particularly threatening. The reason that this game is not the big news, is because Arsene Wenger’s relationship with the fans has unfortunately stolen the spotlight.
It is perfectly reasonable for the supporters of a football team to question the manager. In most instances, the manager probably knows better, and the fans usually criticize once they have the benefit of hindsight on their side. But there are occasions where the manager is deserving of some criticism. Even a manager with few peers who has brought a team to a previously unmatched level of prestige must accept that examinations of his performance are part of his job. While Arsene Wenger is undoubtedly the greatest manager in club history and one of the finest in all the world, that doesn’t excuse him from answering questions about his decision making. But it should afford him a degree of respect.
Admittedly, I was not at the now infamous question and answer session between the manager and the supporters but from what I have watched and read, Arsene Wenger has every right to feel aggrieved. Let’s remove from the discussion that which we do not know for certain. Whether Wenger had the money he needed to buy players in the summer is irrelevant. How much money he had is irrelevant. Arsene Wegner stuck to principles that he has followed in the past with outstanding results. Last season Arsenal looked close to having the right ingredients. Obviously, he felt that he had the right pieces in place to replace those players who departed in the summer. You can argue all you want that he didn’t have those pieces in place, but in truth, we’ll never really know for sure.
What no one seems ready to acknowledge is that this Arsenal team was beset by injuries in a way that hasn’t happened to any big English club in recent memory. You might be tempted to observe that we lost too many games before the injury problems began in earnest and you’d be right, but that doesn’t mean we wouldn’t have been in the running for prizes. We faced Manchester United in the CL semi-finals without two of our best defenders and without our best striker in the first leg. The star talent we acquired in mid-season also wasn’t available. It’s entirely possible that if we played two more legs against United with RVP for both, and with Arshavin, and with Gallas and Clichy, we might have prevailed. I’m not making excuses for failures, but I am pointing out that it’s difficult to accurately appraise the performance of the team down the stretch.
What about the FA Cup semi-finals, you say? Some suggest that Wenger essentially threw that game away. It’s easy to make that claim, although I doubt there is a manager as driven to win as Arsene Wenger. But the claim that Wenger made mistakes in his selection for that game, belie some of the realities of the match itself. It’s an example of ad hoc reasoning. Many are using the result to justify their flawed logic. While I wasn’t thrilled with the line-up either, we were winning that match until our defensive replacements and replacement ‘keeper conspired to throw it away. Even with Arshavin in the game from the start, Silvestre and Fabianski weren’t going to play any better. Obviously we might have won the game had Arshavin started, but the facts suggest that we lost because of problems in an area of the pitch that were beyond our control. If you want to blame Arsene Wenger for having Silvestre in defense, go ahead, but accept that Arshavin probably wouldn’t have been able to help. With a healthy Gallas, we may well win that game.
I realize that injuries are part of the game and the manager must build a deep enough team to survive those injuries. But we suffered more injuries than most teams could bear this season. Moreover, while a team can survive injuries during most parts of the season, against the biggest teams in the biggest games you need your best players on the pitch. I’m sorry, but if you watched Barcelona play Chelsea without Thierry Henry, you saw a different team. Keita wasn’t close to Henry and against a team as strong as Chelsea, Barca struggled. Well, we played the biggest teams, in the biggest games without as many as five of our most influential players. We lost those games and losing hurts. But how any supporter can lay such heavy blame at the feet of the manager is beyond me.
The supporters at the Q&A were in the wrong. And it is absolutely improper to malign a player to the manager and expect anything less than an apoplectic response. I always hear bloggers and supporters express their frustration with Arsene’s repeated support for his players. What’s wrong with that? Cowards like Phil Brown send their team onto the pitch for an emasculating half-time lecture. Is that the kind of leadership we want from our manager? Do we want a man who belittles his players in public? I certainly don’t think so. And just because Wenger defends his players publicly, doesn’t mean that he’s incapable of doing what’s best for the squad. He stripped Gallas of the captaincy. He substituted Eboue when he was hurting the team despite having just come on a substitute. He left Adebayor off the team for the United game after Ade’s shameful interview. I think it’s classy that Wenger claimed Ade was suffering with an injury. It showed that he has the strength to discipline his players, but the class to protect them from further public animus. Even with Bendtner’s “pants-gate” Wenger showed his style. He fined the player for his behavior, but defended him publicly against the accusations.
Arsene Wenger is the manager of a team that could easily be second-rate. We don’t have the funds to compete with United or Chelsea. Period. Yet we consistendly DO compete with them. Last season we competed for the league title, and this season we competed for the FA Cup and CL titles. Despite their vast wealth, we are close to their equals. And because of that we have become greedy in our expectations. But as I pointed out in a previous blog entry, we’re not really that far from being in Newcastle’s position. Only Wenger’s stewardship has protected us from losing our grip on elite status.
For me, the biggest argument that I have with Arsene Wenger is that he tried tinkering with his team at a time when it should have been perfectly fine-tuned. It’s the end of the season and I’m not sure Wenger could name his best formation or his strongest starting XI. That’s a problem. If you don’t know what your best team is by the end of the season, then you haven’t properly formulated that team. When you’re playing key players out of position because you’re not entirely sure where to play them, that reflects a lack of proper role-players and cohesion in the team. I genuinely believe we have the talent (when healthy) to challenge Chelsea, Liverpool and even United, but those teams know their strongest formation and strongest starting XI. In a one-off final, I believe all three of their managers would know exactly who to start. Would Arsene? I’m not so sure. In fact, you might say that the reason Gus Hiddink did such a good job with Chelsea is that he, unlike Scolari, simply put the best XI players on the pitch in their most natural positions and let them play.
Arsene Wenger has amassed a wonderful collection of talented players and developed them well. It remains to be seen whether he has built a proper team. Can Van Persie play the lone striker? Is Arshavin a winger? Is Cesc a support striker? Is Nasri a holding player? I’d probably answer all of those question in the negative, but Arsene Wenger has repeatedly shown that he’s considering all of them for those very positions. That’s the real problem. It’s not that we don’t have the pieces, it’s that the pieces may not fit together quite right. Can they work together well enough to win titles? That’s the real question Arsene needs to answer in the summer. And I’m sure he’s smart enough to know it. He doesn’t need some ungrateful, smug supporters armed with hindsight and sarcasm to bring the issue to light.
He said openly that he was concerned that we were unable to beat United and Chelsea when it really mattered. Isn’t that enough of a clue that he’s looking to make changes? Can’t we stop for just one second and recognize that despite the trials and tribulations of this season on and off the field, that this Arsenal team owned the logest unbeated run in England and achieved two semi-final appearances. Sure, we looked overmatched against United in the CL. Okay. But if we had our full team and they were playing without Ferdinand, Evra and Ronaldo, do you think it might have been a little different? Does anyone remember another season when a group of backup players took Arsenal to two semi-finals and finished in the top-four? I don’t either.
This isn’t meant to be an over-zealous defense of Arsene Wenger but I realize it’s sounding that way to some extent. But I don’t think I’m alone in my opinions. Many were embarassed by the supposed fans at the Q&A and I suspect that the Stoke game at the weekend will turn into something of a rally in support of our manager. I wish that I could be at that game more than any other this season just so I could join in the chorus of support for Arsene. Because while we can afford to lose Adebayor this summer, or Robin Van Persie, or even Cesc Fabregas, if we were to lose Arsene Wenger it wouldn’t be long before we were all taught a harsh lesson in appreciation.
Just to put things in perspective for a moment, let me list for you the highlights of the team that Wenger has built:
- Strikers: RVP, Ade, Bendtner, Eduardo, Vela
- Midfield: Arshavin, Theo, Cesc, Nasri, Rosicky, Song, Diaby, Denilson
- Defense: Clichy, Gibbs, Traore, Gallas, Toure, Djourou, Sagna, Eboue
- Goal-Keeper: Almunia, Fabianski
Now take a good look at that list. Are there some weaker players? Certainly. Are there areas where we can be strengthened? Naturally. But for a team with limited resources, there are few teams in the world that can boast as young and talented a roster. Some will go and some new ones will arrive, but this is a talented team and they proved it with their achievements despite losing the biggest players for the bulk of the season.
I apologize right now for possibly overdoing it. You get the point and certainly don’t need to be beaten over the head by it. And you probably have one observation to make that I haven’t addressed: these players often appeared to play with less passion than their opponents. It’s true. This Arsenal team didn’t always appear to be giving as much as the opposition. Whether that’s reality or perception is debatable, but I don’t think there’s any argument that certain players weren’t 100% committed every game. And at the top level, that’s unacceptable. Character is a very important quality in a professional athlete and Arsene will have to be sure that our players have the right character to be champions. That’s one thing that Alex Ferguson has always managed to get right. Manchester United aren’t champions merely because they have the resources to get the best players, but also because those players play with incredible tenacity. We haven’t always done the same and it makes me far more miserable to watch our players get out-worked than outplayed. Hopefully the question of character will be properly answered next season.
So that does it for now. It’s good to be back at the helm, rambling like usual. These thoughts were pent up over the weekend and I fear they’ve come out as a disorganized explosion rather than a concise dissertation. But I suppose that describes most of my entries.
More tomorrow…thanks for hanging in their during the lay-off.