I have a good friend who is not particularly religious. If he were, Arsene Wenger would be his God. Having digested all the information available to him about Wenger, my friend is in awe of the Frenchman and the impact he has had on his beloved Arsenal Football Club.
I don't talk in quite as reverent terms about Wenger, but I admire his achievements greatly, and the methods he brought with him when he moved to English football back in 1996. His influence on the whole club - not just on football related matters - is well chronicled and he will undoubtedly go down as one of the greatest and most successful managers of all time. However, memories of his tenure will, I fear, become ever more tainted if he does not vacate the position he has made his own, and soon.
The growing frustration amongst fans is understandable as Arsenal's performances continue to be inconsistent at best. Fans' opinions matter to some degree but they are not entrusted with the club's fortunes. I don't know what the Arsenal board of directors' criteria for success are - there's a common belief that financial stability and sustainability are perhaps more important to them than success on the pitch and trophies in the cabinet. For me, the two go hand in hand. So, I'm going to assume that success on the pitch is the critical success factor, and I'm going to put myself in the position of sole decision maker for the football club and assess the Wenger's suitability. I think you know where this is going.
Success in football is only achieved if you can find a balance. Over-reliance on one ingredient, belief or tactic might sometimes bring short term success but never a sustained period of success. And so it is with Wenger - his belief in playing attractive, passing football and choosing individuals who demonstrate technical excellence but lack demonstrable character, work ethic and a selfless team ethic is as strong as ever, unlike the resolve of his team who look largely disjointed. If they were a boxer, they'd be on the ropes without the ability to cover up and defend.
When Wenger took over at Highbury, he inherited great players who were great characters - his team was full of leaders. I'm convinced that some of Wenger's best foreign signings developed a competitive instinct and strength of character because they shared a dressing room with the likes of Adams, Keown, Wright, Bergkamp and others who were winners. That tough as teak, engrained mentality enabled them to grind out results when points would otherwise have been dropped. Yes, Wenger's footballing philosophy on the pitch and scientific methods off it turned a tough streetwise unit into an even better side who could retain possession for longer, attack at pace through the midfield and create many more chances from open play than his predecessors managed, but that simply put the finishing touches to an already highly effective team. He achieved a great balance - a vital mix of ingredients that made his side truly great.
Arsenal haven't won a trophy since 2004 - since then countless players have pulled on an Arsenal shirt with perhaps only two leaders emerging. Neither Cesc Fabregas or Robin Van Persie are archetypal leaders - their attacking brilliance has enabled them to lead by example but all outstanding creative players need the confidence to go and play with freedom, and that is only really afforded by the knowledge that their team mates create a solid defensive base so that they can focus on what they do best.
I may be doing "Le Professeur" a big disservice here but I think he genuinely feels that you don't need characters like Tony Adams or Kevin Richardson if you have defensive players who are comfortable in possession and able to play in a fluid system. Furthermore, his insistence on sticking to these beliefs seems to have become more entrenched with every season that passes. His critics have often advocated the need for Wenger to sign players like John Terry, Gary Cahill, Brede Hangeland, Scott Parker or Nigel de Jong - players who would not only add their own personal robust, defensive style to the mix but also bring much needed leadership and organisational qualities. Simply by signing Gary Cahill, giving him the captain's armband and making him the pillar around which to build a solid foundation, Wenger could have paved the way for players like Vermaelen, Gibbs and Ramsay to develop their true potential. The influence of a couple of leaders would I'm sure do wonders for the rest of the squad, and that is where Wenger's side really looks woefully short of an immensely important ingredient - he's failed to bring in leaders. One consequence could be that the club's best young players do not develop as they should. Jack Wilshere is a star who may find his career never delivers what his immense ability should if he has to carry the burden of responsibility for his team mates, many of whom display unacceptable immaturity and really don't pull their weight as part of a team unit.
The addition of Steve Bould as Pat Rice's replacement at Wenger's side is perhaps a belated acknowledgement that Wenger has failed to develop an effective defensive unit. The balance of the defensive unit never looks right - despite many football pundits highlighting Bould inspired improvements in that area. I just don't see Wenger placing importance on this areas when he plans the next stage of the team's development.
You see I think the belief that football is all about technical excellence has too much influence on today's game. The development of English players in their formative years undoubtedly needs to focus a lot more on this - we are light years behind other countries on that front. Team performance relies on much more than that, and I don't see enough evidence that Wenger acknowledges that.
So Arsenal will still score plenty of goals, still make us all purr with their brilliant attacking flair and will probably even put together a run that sees them somewhere in and around the Champions' League places again. Maybe that's enough for Arsenal's board - it wouldn't be for me.
They don't have the right characters to be a consistent winning force in the Premier League, they make too many mistakes and are simply not good enough at denying the opposition attacking options. Wenger will not change his ways and Arsenal will remain an also ran behind the two Manchester clubs.
They'll still play very attractive football, still have a nice stadium and still have money in the bank. And like many Arsenal fans, my mate will still find it very hard to do anything but believe in Wenger.
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