As weeks go, this one has been a bit like finding out that you’re related to John Terry. Two distinctly different, yet equally disappointing cup defeats have made navel gazing a cottage industry on Planet Arsenal. Difficult as it is, I think the two defeats have to be distilled from one another amidst the maelstrom of angst we have probably all been experiencing.
For me, the Blackburn defeat was infinitely more worrying and hurtful than the schooling Bayern handed us. On current form, the Germans are probably the best team in Europe and it’s not like we’ve ever really been at their level as a club. Even the Invincibles were easy prey for Munich the last time we met. I do rather hope we use Tuesday night’s game as an education though.
Bayern are the sort of super club we aspired to be when we moved stadiums in 2006. (It’s worth bearing in mind the stadium move was a very long term commitment, probably close to 100 years and we’re only 6 and a half years into that cycle now). But there are elements of their team play which I think the coaching staff should use as an aspirational benchmark.
Munich have a good current of stability flowing through the team. They’ve been together for a few years now and that familiarity showed, they are players that trust one another and each man knows his job. This is an Arsenal side in its embryonic stages. With most of the squad core signed up to long term deals, establishing that level of continuity and not hemorrhaging pivotal players is an obvious target.
Bayern’s approach to defence is instructive. Arsenal’s back four are a lightning rod of frustration for our defensive shortcomings. But Bayern realise that defending properly means making life easy for your defence and goalkeeper. They are so good at closing space in midfield and shutting off the lines that they make it very difficult to even progress to their final third. Last Friday evening, Wolfsburg became the first Bundesliga side to register a shot on target against the Bavarians for three games.
That isn’t because their defenders are performing last ditch heroics, it’s because the midfield in front of them are so rigorous and disciplined that it’s a gargantuan task to so much as glance the whites of the centre halves eyes. Arsenal have been able to show this discipline from midfield before. They demonstrated it in the opening weeks of the season. When the midfield and the wide players held their shape, suddenly the likes of Mertesacker and Vermaelen looked much better. It’s not a wondrous coincidence.
The run of defensive intransigence that catapulted Arsenal to the 2006 Champions League Final was precipitated by a move to a disciplined five man midfield, which defended and counterattacked as a unit. Munich showed you don’t have to be defensively open to be a good attacking team either. But their telepathy took time to germinate. They’ve kept a group together and seasoned with careful additions where necessary (Javi Martinez for instance).
Personally, I expected a lesson at their ruthlessly efficient, Teutonic hands on Tuesday. Much more alarming was the Blackburn defeat and the manner in which it transpired. In his downhearted post mortem, some of Wenger’s musings leapt off the page at me
“Mentally, we are not capable at the moment of preparing in exactly the same way for every game…Blackburn was a big game for me.”
When a manager implies that he is not able to motivate his team for certain games, I think it’s time for concern. The circumstantial evidence was already available of course, but the confession sounds almost helpless. There has been a great deal of conjecture about the manager’s future and there is such a flurry of sermons on the subject from both sides of the fence, I find it difficult to see the wood for the trees.
I think the prospect of him being sacked is about as likely as Stan Kroenke changing his name to Dr. Spunky McFunkchunks III. In any case, whether or not you want Wenger sacked only deals with 50% of the issue. The people charged with making that decision would need to have reasonable belief that they could identify and obtain a superior successor. That person may well exist and may well want the job and if that were the case, that would be a stone groove. I do however think it’s a smaller world now and the chances of happening across an untapped resource in Japan aren’t what they were in 1996. Everybody knows everybody these days.
Firing Wenger to “punish” him or to look as though you’re taking assertive action without a contingency plan would be a fool’s errand. There’s certainly anxiety in the fanbase as to the suitability of the people charged with finding a successor, but I have no preconceptions about that myself. There seems to be a yearning for more “football men” in the upper echelons of the club. But I think these so called “football men” are a quasi-mythical construct.
I’m not satisfied that I see the boards of other top clubs packed with grass stained footballing tsars. In fact, Gazidis probably has the biggest football pedigree of any board member we’ve ever appointed having worked with the MLS for 14 years prior to joining. The Hill Woods and the Bracewell Smiths were bankers; Henry Norris was an estate agent. David Dein and Danny Fiszman had no football pedigree when they arrived at the club either. Arsenal have never been run by “football men.” Most clubs aren’t. Manchester City once had Franny Lee as chairman and they plunged two divisions in his tenure.
A more interesting discussion is whether or not Wenger renews his contract. Given the pressure and the vitriol he currently endures, I doubt he’ll be keen to extend beyond 2014. With Financial Fair Play incoming, suggestions of a settled squad again and Arsenal’s account set to be fattened by new sponsorship deals and TV cash, the competitive environment is about to contract in Arsenal’s favour. (Manchester City and Chelsea are banking their new TV money in order to meet FFP regulations).
Part of me thinks that Arsene should be the man to benefit from that bonanza having kept a steady hand on a rocky tiller all these years. The other part of me thinks that Arsenal are hardly paupers now and Wenger seems to regard the transfer market with the sort of suspicion I reserve for those awful people that eat cereal bars. (I’m sure you’re far too busy and important to pour some milk and rice krispies into a fucking bowl).
Assuming Wenger doesn’t renew his deal; next season will see every press conference become a surfeit of questions about his contract. It’s hardly as if some of the irritating dumbarses that inhabit the nation’s fourth estate require an invitation to repeat their banal brand of questioning ad nauseam. “Are we there yet? Are we there yet? Are we there yet?”
There may be more important ramifications of this uncertainty too. Player recruitment could be an issue. Trying to sign players this summer (stop laughing!) could be made more complex if potential targets are unsure what the future holds beyond 2014. Coincidentally, every time we hit a bad patch the phrase “war chest” becomes ubiquitous in the sports pages with reference to Arsenal.
The question as to whether you give an outgoing manager the PIN to that sweet, sweet bounty is one that ought to tax its gatekeepers. Some of our current salary leeches will be gone by 2014 and the decks will be a bit clearer. Arsene’s successor will probably walk into a very nice job indeed. Amongst the hysteria it’s probably worth remembering that that hardly implies that he is responsible for the ruination of our football club, as some would have you believe. LD.
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