Focus on Arsenal

Time for Wenger to change the record

April 21, 2011
By Tom Adams
(Archive)

Arsene Wenger has been a figure ripe for satire ever since his first public utterance of "I did not see the incident", but the past week may have marked the point at which the Arsenal manager lapsed entirely into self-parody. So empty is his rhetoric at present, Wenger appears to have entered the realm of propaganda.

Arsene Wenger: Can he fix it?
PA PhotosArsene Wenger: Can he fix it?

After that draw against Liverpool last weekend and his side's failure to hold onto a lead on three separate occasions against Tottenham on Wednesday, Wenger is again fiercely battling the perception that Arsenal are mentally shot, that their lack of experience renders them inept in the face of pressure at the business end of the season.

From his determination to blame anyone but Emmanuel Eboue for Liverpool's 102nd-minute penalty, to insisting in the wake of another capitulation against Spurs that "this team has a remarkable attitude", despite all evidence to the contrary, Wenger is engaged in a full-on information war with his detractors in the media and beyond.

It is a war he is losing. In fact, his stance could hardly be more transparent if he was declaring "there is no presence of American infidels" as a statue of Saddam Hussein was torn to the ground behind him and battered with 50 pairs of trainers.

In order to fight his corner, Wenger has long equipped himself with a stock of phrases that have been articulated to Arsenal supporters so often since their last trophy success in 2005. Time and again, they have been told that his young players are ready to seize their destiny, that they now possess a steely determination. When Arsenal lose, it is culpable referees who are at fault, or else the teams that travel to Emirates Stadium with no intention of playing football, by Wenger's very strict definition.

However, the result of continually pursuing such a discourse is a lack of accountability and responsibility at Emirates Stadium, perhaps contributing to the dereliction of duty his players now perform on a yearly basis at around February or March, as competition after competition is surrendered.

With Arsenal beating only Leyton Orient and Blackpool since the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham, and all but ending their hopes in four trophies in the process, Wenger's refrain rings more hollow than ever. After the Tottenham draw his team were hailed as "remarkably consistent". Laughable, of course, unless Wenger was referring to their unerring success in accumulating draws at present, but another example of how he seeks to shape the popular perception of his side.

He is hardly alone in this - any manager with any inkling of how to do their job properly engages in similar pursuits - but unfortunately for the Arsenal manager, propaganda cannot entirely mask reality, and this week sensitive information slipped out from within his own camp in the form of Cesc Fabregas' interview with Don Balon.

It is worth revisiting some salient points from that interview. "Either go out and win or develop players ... for me it's more a lack of a winning mentality, also of maturity in key moments. We have plenty of quality but lack this bit of confidence ... the problem is that the team needs to win something ... nobody in the team has won anything. We are missing that ability to say: 'Now I know what it is to win and I know what it takes to win'."

All salient points, eloquently expressed, that go firmly against the party line. Speaking after the Spurs draw, Wenger expressed his disappointment with the way the interview was presented, particularly as he said the club had been given copy approval. Failing to control the message meant an inconvenient truth slipped out: his own captain had conceded that Arsenal lack a winning mentality.

Then again, the evidence was there for all to see. In recent seasons, the following scorelines are enough to bring any Gunners supporter out in a sweat: Arsenal 4-4 Tottenham, Newcastle 4-4 Arsenal, Arsenal 2-3 Tottenham, Tottenham 3-3 Arsenal, Arsenal 1-1 Liverpool, Wigan 3-2 Arsenal. All capitulations of varying degrees that you cannot imagine a club like Manchester United suffering with anything like that kind of regularity. The message is clear: Arsenal can't close out a game, let alone a title race.

Given the wonderful way in which they play on occasion and their long list of excellent results under Wenger, this particular vulnerability must be mental in nature. It is not a failure of technique or ability, and it needs to be rectified with the addition in the summer of players who have experience in winning a trophy, or else the mistakes of the past are surely destined to be repeated by a group of players who have known little else.

Rafael van der Vaart scored his second goal from the penalty spot for Tottenham
PA PhotosLosing a lead on three occasions against Tottenham provoked further questions about Arsenal

Doing so would not represent a complete betrayal of Wenger's transfer policy - a policy which was both laudable and necessary as the club moved from Highbury to Emirates Stadium. In fact, it is worth noting here that Wenger cannot be praised enough for the firm base he has given Arsenal in terms of infrastructure and finance, a base that should ensure their place amongst the elite for some time. Similarly, though he was pilloried for saying so, he was right that consistently finishing in a Champions League place is a form of success in its own right.

But that does not mean that more tangible success cannot be obtained with a more ambitious transfer policy, or that there should not be an element of flexibility in his approach in the market. After all, no one accuses Barcelona of abandoning their focus on La Masia having spent big on David Villa. Signing an experienced player who could improve the resilience of the dressing room would be a legitimate tweak to his approach.

The problem is that Wenger's stubborn adherence to his principles may preclude against him doing so. Most Arsenal fans were bemused when no new goalkeeper was signed at the start of the season, while the failure to recruit a new defender in January given Thomas Vermaelen's injury problems was also perplexing. Never prepared to stymie the development of a young talent, it appears Wenger has lost an element of ambition in his approach to the transfer market. Some room for manoeuvre is required, particularly as fans are steeling themselves for a rise in ticket prices just as it appears that Arsenal are not putting their considerable finances to pertinent use.

It barely needs stating that Wenger's legacy in English football is manifold, that he has transformed Arsenal beyond recognition off and on the pitch and is one of the great managers of modern times in English football. Any suggestions he should leave the club are beyond ridiculous.

But some element of change in his approach is required, even if his public utterances suggest that may be an unlikely prospect.