Saturday, November 15, 2008
Wenger's flawed philosophy
Arsene Wenger's great Arsenal myth is exposed once and for all.
This has been another week when pundits who are easily led have jumped on the bandwagon of hailing the latest crop of Wenger miracles as world beaters in the making. The same stories have been written in October and November for the last three or four years and time and again, the Carling Cup 'wonder kids' disappear into the abyss.
There have been some glorious performances to paper over the cracks of late, but beating a Wigan side on a night when they are on a hiding to nothing means little in the grand scheme of things and to say Arsenal were brought down to earth by Aston Villa at the Emirates Stadium is the understatement of all time.
Just seven days after a fine victory over Manchester United appeared to revive their title dream, all that rejuvenated hope now appears to lie in tatters after they were handed a football lesson by Martin O'Neill's hugely impressive and hungry side.
Time and again in recent years, Arsenal's dream of playing glorious total football has come up short as the likes of Bolton, Stoke and the like have ruffled their feathers and put their noses out of joint away from the comforts of their plush surrounds. Defending crosses and set plays has been a long-term problem and the notion that they can be knocked out of their stride with a bit of physical manhandling refuses to go away.
The difference with this setback was that it was on display in front of a public who have all signed up fully to the over-subscribed "Wenger is the Messiah" cult. Criticising the brilliant and arguably misguided Arsenal manager has been banned among a media pack who have fawned over him for over a decade, but the time has come to ask questions.
Wenger may have stood on the sidelines berating referee Mike Riley for much of the final passages of the game, but he should look closer to home when seeking an excuse for what must go down as one of the most crushing home defeats of his he has suffered as Arsenal manager.
Reality caught up with fantasy on this autumn afternoon in North London and the doubts over Arsenal's title credentials were proven to be justified. Make no mistake, this was a 2 -0 drubbing in every sense of the word as Villa could have should have won by a far bigger margin.
On a day when Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United churned out the sort of comfortable victories you would expect from genuine title contenders, Wenger's men were made to look second rate against a Villa side who appear ready to oust them from the top four position they have owned for so many years.
Dominating the first half, Martin O'Neill's brilliantly energetic and skilful side should have gone in at the break with a comfortable advantage as Ashley Young, Steve Sidwell and skipper Gareth Barry all missed presentable chances. Yet it was the first of those three who was the chief villain for the visitors as he missed a penalty awarded after he was tripped in the box. Young never looked convinced he would beat Manuel Almunia from the spot and the keeper made a comfortable save.
It was time for Wenger to utter a few home truths at the interval and while Arsenal's performance appeared to move up a notch with the introduction of Emmanuel Adebayor, there was always a feeling that Villa held the aces.
So when Young whipped in a dangerous cross 20 minutes from time and Arsenal full-back Gael Clichy glanced a header past his own keeper, few at the Emirates Stadium could deny that Villa deserved their advantage. When the inspired Gabriel Agbonlahor added a decisive second ten minutes from time after some woeful defending from skipper William Gallas, Arsenal's fate was sealed.
Now for the post mortem. While all neutrals delight in the football dream Wenger promotes, the reality may be that merely playing your way to glory in the modern game is a step too far for even this great manager. Arsenal just don't have a Plan B. If their silky football fails to deliver results, they simply have no where to turn. On a day when they came up against an opponent who was significantly more efficient and clinical, that flaw was cruelly exposed.
Any team that nullifies the influence of Cesc Fabregas goes a long way to stopping Arsenal and the second string players who are so often hailed as Wenger's greatest achievement were shown to be second rate again. Nicklas Bendtner was poor until he was replaced by Adebayor, while Gallas was a weak link again at the back. Throw in their inability to defend crosses and you have major problems.
All too often, the flowing football this team are capable of can cover up their weak spots, but they could not be camouflaged on a day when Aston Villa refused to let them strut their stuff. To his credit, Wenger didn't try to hide behind poor refereeing decisions as he summed up his latest setback.
"Aston Villa deserved to win this game, but we gave them the chances to score in the second half and this is frustrating," he stated. "They could have finished us off in the first half, but we were getting on top when we made some mistakes at the back.
"I cannot explain how we can put in such a good performance to beat Manchester United a week ago and then look so physically tired a week later. Everyone is very down in our dressing room, but we have no option but to try and bounce back. I will not come out and say now that we have no chance of winning the title. It's still too early to say it is all over for us, but I can't deny this is a big blow."
It was no surprise to see opposite number O'Neill is buoyant mood as he met the press. "I thought we were exhilarating after starting off superbly and we were a joy to watch and there can be no doubt we will win the league now," stated jubilant Villa boss O'Neill, with his tongue firmly in his cheek.
"We played so well in the first half, but did not take our chances and you have to fight against the disappointment as a result. In the end, it was not a problem as we were fearless against a fine Arsenal side.
"We have some great ability in this team, so now it's all about filling them with belief that they can do this. Winning at the Emirates Stadium should give them great confidence. Now the challenge has to be to push on and we have a big game against Manchester United next week to test ourselves again."
The scars of this humbling will take some time to heal for Wenger and his shell-shocked team. They are not known to take defeat in their stride and the reality that their entire philosophy may be flawed will be impossible to deal with.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Gabriel Agbonlahor - The Villa front man was a constant threat to the Arsenal defence all afternoon and his late goal was merely confirmation of his class. His pace and power was decisive in the final outcome.
GALLAS FLOUNDERS: Arsenal clearly lacked leadership today and skipper William Gallas should shoulder much of t he blame. He was poor at the heart of the defence and at fault for Villa's second goal.
VILLA VERDICT: This was a fine display from a team who look capable of challenging the top four if they add consistency to their obvious potential. A match-up with Manchester United next week will be the ideal follow up to test their credentials.
ARSENAL VERDICT: The time has come for Wenger to dispense with fantasy and replace it with a game plan that will give his club the success it craves. The glory, glory football should only be on show when games are in the bag, but they are a long way short of considering any showboating on this evidence.