Football: Change for Arsenal Might Have to Start at the Top
Commentary | Antony Sutton
Another game, another implosion.
These are unhappy times for Arsenal fans and while the Mayan apocalypse of 12/21/12 isn’t scheduled to come to pass until late next week, it seems as if it has already arrived for many.
The humiliation at Valley Parade, exiting the League Cup against Bradford City, a team in the lowest division of English football, is just latest in a growing list of on-field disasters.
Swansea at home and Norwich away spring to mind with little effort, and for the Arsenal hardcore fan, that is three too many before Christmas.
Bradford hurts though because the English Cup was perhaps Arsenal’s best hope for silverware this season. Certainly the Champions League and the Premier League are beyond its reach and Arsenal won’t relish a tie when it takes on Swansea City on Jan. 6 in the FA Cup.
Wenger recognized this by fielding an almost-full-strength side on a chilly evening. And even that wasn’t good enough, with Gervinho missing an absolute sitter and the wide players unable to provide a decent cross.
Manager Arsene Wenger recently bemoaned the fact that players like Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabergas wanted to move on, tempted by the pounds of Manchester and the paella of Catalonia. But he sold them and realizes that as manager, when the cheers of the last trophy recede, he will always be the last man standing.
Since the Bradford debacle the headlines have been filled with Arsenal. One pundit described Wenger as a “dictator” who doesn’t respond well to criticism. That idea seems to have some truth to it. As he has been forced more and more to face the press and explain the latest loss he has reverted to the “I have been managing 30 years,” which surely invites a question no member of the UK press will dare ask if they want continued access to the club.
Arsene, if you have been managing 30 years why do you keep making the same mistakes?
His backroom staff has changed little over the years. Last summer saw Pat Rice finally step down as No. 2 to be replaced by former defender Steve Bould, while Pat Holland was brought in to help coach the kids. This was an unprecedented overhaul in Wenger’s 16 years.
But things do not seem well behind the scenes. Holland left within a few months, and watch the body language between Wenger and Bould on match day. They don’t look like they’ll be pulling any Christmas crackers together this festive season.
When the media told the story of Bould giving the players a dressing down after one poor performance, Wenger downplayed it at his next press conference, falling back on his old cliches about the players’ desire and mental strength; cliches the fans have long grown tired of.
There is now rumored to be unrest in the dressing room with players feeling they need more work done on defensive duties and less focus on the tippy-tappy football that can be eye-catching one moment and frustrating the remaining 89 minutes.
Fans have been perplexed by some of Wenger’s decisions in team selection as well. Gervinho, a scrappy player with a poor first touch, has been tried through the middle while Theo Walcott, who has long asked to start there gets overlooked.
Since the departure of friend and confidant David Dein from the board, Wenger has become a caricature of his former, glory days. Players have left and not been adequately replaced. Teams have been broken up with no plan for the future. And players who have come in are not good enough to win trophies.
Over the last few seasons fans have been turning against the club — for the moment it is mostly the board with its absent owner Stan Kroenke as the target of supporters’ venom. But there is a more vociferous crowd now speaking out against Wenger and the Frenchman is not helping his cause with his constant defending of players who let him down week in, week out.
Things are not going too well with Arsenal but there is cautious optimism about the future with new sponsorship deals and UEFA’s much heralded Financial Fair Play kicking in. But there is a growing realization that for Arsenal to make the most of this windfall they will need to change the mindset that doesn’t see much wrong in the squad or its tactics.