As the curtain fell at The Madejski, Arsenal became the latest beneficiaries of yet another dubious Royal variety performance. The matinee showing of The Capital One Cup fixture between these two sides just several weeks earlier, had seen both teams approach the game with more than a popcorn bucket full of defensive gay abandon, culminating in what was for the neutral, an expansive twelve goal thriller.
The ice-cream laden half-time interval saw Reading hurtle further down the helter-skelter of what could possibly be their last Premier League existence ever and Arsene Wenger’s men settle down nicely beside the fire of unpredictability as they continued in their steady quest for modern day mediocrity: the latter point illustrated with alarming clarity at Valley Parade just last week.
Fast forward to the top of the bill and Monday night’s highlight. The form book will have provided anybody with a slight investigative eye a very decent clue as to the possible outcome. In the concession stakes, the boys from Reading have proven themselves to be ample jockeys of late, after shipping a total of fourteen goals since they casually surrendered a four goal advance against The Gunners last time around.
Arsenal, with no desire to be cast in a supporting role had also conceded twelve throughout the same period, although it has to be said that their artillery has rarely been embarrassed in terms of ammunition: finding the net sixteen times since we left Act 1.
And so, it came as no surprise to find ourselves transfixed by yet another tantalizing torrent of goals: this time a 5-2 victory for the away team meant that Reading would be condemned to sit at the foot of the table for the foreseeable future, with only The Sword Of Damocles offering any kind of companionship to their manager Brian McDermott over the festive period.
Following the fluffing of almost every single line at Bradford, it was essential that Arsenal returned to winning ways with a morale boosting victory. The question of whether this win will represent a reversal of fortune allowing Arsenal to launch an assault on the top four, or whether beating the division’s poorest side only provides temporary distraction from what will ultimately be regarded as the season when Arsenal surrendered their footballing lead to the ever patient and willing understudy.
For The Gunners’ loyal subjects, the almost eight seasons without a trophy has led to the creation of a red and white dichotomy of opinion when it comes to their chief puppet-master Arsene Wenger. Is he to be venerated for remaining true to a dogma and set of footballing principles rare in the modern game, that season upon season guarantee that at least one English team subscribes to the spirit of the ‘jogo bonito’?
Or, admonished and rebuked for rapidly becoming a representative of inflexible idea, unyielding philosophy, and a hackneyed approach to dealing in the transfer market that has undoubtedly contributed to the general whiff of stagnation that would appear to be emanating from The Emirates at this moment in time?
Here we analyse some of the factors, both positive and negative, that have been indicative of Wenger’s tenure,and address the conundrum of whether the club can once again begin to challenge the likes of Manchester City, United, and Chelsea under the current regime.
When the appointment of Wenger was announced in 1996 as Bruce Rioch’s successor, hardly anybody in England had ever even heard of him, and at first his methods drew strong criticism: not least from those within the club.
However, the implementation of a revolutionary continental approach that encompassed a new style of play, training methods, diet, and advanced sports psychology, led to an almost immediate success for Wenger. This inadvertently changed the attitude and misgivings of the many doubters that had been vociferous in their concern. All of the above factors coupled with the resulting successes have all been positive examples of what can be achieved with the correct application. Many of the innovative frameworks that were administered by Wenger have gone on to provide a template, to which many clubs continue to subscribe. A point that should highlight the qualities of the sometimes maligned Frenchman.
The more informed and balanced terrace denizen should be able to take an objective view in terms of what is happening at The Emirates right now, and realise that any slip down the hierarchy or lack of trophy is not exclusively related to the capabilities and approach of Arsene Wenger, but more to a varying combination of numerous mitigating circumstances.
The emergence and development of Manchester City as a major footballing thoroughbred over recent seasons will not have helped Arsenal, nor will Chelsea’s well established financial omnipotence, or the rate at which Manchester United continue to spend despite the size and obscene nature of their current debt.
However, regardless of what other teams are spending around them, Wenger’s Arsenal have a long standing association with hesitant reluctance in the transfer market, especially in reference to costly,already established stars: instead preferring to nurture the seed of young talent from an early age and overseeing the germination process before reaping the eventual rewards of fruition.
This is a commendable outlook and working philosophy that has benefited the Wenger system for many years, but the current silverware deficiency that seems to have engulfed The Emirates, leads many in the game to question the validity of such an approach in the modern age.
If your main rivals are paying better wages and offering a much more rewarding overall package, then it stands to reason that you will have difficulty in attracting the very best of the best, and gambling on the potential of youth will not necessarily deliver results. Much to the detriment of him-self and the club, this is a concept that Arsene Wenger is only too well aware of, having borne witness to its ramifications on more than one occasion.
The lack of a pro-active attitude in the transfer market, has for many Arsenal fans, been the stick with which to beat Wenger. However, I would be more inclined to suggest that the foundation to any Arsenal misery does not necessarily lie in their ability to attract new players: au contraire…
It has been their inability to retain the services of some of their existing players, and the almost gift wrapped nature of some of the departures to the club’s main rivals. In recent seasons Champions Manchester City alone have been responsible for relieving The Gunners of Emmanuel Adebayor, Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, and Sami Nasri. The sale of the ever reliant Robin Van Persie to Manchester United in the summer, and the much protracted exit of talisman Cesc Fabregas to Barcelona have all proven pivotal actions towards the contribution of a steady downfall at the club.
Recent headlines indicating that defender Bacary Sagna and striker Theo Walcott are stalling over possible contract extension should sound the alarm bells for Monsieur Wenger. Even the good form of new signings Lucas Podolski and Santi Carzola will send a shiver down the spine of any fully fledged sceptic that has time and time again observed what can happen if players start to play a little too well at the Emirates!
Theo Walcott in particular would be a monumental loss to the club. Although he is some way off reaching his full potential, the fact that in this new Arsenal squad he leads the way in terms of appearances and goals should set him apart from the rest.
Rumours of Manchester United waiting in the wings should give Wenger the gentle push required in order to secure his services. If it means giving way to Walcott’s desire of playing in a central role then so be it! The midweek quote suggesting that English players are more likely to remain at the club, rather than seeking a richer, more verdant pasture within which to frolic, appears to be a masterstroke of mind play on the part of ‘Le Professeur’.
It is my belief that if Arsenal can add to their squad in January by attracting the likes of current targets Stephan El Shaarawy, Daniel Alves, and Demba Ba, then they have a slim chance of creeping in to the top four and securing yet another year of Champions League qualification.
However, if they are serious about wanting to challenge the big boys now and in the future, then they really need to decide what kind of club they are. If they decide that they no longer want to be a feeder type club, then their primary concern should be to ensure that the current compliment of English players that make up the core of their dramatis personae, are under no circumstances allowed to leave.
The soft centre that has been the Achilles Heel for so many post Viera Wenger sides over the years, and exploited to great effect by the likes of Sam Allardyce, and more recently Tony Pullis, needs to be a thing of the past, and having a home grown nucleus of stars will certainly assist in the sending in to remission of the aforementioned weakness.
In drawing conclusion I feel it prudent to highlight the fact that during his time at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger has been responsible for the provision of arguably the highest quality of football that the English game has ever seen or is even likely to see.
Of course there are teams that may score more goals, make more passes, concede less, and show more desire. However, the opportunity to watch an Arsenal side when at the peak of its powers and in full flow, really is a visual delicacy to be cherished. Perhaps some of the dissenting mob that continue to criticise a man that has delivered so much would do well to recognise this. Or perhaps occasionally like the man him-self, they just don’t see it!
Finally, if The Frenchman wishes to eat once more from the top table, then he needs to accept responsibility for at least some of the more recent failings, and find a way of moving forward. In my opinion this will involve placing greater emphasis on the benefits of financial outlay, and the supplementation of some of the free-flowing football with a ruthless steely determination that has perhaps been absent for too long.
If he can take this cue then there is no reason why under his careful direction, a newly formed ensemble of Arsenal stars cannot treat us all to a hotly anticipated encore! All aboard the Wenger Bus.