Arsenal lost their best chance of ending their seven-year trophy drought after defeat to fourth division Bradford City on penalties on Tuesday night. The result has heaped more pressure on coach Arsene Wenger, who, outwardly at least, remains resilient and adamant that he will see out the remaining 18 months on his contract. Here are some thoughts following Arsenal’s latest crisis:
Wenger over-protects players at his own expense:
It’s not often that Wenger is compared to Andre Villas-Boas, but there are times this season when both have been guilty of over-protecting their players. AVB was actually in credit with Spurs fans after their 5-2 defeat at Arsenal in October. Spurs were 1-0 up and the better side until Emmanuel Adebayor was sent off after 17 minutes. But instead of saying that he felt his team would have done okay had they kept eleven men on the pitch, AVB absolved Adebayor of any blame, saying his expulsion made no difference to the result, and that Spurs had dominated the match. He fooled no-one, and instead became the fool.
Wenger also likes to defend his players in public, but on Tuesday night, even Arsenal fans thought he had gone too far. “You feel embarrassed when you don’t give everything, and I can’t fault the effort of my team because I believe we gave absolutely everything for 120 minutes,” he said. “I feel we gave everything, and I don’t think we lacked quality, I just think we couldn’t take our chances in the end.”
I was reminded of a presentation Wenger made at the Leaders in Performance conference in October 2011 when he spoke at length about the risk of picking a young team. “The dream is to create a team with everyone on the same wavelength but when they are very young it’s hard for them to think like you,” he said.
“You end up paying with points, that’s the price of the education of the player. You end up paying for the mistakes that they have to learn. The manager needs to accept that he will lose points before the start of the season; yet he still needs to be strong enough to say that’s okay.”
Laudable sentiments, you will agree, but made just around the time of the sea-change in Wenger’s recruitment strategy, when he started bringing in older players on board. Against Bradford, Arsenal started with five outfield players over 27, and brought on Tomas Rosicky (32) and Marouane Chamakh (28). His players had won 398 international caps between them. While it made sense for Wenger to protect his players when they were younger, acting as a lightening-rod for them now helps no-one: the fans see through it, and Wenger just piles more pressure on himself.
Walcott is a concern, and Sagna will be next:
Forget about whether Theo Walcott is worth more than the £75,000 per week that Arsenal have offered him; take no notice of whether he has developed into the player that Wenger, and Arsenal fans, hoped he would become after joining the Gunners for around £9m in the summer of 2006; and disregard his constant requests to play as centre-forward. Walcott’s contract expires in seven months and, on the morning of the Bradford City defeat, a new suitor for him entered the fray: Manchester United.
It would be one thing seeing Walcott join Liverpool, which even Reds fans admit would be a step down for him (for all the positivity surrounding Brendan Rodgers, Liverpool are not in the Champions League and nor will they be challenging for top four this season), or even Manchester City, for which they have become something of a feeder club. But United? That would make a difference, particularly when you consider what impact Robin van Persie’s Old Trafford move has had on both clubs this season. Walcott, by the way, is 23; the same age as Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri when they left Arsenal.
The next player who could turn ‘contract rebel’, as the English like to refer to them, joined Arsenal aged 24 and is now become an important senior player. Bacary Sagna is 29, has never won a trophy before, and has 18 months left on his current deal. If he holds out on extending, Arsenal will have to decide whether to cash in next summer (by which time he will be 30) – and with PSG and Inter Milan sniffing around, they could make some money – or run the same risk as with Walcott, entering a final year with no signature.
“There are some things that happened in the summer that I haven’t yet understood,” Sagna told BeInSport TV’s Le Club earlier this season. “I wasn’t that surprised by the Van Persie transfer, but Alex Song’s departure could really hurt us. For me, they were the two players of the year last season, they were the most consistent and the two who really made the difference for us.”
If Walcott leaves and Sagna follows, what message does this send out to the other players? Where does it leave Jack Wilshere, whose contract is up the following summer, in 2015? Significantly, Wenger last month urged him to show his commitment by signing a new long-term deal. That seems unlikely to happen anytime soon. In fact, I can see a pattern developing: Walcott leaving in 2013, Sagna in 2014 (if not before) and Wilshere in 2015. Although if Arsenal can get another three years out of the latter two, they may actually be doing quite well.
Arsenal has sprung a leak:
No, not in the defence, where Thomas Vermaelen is the latest victim of Arsenal’s recent captaincy curse: as soon as he inherited the armband, his form has dropped and Arsenal’s best centre-back partnership has become Per Mertesacker alongside Laurent Koscielny. Instead, the leak is in the dressing-room, from where stories about a developing rift between Wenger and his new assistant coach Steve Bould won’t go away. Thursday’s Mirror newspaper reported that some players are unhappy with Arsenal’s style of play and want to be more direct. These are not the kind of stories we associate with Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, or indeed with any club that is a happy ship (perhaps with the exception of Chelsea, where dressing-room moles are a fact of life, and while they provide controversy, it doesn’t stop them winning trophies). But the behind-the-scenes stories emanating from Arsenal do not bode well for Wenger, or the club.