Friday, August 14, 2015

Is Wenger Still Stuck in the Paleocene Era?

Being an Arsenal fan under Arsene Wenger is like riding a roller coaster that never stops, full of ups and downs from one moment to the next. There is the high expectations, the occasional glory, and then all of the near misses and could have beens. There are the signings that weren’t, the sale of top players to rival clubs, terrible calls that cost the team points and trophies (at least theoretically in our own minds) and the endless array of injuries derailing one campaign after another. There is the debate over beautiful versus winning football, the tactical conundrums brought on after the end of the Invincibles era, the heartbreak of watching players leave to find glory at other clubs and the inability to ever give up hope that change is just around the corner, a signing or five away. 

Chronologically, there were the early fecund years of his reign when the Gunners went head to head with Ferguson’s Manchester United, often beating them. He garnered three league titles and four FA Cups in his first eight years in charge and led the team to the finals of the Champions League the following year, losing in heartbreaking fashion after holding a 1-0 lead a man down to Barcelona for much of the match (a match I live over and over again in my head whenever I decide to torture myself). The culmination of that period was, of course, the Invincibles, a team that went through the entire 2003-04 season without losing a solitary league game, though they won no other honors that year, losing in the semifinals of both cup competitions (to the eventual winners) and getting knocked out of the UCL at the quarterfinal stage to bitter rivals Chelsea. After that loss in 2006, Arsenal, of course, entered their fallow years as they moved on from their beloved home at Highbury to the more rarified, and profitable, Emirates. Transfer budgets shrunk, the Gunners were playing more to stay in the Champions League than for domestic titles and nine long years passed without a single trophy. Calls for Wenger’s head amplified as the drought lingered on, particularly when Fabergas, Van Persie and Nasri all left to win titles at Manchester clubs, along with a host of others. The past two seasons have restored hope and a winning mentality asas Wenger finally opened up his Shylock-inspired purse strings and bought two world class players, Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid and Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona. Two FA Cups and two Community Shields followed, along with hopes of finally challenging for a domestic title again.

In the 2013-14 season, in fact, Arsenal led the league for longer than any other team, though a second half fade almost cost them the fourth place that appears to be their birthright under Wenger (for the uninitiated, he has led Arsenal to the Champions League 18 years in a row now) and City won the title when Gerrard slipped at the worst possible moment of his long career. The second half collapse came against the other Top 5 teams in the league and reminded us of Wenger’s terrible record against his closest rivals over the past decade or so. After falling behind 2-0 to Hull City early in the FA Cup Final, however, the Gunners surged back to win 3-2 and end the aforementioned aridity. Last season, the team struggled through a terrible start largely based on a plague of injuries and the unwillingness of Wenger to bring in the additional reinforcements in the front and back most of us thought they needed. Things got so bad they were all but eliminated from the title race by late November and looked like a team that could fall out of the Top 4 for the first time under Wenger. A long winning streak in the second half, including wins over United, Liverpool and Man City pushed Arsenal back toward the top of the table, but the gap to Chelsea was too great and another late fade (of sorts) meant that they would have to settle for another FA Cup victory.

The second half of last season, forgoing the disappointing first leg against Monaco, the Gunners showed a new resiliency and steel that led many to believe this would finally be their year. Wenger had shown a willingness to spend money, to be ruthless with players that were not performing at their best (something lacking during the middle years) and, most surprisingly, to play a more defensive style when facing the best teams in the league. All we needed was a world class striker, a more steady goalkeeper and a defensive midfielder, three ingredients we had arguably required for many years now. Good news came early when Petr Cech made the move across London from Chelsea. There were claims that he could save the Gunners 12-15 points a season. Fans waited for the two additional signings that could catapult us above Chelsea and into first place. As fans started to become restless, Wenger finally got off the snide with his bitter rival, winning his first match in 14 attempts to secure the minor Community Shield. Surely, we said to ourselves, Wenger will now make the two signings that guaranteed they had a team strong enough to compete in four competitions. But with a little over two weeks to go, nothing else has happened.

There have been rumors galore across the summer, with the Gunners linked to Benzema, Schneiderlien, Gotze, Carvalho, Lacazette and just about any name that might cause an increasingly frantic Gunner fan to take the bait and click the link. Yet only one signing has arrived, and that signing had one of his worst games as a professional in the season opener, arguably costing the Gunners at least a point. Earlier in the summer, two defensive midfielders were available for the taking – the long linked Morgan Schneiderlien (now playing for United) and Sami Khedira (now plying his trade at Juve – though out injured again). The Gunners could have signed either but chose to let them go to a direct rival or overseas. There were also rumors of bringing in Vidal, a scintillating play with a wide array of talents, but he too was allowed to go to Bayern rather than joining his countryman with the Gunners. Other possibilities existed, but none were taken, it becoming increasingly apparent Wenger is going to hang the season on the hope that Coquelin continues to play above his weight and that Arteta can fill in as necessary in a position he has never really adapted fully to. Up front, we do have the increasingly consistent Giroud and the speedy Walcott waiting in the wings, but has any team ever won a title with two strikers who bring as many question marks as they do goals? Benzema might be available for the right price, Lacazette, the leading scorer in France last year, seemed like a possibility and others were also in the market, though most have been snapped up by others.

The question that then emerges is whether Wenger will surprise us with a late signing, as he did in three of the last four windows (though many of those surprises turned out to be nightmares) or whether the Frenchman will again try to rewrite the rules of a game that has changed around him. Sure he has cultivated a team that seems to play well together, that now knows how to win big games (some of the time) and that has the chemistry of many having played together for several seasons, except when they do not. We saw one of those “do nots” last weekend, when everything seemed to go wrong for a team that dominated large stretches of the game but could not put the ball in the net. This weekend they face a Crystal Palace that continues to impress under manager Alan Pardew. They really need to win this game, but more than that, they need to rejuvenate the line-up with at least one more signing. Time is running out, will Wenger wake up in time …

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