Arsenal’s 5-1 capitulation against Bayern Munich in their Champions League second round first-leg clash was embarrassing not simply because of the heavy nature of the defeat, but because of the lack of surprise that greeted the result.
Almost everyone knew it was possible, even if few actually predicted it. It was reconfirmation of something the football world already knew: that Arsenal just aren’t Arsenal anymore.
Fans have raged against Arsene Wenger on the internet in recent months, and their fury has been met with mocking jibes from respected pundits on television. Yet there is genuine reason behind the vehemence with which a section of Arsenal fans have scolded their manager.
In terms of domestic titles won historically, the club lie behind only Manchester United and Liverpool. But, over the last decade, the Gunners have broken into the top two just once, contenting themselves with top-four finishes and exiting the Champions League in the second round. Arsenal’s present simply does not reflect their illustrious past, and with Wenger’s contract up in the summer, change may be on the horizon.
It’s important to laud Wenger for his early achievements in English football, and nobody can ever take away their three Premier League titles or the scintillating football played under his auspices between 1997 and 2005.
Unfortunately, just as Arsenal fans will forever love Wenger for his achievements in those times, they will also remember the frustration of watching their team in the underwhelming period that has followed.
Here, Football Whispers takes a look at what went front for Wenger’s Arsenal.
FAILURE TO REPLICATE A GREAT DEFENCE
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 he was welcomed by one of the finest defensive lines in English football history. In his first Premier League match in charge, a 2-0 win over Blackburn, the French boss fielded a back line filled with internationals and domestic icons.
On that day, the ponytailed David Seaman was protected by a central defensive trident of Martin Keown, Tony Adams and Steve Bould. Outside of them were Lee Dixon at right-back and Nigel Winterburn at left-back. Between them, this quintet made a combined 2404 appearances for Arsenal and won 210 England caps. However, all were either approaching or were beyond their peak by the time Wenger joined the club.
By 2004 all five of these players had left Arsenal, and their long-term replacements generally were not up to the task. Jens Lehmann, Lauren, Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure and Ashley Cole formed a strong back line, but in more recent years the quality of the team’s defence has been an issue, with the likes of Per Mertesacker, Laurent Koscielny and Nacho Monreal lacking the presence and power of their predecessors, leading to some embarrassing drubbings.
SELLING STARS FOR LOW PRICES
While the gradual decline of ageing stars is irreversible, the sale of vital first team members is preventable.
Since Arsenal sold Patrick Vieira in 2005 they have been unable to mount concerted title challenges. The Frenchman was pivotal to the team both for his ceaseless running and spirit, but for his penetrative passing and dynamism. Yet, despite his importance, he was sold to Juventus for the relatively small fee of £13.5 million, making it almost impossible to sign a replacement with the money brought in through his departure.
The same thing occurred two years later, when Thierry Henry, one of the finest attacking players ever to grace the English game and an integral Arsenal player as well as an inspiration to the team, was sold to Barcelona for £16 million.
Accruing less than £30 million in transfer fees to two club legends was unacceptable — all the more so considering they spent more than this sum in 2008 to acquire Aaron Ramsey, Samir Nasri and Andrey Arshavin.
REACTIVITY IN THE TRANSFER MARKET
On top of the club’s selling off of key players for relatively small fees, Arsenal’s progress in recent years has been staggered by Wenger’s inability and, at times, flat out unwillingness to bring in new players to strengthen the squad. The latest obvious example of this came at the beginning of this season.
On the opening day of the Premier League campaign, Wenger fielded a back line that featured a central defensive duo with a combined age of 41 in 21-year-old Calum Chambers and 20-year-old Rob Holding. Arsenal were mauled, losing 4-3 to Liverpool in a match where the scoreline made the performance seem more respectable than it actually was.
In the wake of that game, Arsenal spent in excess of £35 million to sign German international centre-back Shkrodan Mustafi in a bid to improve their defence, but damage had already been done against Liverpool. That the club waited to make the improvement was yet another example of their reactivity in the transfer market during Wenger’s reign.
POOR TACTICAL CHOICES
Perhaps the most noticeable failing of Wenger’s in the last decade has been a seeming tactical incompatibility. Football has changed with the positional play of Pep Guardiola and the counter-pressing of Jurgen Klopp, with other managers such as Mauricio Pochettino and Antonio Conte showing an ability to achieve exciting football while retaining defensive solidity at the same time.
However, Wenger’s Arsenal haven’t had this balance since the departure of Gilberto Silva in 2008. The Brazilian defensive midfielder offered protection to the back four, but between his sale and the signing of Granit Xhaka last summer, Wenger generally tended to opt for technicians in midfield, prioritising ball possession and control over shape and stability.
While this individual shortfall can be compensated for with high levels of organisation, Wenger has not been able to develop a working defensive structure over the last ten years. Consequently, his Arsenal side have appeared lost at times when they aren’t able to dominate the ball, and vulnerable on the counter against teams with pace and precision in attacking transitions.
In addition, the 67-year-old has stuck rigidly by a 4-2-3-1, only occasionally moving to more of a balanced 4-3-3 with extra central midfield coverage, showing a lack of variety that has made Arsenal easy to predict.