The great Arsenal sides under Wenger, including the 2004 Invincibles, always delivered in the big games, and always contained strong, physical leaders. Patrick Vieria’s clashes with Roy Keane are legendary, and there was a time when the big Frenchman usually came out on top. Since then though the ethos at Arsenal has changed somewhat.
The Gunners have always played attractive football under Wenger, but during that title laden period, the beauty was always lined with steal. Vieira dominating the midfield, Campbell and Adams bossing strikers at the back, and Henry’s ruthless finishing of chances. Since the plans were put in place to leave Highbury though, this success began to wane. Wenger became less a first team coach and more a sporting director, helping the club fund the new stadium through player sales and a focus on developing young talent, instead of buying in readymade replacements.
The players emerging from the academy were undoubtedly talented, having been groomed in the club’s passing philosophy, but somewhere along the way that grit has been lost. The official statement constantly seemed to be that these players just needed more time, yet most failed to live up to their promise. The barren years ticked by, with plenty of good looking football, but failure when it counted. This continued right up until last season’s FA Cup victory, with the Emirates finally paid off, Wenger had the funds to spend, and as is so often the case, money spoke.
Yet despite that win, Arsenal again collapsed in the league, slipping from first place in the league for so much of the season, to barely scraping fourth. Losses came against the big sides, heavy losses, and it is impossible to challenge for the title whilst consistently getting thumped by your rivals. That dismal record continued against Chelsea on Sunday, Mourinho adding to an impressive unbeaten streak against his opposite number.
The Gunners dominated possession, had double the amount of shots, but hit none on target. As has happened far too often in recent seasons, Arsenal had no Plan B, they poked and they probed, but there was no Vieira to power through, no Campbell to hammer home a set piece. Mourinho did what he did best, set his team out to frustrate the opposition and ruthlessly expose Arsenal on the break, the ‘Special One’ all the while goading the other team from the side-lines.The former Madrid boss had already gotten under Wenger’s skin last season, labelling the Frenchman a “specialist in failure”, and the pair very nearly came to blows on Sunday. Whilst Wenger was obviously riled, Mourinho relishes such confrontation, firing his squad up with his temper. `Arsenal needed their manager changing things up, providing tactical instructions to try and chase a positive result; instead Wenger was distracted by petty technical area spats.
In the summer, Wenger added quality up front, but very much more of the same; fast, technical players, but no aggression or sheer physicality. A powerful midfielder was needed, ideally a centre back too, but Wenger has stuck by his transfer policy. If a real challenge for the Premier League and Champions League ` made this year, it becomes a question of how long will Arsenal continue to accept just maintaining standards by Wenger? With the likes of Liverpool resurgent and Tottenham and Everton gaining, how long can the Gunners continue to tread water?
It is not just that the Frenchman is making mistakes, or even that they are the same mistakes, but that there no longer seems to be the drive to correct them. When Chelsea went 2-0 up, Wenger didn’t make the changes to chase the game, he brought off Wilshere and Alexis Sanchez, threw in the towel, decided it was better to protect his key players from injury than battle to the final whistle. That may have been the pragmatic approach, and Wenger’s pragmatism has seen the club stay strong during a period when Arsenal could have declined. But its not something you would ever find Mourinnho doing, nor Sir Alex Ferguson, the most successful manager during Wenger’s tenure; pragmatists may be successful, but its gamblers that win big.
When he eventually does quit Arsenal, Wenger will quite rightfully be remembered as one of the best managers to ever grace the Premier League, but financial constraints are no longer an excuse, and there is only so long he can stick by a philosophy that isn’t delivering.