Is Arsene “The Emperor” Wenger wearing new clothes?
So that was a lot easier than I thought it would be. The tie was over after 11 minutes when Manuel Almunia decided to dive under Ronaldo’s free-kick rather than reaching higher and punching it away. To see his former rival for the Arsenal goalkeeping spot, Jens Lehmann, sitting in the ITV studios casting judgement is an irony that I hope is not lost on most football fans.
Anyway that was only one of a number of subplots played out on the night with tactical battles, red cards and magnificent goals all demanding attention. These will be covered in the papers tomorrow but I wonder if my main issue with tonight will garner much attention in the myopic British media? What is it you wonder? Quite simply I believe that Arsene Wenger is the luckiest man in football. He is the Emperor in his new clothes, telling the world what a great young team he has, what a “magnificent” performance his side has in store. He is like an actor who has the crowd playing along until the final act but then forgets the telling line of the play.
He is trading upon past glories and yet somehow his position is never questioned. Those who do pop up from time to time to wonder what effect he is having are ridiculed. If he is not a lucky guy, a man who is clearly not delivering in his job but who has it for as long as he wants then what is he? How else could you explain it to somebody new to the game, someone who stumbled upon tonights match and saw the Gunners outplayed from start to finish?
You’d have to tell him or her that Monsieur Wenger is regarded as one of the greatest coaches in the world, an astute tactician and creator of the “finest footballing side in European football.” Being fair to the Frenchman you mention how he nurtured great players like Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires and oversaw a side that went an entire league campaign unbeaten. No fan could deny that at times, 1998 and 2002 in particular, Arsenal were the best side in English football by some margin. The Double’s they won in both those years were fitting rewards for their efforts.
Yet the fact remains that Arsenal are facing their fourth consecutive season without a trophy. They have been a “team in transition” for so long now that the term has lost all meaning. They looked like they were well on their way in the 2007-08 season while leading the league for long stretches but they have undoubtedly regressed this season. No cup success and 4th place in the table is surely not enough to keep the fans happy.
One image tonight made me think more than most. Of course we got the obligatory views of David Beckham in the stands but it was the guy beside him, Mathieu Flamini, that alerted my attention. After having a wonderful season at the heart of the Arsenal midfield last season the Frenchman left on a free transfer to AC Milan in the summer. A dispute over wages we were told, no need to worry as Dibay, Song and Denilson were all waiting to take his place. Tonight Abou Diaby was an unused sub alongside Denilson. Alex Song watched the game pass him by as Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick controlled matters in the centre of the park. With the Arsenal captain, Cesc Fabregas having a wretched evening it was all too much for the young man from Cameroon.
Now youth is not necessarily a bad thing in a side, United are hardly full of golden oldies, though Ryan Giggs is doing his best to hog the limelight. Its a balance between youth and experience that seems vital to me however and Arsenal have gotten this mix all wrong under Arsene Wenger. Kieran Gibbs would ordinarily not have played had Gael Clichy been fit but he wasn’t and after being responsible for the opening goal Gibbs was hauled off at half-time. Some way to breed confidence in a 19 year old.
Samir Nasri barely contributed at all, he rarely does so. And before I get all this “oh Arsenal have no money, its all tied up in the stadium” excuse let me just point out that Nasri cost 16 million euro last summer. More recently Andrei Arshavin cost the same amount in the January transfer window. Despite being a massive success to date Wenger knew he was ineligible for the knockout stages of the Champions League even though Europe was one of his realistic chances of a trophy this season. The FA Cup was one also and Arshavin was free to play. I don’t think many of us need reminding that in the semi final against Chelsea Abou Diaby started while the magical Russian stayed on the bench.
It boils down to a simple choice. One is that Arsene Wenger is a great manager who has taken Arsenal as far as he can on the resources he’s allowed and he should seek a new challenge in order not to tarnish his Arsenal legacy. I hear that crazy man Florentino Perez would happily give him 40 million euro to take charge of Real Madrid in the summer. The other is that Wenger swallows his pride, asks Stan Kroenke and the Arsenal board for 70 million and buys players who are the finished article. Not young guys bought in for peanuts, top stars who will instantly improve the team and not just aid the “transition.”
It’s up to you now Arsene, four years without a trophy is simply too long for a club as big as Arsenal. Your next move will more than likely come to define you in the years to come.