Friday, February 24, 2012

Arsene Wenger & Arsenal: An untenable relationship

As I sit down to write about Arsene Wenger and this struggling Arsenal side, I find myself immediately on eggshells. I feel like before I even try to be critical of the tenured Arsenal manager, I have to throw out a lengthy disclaimer about how great he's been and how much I love cuddling with his effigy in my bedroom to allow myself the space to write about him without causing a riot amongst Arsenal fans. We're a bit touchy about Arsene, eh? There's a word I love to use for a situation like this, where people are abnormally and irrationally sensitive about something and it causes them to become emotionally overworked: Butthurt. That's right, we're too easily butthurt when it comes to Arsene Wenger. It's like the success he's brought the club and the prestige and sustainability he's fostered for Arsenal excuse him from honest, rational critique. But it shouldn't be one way or another: It shouldn't be so extreme. You can critique the manager without "forgetting the past," and you can honor his contributions to the club by putting his current struggles in perspective. That's what a rational writer and reader would do, and, well shit, we're Arsenal fans, we're supposed to be the rational ones (insert fans of other clubs getting butthurt here).

So instead of writing a disclaimer worthy of the MPAA (although isn't the above technically a disclaimer? Hmm ...), I'm just going to write about Arsene Wenger and Arsenal without letting myself get emotionally unstable. Yes, all hail Hypnotoad Wenger, etc etc. But let's just be reasonable for a day. Just one day. That's all I ask. This is not what any of us expected going into the season, even after the late transfer dealings this summer left the club with a stumbling start. The team pulled itself together admirably and started rattling off wins. It seemed like things were headed in the right direction. So what went wrong?

It'd be easy to blame injuries, or youth, or inconsistency, or whatever buzzword is fluttering through the Arsenal pressers this particular week. But those are all symptoms of a deeper disease. Arsene Wenger has lost the locker room. It's a common phrase in American sports that rarely pops up in the world of international football: "Lost the locker room." But when I watch this team, this frustrated, hangdog team, I see a team that's lost the motivation to be great, and that comes from the manager. That comes from the persistent belief that fourth place is a trophy worth celebrating and admiring. Fourth place is admirable, especially when you accomplish it (or above) consistently over more than a decade, but it can't replace the ultimate goal to win the league.

That's the thing about sports: There are supposed to be ups and downs.

If you have the financial clout and the technical system to stay highly-competitive year after year, then bravo, you've accomplished something that very few teams are capable of accomplishing. But, and it's a big but(hurt), winning a championship is worth much more than consistent top-tier mediocrity (sort of an oxymoron, but Arsenal fans know exactly what I'm talking about). Taking the risk to pursue a championship, knowing that there may be an inverse effect after a championship where the club has to regroup and recover, should be seriously considered by the board and the manager. And you could make the argument Wenger tried that after dismantling the Invincibles squad and trying to restock his team with young starlets who would bring the club back to glory. But that didn't work, and it continues to fail because of a deep-rooted lack of diversity and veteran leadership in the first team that stems from five years of transfer miscues by the manager.

This isn't a complete team. There are massive gaps in multiple areas of the club, areas that Wenger used to be flush with: Strikers, veteran stars, smart & sturdy defenders. And those gaps frustrate not only the fans, but also the players. There's no one to help guide the youngsters to greatness, the way Cesc Fabregas was nurtured by some of the world's best before earning the starting mantle. There's no one to hold them accountable other than the manager. And while Wenger has tried valiantly to bring in more veteran leadership to the club and further accountability from within the player ranks, there isn't a culture to match the desire (not to mention his stubbornness to continue playing certain "favorites" within the club). If I worked in an office, and it was filled with a bunch of inexperienced co-workers, or co-workers who didn't have the right skills to be successful, and there was no one but the boss to keep everyone in line, there's a damn good chance that company would suffocate and die, because you need layers to a business, just like you need layers to a starting XI.

And that squad construction has left a few good workers, surrounded by people who aren't ready or don't have the proper tools, all frustrated and bickering throughout a match. When I watch Arsenal play, I see a team that is divided. I see Robin Van Persie and Mikel Arteta alone in attack. I see Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain thriving despite the pressure and the system and still think to myself: He could really use a teacher, a mentor. I see Alex Song alone and stuck between his best position (deep-lying defensive midfielder) and his personal frustration with a toothless attack. And Song's been distributing the ball beautifully through the middle too in January and February! He's been an absolute killer in attack, but why is he even there? Because there aren't any better options. I see a defense that, on paper, should be world class, but is continually beat by the same basic tactics and is left scratching their heads and shouting at one another with misguided anger.

That anger is misguided because they can't go storm the sideline and shout at the manager, but they also don't have the freedom and flexibility tactically to adjust and to make themselves structurally better on the fly. Meanwhile, the bench is riddled with pissed off veterans who were brought in specifically to add leadership and guidance for the "talented youngsters," who are now openly bitching about a lack of playing time and undermining the whole reason they were purchased. I don't blame them either. We're not getting the results, so why are we still sending out the same squad & formation? Part of it is that the veterans on the bench aren't any better than what's out there, so Wenger's stuck (by his own hand, mind you) with a tired, exacerbated, and over-extended squad that can't find a secondary attack outside of RVP and can't defend simple long-ball tactics from the opposition.

It all comes back to Wenger. I have the utmost respect and admiration for him (dammit, I'm already prepping a disclaimer! Stop it, Erik!), but when you lose your locker room, when the players just don't want to play for you anymore, the situation becomes untenable. Arsenal and Arsene Wenger are like a bitter old couple, they feel like they've invested too much to break up, but they're just not right for each other anymore. Everyone knows it, hell, even they probably know it, but there's this sticky familiarity that forces a bad situation to persist. I think Arsene Wenger could probably go to another club and succeed immediately, and I'm sure if he takes over the France national job one day, they'll play the best football they've played in years, but the Arsenal team is stagnant and brooding, the fans are understandably-frustrated (and don't give me that "you're spoiled" shit, we can be critical of the present and still acknowledge and respect the past), and the manager's great legacy is being tarnished because no one's willing to walk away.

Wenger has set up this club for sustained success, and he's done it all with limited resources and a charge from the board to cut costs and help fund the new stadium, and I would shake his hand and ask for a photo if I ever saw him in person (let's get honest, I'd weep like a 14-year-old at a Lady Gaga concert), but Arsene Wenger isn't Arsenal, he's a part of it, for sure, but he's not the club itself, and both he and the club can survive (and even thrive) without each other. It just takes a little guts to say, "This isn't working," and then the much-needed death and rebirth can begin.

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