People often talk about the ‘brand of football’ that Arsene Wenger has cultivated at Arsenal. It is true that he has revolutionised the club- where less than two decades ago the name Arsenal was synonymous with negative football, now it’s associated with the opposite, and this is almost solely the work of Arsene Wenger.
But it strikes me now that his reign to date can be divided into two halves. Initially, there was the period of 1996-2005, which included a flood of silverware: the double in 1998, another in 2002, an FA Cup the following year, and the unbeaten league season in 2003/04. Then there was the somewhat fortuitous FA Cup victory against Manchester United in 2005. And since then, no trophies, and growing discontent.
Optimistic fans will hope that it is more a case of two acts, with a third, triumphant one to follow in which all loose ends are tied up.
Of course, the above does not tell the whole story. The game has changed since 2004- thanks to the growing influence of ‘sugar daddies’ like Abramovich who see fit to pump seemingly endless funds into football clubs, the opposition were able to strengthen at a time when Arsenal were fundamentally weakened by the stadium project. While Wenger had to sell to buy, Chelsea bought to win, and did win. Then United returned to their previous position at the top of the English game.
Last season, there seemed the hint of a vacuum at the top, one that Ancelotti’s aging Chelsea eventually rose to fill. This campaign, they still look strongest without having spent a whole pile. United have an air of transition about them. It falls to Manchester City to throw money around, and they have filled their squad with bland, overpriced workhorses- Carlos Tevez, donkey to Rooney’s Shrek at United, has emerged as the king of Eastlands.
Many will argue, with some justification, that it was always going to be difficult for Arsenal to win trophies in this climate. If the stadium was to be developed, Arsene Wenger, out of necessity, had to develop a youth system to match, and had to put faith in younger, cheaper players. What is interesting is that now that there is constant talk of funds being in place for Wenger to use, he continues, out of choice and not necessity, to trust the players who have come through. And, in the final analysis, they have continued to let him down.
Then there is something that is too often glossed over: the philosophy has changed on the field as well as off it. Arsene Wenger’s teams have always tried to play attacking football, but the emphasis has changed. His successful Arsenal sides had an equal emphasis on stature and technique. The names speak for themselves. Vieira, Petit, Adams, Keown, Campbell. Pace and power are not adjectives that spring to my mind when describing the Arsenal of recent seasons. They are more stealthy, perhaps, more continental, but they have suffered for it in the Premiership.
Why the switch in emphasis? I think the emergence of Fabregas in 2004 was the catalyst- Wenger saw the opportunity to build a more possession-oriented team. Indeed, his best teams had been fairly rotten in Europe- his first few years in the Champions League with Arsenal saw group stage exits, and it was only in 2006, with many of the ‘Invincibles’ already departed or in decline, that Arsenal got a sniff of glory. That was when the change in emphasis took root. A five man midfield. Fabregas and Hleb- smaller, more technical players. More emphasis on keeping the ball.
Previously, Arsene’s Arsenal had been more direct, more adept on the break, but often unable to dictate the European games. I think that Wenger’s subtle change in playing philosophy was a response to that, a by-product of his obsession with the trophy he has never won. The tragic irony is that with Wenger switching to a more continental style, English teams became more powerful in Europe than they had been since the 80s. Between 2005 and 2009 there was always at least one English team in the final.
Even on a purely aesthetic level, is the New Way a better way? I certainly miss the dynamism of the old sides. Not many would ask for the impending departure of Fabregas, but was it necessary to fill the team with ball-playing, diminutive midfielders who always want the ball to feet? It’s a recipe for sideways passing, and at times, boredom.
The most significant reason it frustrates is because it has proven ineffective in the biggest games, particularly over the last couple of seasons. Barcelona exposed Arsenal as a bad imitation outfit in the two one-sided legs of the Champions League tie last season, while Chelsea and Manchester United have hatched seemingly foolproof and fairly straightforward looking plans as to how to defuse Arsenal’s threat- sit back, soak it up, and exploit the inevitable gaps. Arsenal used to be able to do that themselves, but it’s happened less and less since 2004.
So what lies in the third act: decline or resurrection? Over to you, Mr. Wenger.