27 Feb Weekend Football Review: Toothless Arsenal Attack Shows Wenger is Yesterday’s Man
I just can’t get Arsenal out of my head.
It wasn’t just that they were spineless against Manchester City, though Arsene Wenger’s great Arsenal teams rarely were. It wasn’t just that they were defensively disorganised, though you’d never level that at The Invincibles. It was that they were dreadful on the counter. Poor in possession and poorer in possession when moving through the gears with space to go into. Asking how Wenger oversees a side which cannot counter-attack effectively should be the first port of call when wondering what has gone so badly wrong. No one countered like Wenger’s Arsenal in their pomp. Absolutely no one. Manchester United were great at it but Arsenal were platinum-plated lightning. Touch and certainty, great players well trained, the football cushioned while moving faster than Usain Bolt.
Perhaps we remember these things as they weren’t, perhaps it is a sheen of nostalgia. But what if it isn’t? What does it say that the man who came in and made a team appear to have more gears than anyone else; third, fourth and fifth men running; great passing and finishing in stride; what does it say that it just doesn’t look like happening anymore?
Forget the conversation around the quality of the players for a second, because they pay the fifth highest wages, close to Liverpool and Chelsea. They’ve chosen these players. Why haven’t they chosen the ones who can do the thing Arsenal and Arsene were always best at? And if they have tried to do that, then why aren’t they better at it?
Answering these questions strikes at the heart of what is wrong. Arsenal and Arsene have now been together long enough to almost be a control group, a measuring stick. Slowly but surely their approach has been eroded by shifts that have happened elsewhere but made their way into the English game. There are two dominant strands. The first which had the more immediate impact is the shift inspired by the Iberian peninsula. Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho (and Carlos Quieroz) made a 4231/433 the norm not just at the clubs they were managing (and assistant managing) but across the division as a whole. They inspired greater solidity while offering an attacking verve at the highest level, and this was further built upon with Dutch influence by the great Barcelona side around seven years ago.
The way the very best counter attacking football teams went about their business also started to change halfway through the previous decade, inspired by certain German coaches, but this took longer to go mainstream across European football. Now it is visible in Naples and in Liverpool and a host of places in between. It’s arguable that Arsenal’s opponents on Sunday demonstrate much of the best of all traditions combined without a truly all-time great player, a Ronaldo or a Messi (or possibly even a Samuel Eto’o). Instead, Arsenal are left still playing football which looked space age in 2003 but which is increasingly stone age in 2018.
There is a quote which says that David Bowie was wasn’t as good in the eighties because he invented them in the seventies. The argument that Wenger is left being yesterday’s man because he was tomorrow’s man is increasingly persuasive. Wenger was his own innovator whereas Alex Ferguson’s greatest – and most underrated – attribute was his ability to cherry pick and delegate. This doesn’t mean Wenger is bad at his job today. Far from it. He appears to remain a very good football manager, just not a football manager capable of bridging a gap anymore through his innate brilliance.
The same can be said of the aforementioned Mourinho and Benitez. They are getting precisely what they should out of their squads, out of the money the players cost and the wage bill they have. Mourinho’s Manchester United got an excellent victory against Chelsea with Romelu Lukaku particularly impressive. A goal and a superb assist to his name showing that he is capable of being the centre forward his manager needs – decisive in moments. His is the weekend’s defining personal performance, however crucial Harry Kane was, and however well Liverpool played.
Benitez will be furious his side threw away a two goal lead late against Bournemouth and there will be little consolation in his side having stopped their opponents picking up three points. Last week this column said a rick leading to dropping points at this stage may not prove crucial. That should remain true, but if Newcastle and Benitez go the way of West Brom this season, it will be this weekend that will be looked back on as decisive. With ten games to go they would have needed two wins and had the joint best goal difference in the bottom half. The result at the Vitality Stadium may well leave them needing three. But for a shoe the battle could just be lost.
As predicted, no other aspect of the bottom half is any clearer despite Brighton’s emphatic win. While they do have ten games to go it is worth noting their last four are all against sides in the top eight, and though Burnley are treading water at present, no side wants to go there needing something with three games to go. Brighton have hay to make while the snow falls. The rest have just offered yet more positioning, more shuffling of the pack. It is a pack. Six points from 19th to 11th. Waiting for the starter’s flag to fall, for the last lap bell to ring.