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From Baguettes to Bratwurst: Does Arsenal’s Wenger have the right recipe?

“You don’t know what you’re doing”. I’ve heard that from co-workers, people on the street and even my own family. I would wager Arsene Wenger hasn’t had to suffer that too many times during his esteemed career in football management, but in the death throes of his team’s recent goalless draw at Villa Park last week, a significant portion of travelling Arsenal fans chose to vent their frustrations. For them, things had gone too far. They had come to the conclusion that their long-serving Manager was incompetent and incapable of leading the club back to success. What if this were true? What if one of the most brilliant football minds ever to kick a water bottle on English soil had ‘lost it’? I can only assume it would end in some bizarre post-match press conference where Wenger turns up dressed in full Gunnersaurus regalia and claims he has just been offered the job at Jurassic Park Rangers. In all seriousness, although Wenger clearly retains his mental health, do these Arsenal fans finally have justification to openly question the man who has brought them so much, yet delivered so little in recent times?

Is this how the Wenger story ends
This is clearly a conflicting time for many Arsenal fans. In several ways they face the same questions which football fans of most teams do. Football is currently going through a turbulent and unstable time in which takeovers and foreign investment are commonplace. Clubs are finding it increasingly difficult to resist overtures from oversees and moreover to retain their history and identity. For the minute, Arsenal seem to have a foot in each camp. They have embraced and become indebted to oversees funding. On the pitch however, Wenger remains. He is the only remaining link which represents the identity of the near past. His presence still conjures up romantic images of Highbury and nostalgic feelings for Arsenal fans. He was the man with the plan, you always believed with Wenger that he was one step ahead of the rest. Much of this has to do with his methods upon arriving in England. This has already been well documented; the modernising of players diets, training methods, scouting, identifying players who would go on to be future stars. He tapped into the emerging French market and he knew French players were about to set the benchmark for the rest to follow. He exploited his advantages like nobody before or since. But the world has moved on, and he can no longer rely up on Gallic talent to fill his squad.
So what has changed? Well his formation for one. His title winning teams were based on a fairly rigid 4-4-1-1. A back four with attacking full backs, a central midfield duo who could both win and distribute the ball effectively, two direct wide men who provided a steady stream of goals, a withdrawn striker with a penchant for dropping deep to find space and a goalscorer spearheading the attack. The obvious names reel off the tongue but even the squad players such as Kanu, Clichy, Edu and Wiltord conformed to these roles. But this has long gone. Wenger adjusted to a more fluid 4-3-3 system with the central figure in his front three was given more licence and less tactical responsibility, surrounded by a string of technically-gifted attacking midfielders designed to keep the ball more effectively higher up the pitch (See Fabregas, Cesc). Barcelona and Spain have perfected this system in recent years and shown how devastatingly effective it can be at both club and international level.The run to the Champions League final in 2006 more than likely convinced Wenger this was the right path to take. Thierry Henry played as a lone striker for much of the campaign and coupled with the decline of Bergkamp, Wenger encountered a system which he felt could bring him success. In later years this was implemented with Robin Van Persie playing as the lone striker. It is important to note that while both Henry and Van Persie(when finally injury-free) enjoyed individual success in this role, the team and its results generally suffered and the trophies dried up. The sale of Van Persie this summer has meant another adjustment and further evolution of the Wenger plan. Let’s go to Germany.

Having plundered France and Spain, it is now my belief that Wenger sees the German model as the key to building a successful team. The signing of Lukas Podolski (and to a lesser extent Per Mertesacker) is an obvious pointer to this. Despite being hailed in some quarters as being a striker to complement or eventually replace Van Persie, any sane Arsenal fan knew that there was only one place Podolski would find himself and that was on the left side of a front three. His role for Germany. With the sale of Van Persie, Wenger no longer had his special talent who he could give Carte Blanche to, reformation was needed. Podolski was a key piece to this, somebody he knew he could trust from day one to know the system and help perfect it. His next task was finding his very own Mario Gomez and Mesut Ozil, his lethal target man and the maestro who provides the link between midfield and attack. Step forward Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla. On early evidence, there should be little doubts about Cazorla being a vital acquisition. Wenger’s eyes light up at the mere mention of the majestic Asturian and he would not look out of place in any team. He has the tactical awareness, speed of thought and technical ability to play the role flawlessly.

Giroud is a different case. He must be able to shoulder the majority of goalscoring duties whilst at the same time remaining a focal point for the team’s attacks. At Montpellier he did just that, but it remains to be seen if he can handle the constant pressure of taking chances in front of success-starved fans. He can appear cumbersome and slow at times, but these are the same criticisms that were levelled at Mario Gomez before he found his feet and stepped out of the shadows of Miroslav Klose. Further evidence comes with the fates of one current Arsenal player and one who departed during the summer.

Alex Song leaving for Barcelona was a surprising summer move as he performed consistently well last season and unlike Van Persie, did not seem particularly unhappy. However, if we subscribe to the theory that Wenger is following his German model, there is no place for Alex Song. He has neither the drive and athleticism of Sami Khedira, nor the sheer class of Bastian Schweinsteiger. He was neither incisive enough to control the flow of play, or destructive enough to change it. Does he have ability? Undoubtedly. But he doesn’t fit the mould. Moreover, Wenger knew he had his ideal player in the squad all along. The faith and loyalty Wenger has shown Abou Diaby throughout his Arsenal career has been at times borderline baffling. But his season up to now has demonstrated exactly why Wenger has such faith and at the same time why he remains so frustrating. His early season form was special to say the least. Whilst Cazorla picked up many of the plaudits, Diaby was a one-man midfield wrecking ball and his all round ability enabled Arsenal to wrestle the initiative away from opposing teams, and provide a platform to attack. Then comes the injury curse and the gap left in the Arsenal midfield has been glaring. It will be fascinating to see what impact his return to the team makes.

One more factor to mention is Theo Walcott. Whenever you hear Wenger say that he plans to play Walcott as an out and out striker in the future, you have just wasted several seconds of your life. I do not disbelieve that Wenger has played Walcott out wide in order to improve his “footballing intelligence” but to Wenger, Walcott is exactly the type of pacey, incisive player that Germany are now producing. Marco Reus is the best example. Pace in abundance, adept at finding space and clinical on the counter attack. Wenger has his template in Reus and his prototype in Walcott. It is now up to Wenger to convince the England man he has found his niche, and he will thrive in this system. Convincing the Arsenal fans the club is on the right track may be a harder sell.

Although so far this sounds like Wenger can do no wrong, criticising people is a lot more fun and much easier, so let’s pick some holes in this masterplan. The first and most obvious problem is that if the players he has already brought to the club are simply not good enough. Time will answer all those questions, but if this current crop proves to be nothing more than cheap imitations, is Wenger willing to pay the cost of bringing in the ready-made replacements even if they wanted to join? The likes of Götze, Reus and Lewandowski (Polish but fully integrated into the German style of play) will command hefty fees and whereas for his French model players such as Vieira were under-appreciated, there are far fewer secrets in world football these days. History has told us that Wenger has a frugal attitude towards the transfer market and there seems no reason for that to change now. Nations like Germany and Spain are likely to have a constant conveyor belt of talent ready to fit their system and philosophy, Wenger does not have that luxury. He must find the cheap alternative and continue to challenge and compete with those for whom money is not an option. This has become increasingly difficult, as has keeping hold of the key players. It used to be players left Arsenal when they were no longer at their peak, now they choose the time and destination. The only feasible way Wenger sees to stop this is by success, not by throwing money around. Success will make players want to stay. Wenger is therefore caught up in his own vicious circle, frustrating both Arsenal fans and himself in the process.

Although the English footballing landscape has changed in the last fifteen years, I seem to remember Newcastle spending like Paris Hilton on payday and Leeds mortgaging their future to buy up all the best English talent (and Seth Johnson). Arsenal won trophies then, because Wenger knew better. It may be the case that you have read this far and are thinking “hang on, defensive issues have not even been mentioned”. Well, do you think Arsene Wenger worries about defensive play when he sets up his team? The answer should be a resounding no. To him, defensive matters are secondary and will therefore be treated with equal importance in this piece. He sets up his team to win games, he wants to dictate games, not rely on defending. This is the sword by which Wenger will live and die, but he will not change. He is both a philosopher and economist in equal measure. His philosophical side is expressed on the pitch, his economical pragmatism expressed in the transfer market. It has now been too long since the methods of Wenger produced something tangible, it is time he backed himself like the Arsenal fans once backed him and one feels that a leap of faith is required in order to regain the full support of said fans. If he gives his footballing philosophies every chance to succeed, Arsenal may find themselves once again as genuine challengers for top honours. If the economist wins out, Wenger may find his sanity questioned a lot more in the coming months.

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