Mercifully, Arsene

It is coming to the end of an era.

Arsene Wenger’s second-last game in charge at Leicester ended in the same way as many of his games during his tenure. A defeat to a lower team, a bitter twist in a game the Gunners should have expected to do better.

One could explain away the disappointment by saying the sending only of Mavropanos twenty minutes in the game changed the face of things, but let’s not make excuses for the poor form. The Gunners played against ten-men Atletico Madrid a few weeks ago, at home, for nearly eighty minutes, and still drew. This failure to score, coupled with defensive frailty, remains.

It is slightly worrying that Arsenal have spent so much money importing a strike force of Lacazette, Aubameyang and Mkhitaryan; dismantling the old guard of Walcott and Sanchez, and didn’t do anything to replace an aging backline. Koscielny has been battling with Achilles problems for a long time, and his collapse in the Atletico game denied the Gunners of positive leadership that Callum Chambers and Rob Holding have not really filled.

The transfer market signs are fairly clear – the backline needs a solid leader. The leaders are past their best – Koscielny, Metrsacker – or not mature enough. Nacho Monreal is the only one who has been fairly consistent but his absence when he is injured is telling.

The Gunners have Bellerin and Kolasinac and a good thing to do would be to revert to a 4-men backline. At least this leaves two of the four positions in good hands, and if Monreal could double as a centreback of sorts it would help tighten up the back. All season long the Gunners have hoped to deflect from a centreback deficit but maybe they can sign Jonny Evans now that West Brom are on their way down.

Arsene Wenger walked out to a guard of honour somewbat sheepishly during a 5-0 triumph of Burnley, but that optimism from the game has evaporated and all that remains is the sense that finally, supporters of the club with one of the more-expensive club tickets will no longer have to fuel gliders or light aircraft in the sky to get their message across.

Mercifully Arsene Wenger’s reign is drawing to an end.

For the second successive season, the club have not got into Europe.

And they are still stuck with Mesut Ozil, who really needs to be shifted for his attitude.

French Connection

Ah, Arsene Wenger. Heading into the first leg of the Europa League, having announced his retirement, the Frenchman was living in the praise of the pundits, lauded for revolutionising the English game when he first took over Arsenal having managed in Japan. “Arsene Who?” was Gary Lineker’s reaction at the time. But the pundits, in the run up to the game, as well as the media personnel, just couldn’t get enough of Arsene Wenger. Perhaps it was because it was a quiet day for sports news. So it was Arsene here, Arsene there, Arsene out of every nook and cranny and inch of the woodwork.

I speculated in the last post that the timing of the resignation was perhaps linked to the Europa League and the end of the season, that perhaps it was almost designed to give them an emotional boost heading into the final part of the campaign. So while the journalists were still reproducing the “In Praise of Arsene” articles they had long written, and trying to get the full benefit of them, it was no surprise to me to see a few days later the “Win It for Arsene” cries from individuals such as Per Mertersacker.

The game began rather auspiciously for the home team. Cheered on by a large crowd in Highbury, there were no sign of divisions, as fans of both banners cheered their team on. And when I refer to both sets of fans, I don’t mean the Arsenal and Atletico fans, I mean the Wenger Out and the In Arsene We Trust fans. The manager had at least achieved his aim of eliminating some of the mental distractions for his players. They did not have to play an important game while their own fans fought among themselves.

Further luck was in store when French referee Clement Turpin sent off an Atletico defender with two yellow cards in the space of twelve minutes. Really? In a game of this magnitude? Now, experience tells you that referees try to set the tone of the game at the start, so you try to lay off a hard challenge at the start, no matter how you want to set the tone of the game. Give it ten minutes, let the referee and the emotions of the game settle, then make such challenges. Vrsaljko had obviously not had much experience and naively laid two hard challenges within a short span, believing he was helping his team set a tough tone. Unfortunately he did. He made it tough for his team, alright. Ninety minutes with ten men, away from home.

The visiting team held their ground defensively but withered and it was left to Arsenal’s record signing for a few months, Alexandre Lacazette, another Frenchman, to play his hand and assume his role in the plot. Latching on to a cross from the right, he powered home past Jan Oblak. Both sets of Arsenal fans cheered. Finally the Gunners could score a goal against a team with ten men in their own home ground!

The Europa Cup final in Lyon, Lacazette’s home town. French manager Arsene Wenger’s last campaign. Clement Turpin, French referee, helping to engineer a cup final with Marseille, another French team, in the French suburb of Lyon.

The introduction of former Liverpool and Chelsea striker Fernando Torres threatened to throw a spanner in the works. Was it because it was Torres’ last season at Atletico, as well, and he would be fired up to give his best? Was it because during his time in the Premier League, he had known how to work his magic at Highbury?

No, silly. It’s because in a game riddled with French connections, Torres is Spanish.

It was left to French centre back Laurent Koscielny, for so many years under the wing of veteran Metersacker and now leader of the defence, to put his hat in the game. Letting an innocuous pass get by him, it was picked up by Antoine Griezmann who with one of Atletico’s few chances managed to get the advantage for the second leg. Griezmann, in case you have not noticed, is also French.

So. One Frenchman’s bid to make it to a final in France in his last managerial season, aided by a French referee and French striker, foiled by a French defender and opposing French striker.

Laurent Koscielny revealed that during a team meeting he had broken down when his children asked why the Arsenal team were so bad.

Wonder what he has to say now?

FArewell

So what’s been going on this week?

Unless you have been hiding in a cave somewhere without electricity, you would have already known that this evening Manchester United beat Tottenham 2-1. The Spurs have now drawn one and lost one game since that game¬†where Christian Eriksen and Harry Kane claimed the same goal, Kane one that had a dubious brush off his shoulder obscured by a goal post. The Spurs’ poor run of form since that game can really be attibuted to slightly strange statistics; a breakdown of team spirit caused by Harry Kane doing his team mate in, in a quest to become the top scorer of the Premier League (give it up Harry, because Mo Salah will ensure it never happens), as well as – slightly odd – a team wanting Harry to do it, and hence threading every ball to him in the hope that he can bolster his tally. The problem with statistics, as every player who has been on one can tell you, is that you become so focussed on the numbers it alters and eventually ruins your game. You try too hard and end up losing the natural form of your game that gave you the attention and recognition in the first place.

In the National Basketball Association (NBA), one player was so desperate to continue his streak of getting double-figure rebounds (that is, ten or more), that he deliberately shot at his own team’s basket and missed in order to get the tally!

But the story of the week is not Tottenham Hotspur, nor is it Manchester United, who on balance, will be meeting Mourinho Old. That’s right, I predict a Manchester vs Chelsea FA Cup Final. Mourinho vs Conte. Lukaku vs his old team – one of them anyway. But that’s not the story of the weekend.

The main story is that Arsene Wenger is retiring. And what a way to announce it. On the eve of the FA Cup semi-final, which in itself for so many years had been the saving grace of the losing Arsene regime, the Gunners revealed that he would be leaving at the end of the season.

But while most waxed lyrical about how Wenger revolutionised things in England with his approach, one should not get too caught up in the plaudits. Instead, Wenger leaving Arsenal is like the deathly end to a terminal disease. You are sad, but you are also relieved because the pain and suffering can finally be over.

And let’s be cynical. Why did the Gunners choose such a time to announce this decision? Let’s play devil’s advocate here.

Wenger and Mourinho have never got on well. The latter calls him a specialist in failure, and Wenger famously shoved the Portuguese on the touchline in a game against Chelsea. Announcing it on the eve of a semi-final, where Mourinho would likely advance (and he did), would be like stealing Mourinho’s thunder. The fact that it was Spurs playing as well would be a way of undercutting their neighbours, the Gunners overshadowing the build up to Saturday.

This coming Thursday and next Thursday Arsenal play Atletico Madrid over two legs. The first is at the Emirates this Thursday. Deciding the manager’s future and publicly declaring it means that players go into Thursday’s game wanting to do their best for the manager, wanting to win one big competition for him, and the fans can be united behind the team, because whether you like him or not, there will be no more Wenger Out banners, no light aircraft, do battle lines among the fans.

They will need that against Atletico Madrid; I’ve said before, the road to Europa League glory goes through Atletico Madrid.

Wenger’s announcement is a way of leaving on his own terms. He will not let the result against Atletico be seen as influential in him leaving, had he decided to announce it later. He’s set it out, now he hopes the team can rise to the occasion by beating Atletico, however hard it may be.

Either way, it’s the end of an era. Question is, if Arsenal lose over two legs to Atletico, would it make any difference to you if Wenger had stayed or whether he had left?

Lack of English representation

Should we take it to be a conspirital snub? For the World Cup in Russia in 2018, there will be no British referees for the first time in 80 years.

Those of you open to conspiracy theories may link this to the recent British government’s decision to expel Russian diplomats after a critic of Vladimir Putin was found assassinated in a quiet British countryside town. It is as if the Russian establishment is trying to say “Mess with us and forget any chance of a quiet life”. After a British expulsion of Russian civil servants, the Russian followed with a tit for tat response that triggered a world wide anti-Russian foreign service backlash.

So – the World Cup next year will be held in Russia. Do you think that any pressure was put on FIFA, a governing body plagued by corruption, to not have British referees?

One person perhaps not fussed by the decision is Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman has always been critical of English referees, saying they don’t work hard enough, and as we have seen from past examples, always criticising them when the odds are against him.

There will also be no British referees running the unpopular VAR system.

Arsenal face Stoke this weekend and are hotly expected to win, but don’t put it pass Stoke to pull off an upset. Arsenal traditionally don’t have a good record against hungry teams – you can debate if you like if this reflects on the lack of mental strength, or complacency – and often when you expect Arsenal at home to win against lower opposition, they disappoint, and the Wenger Out brigade returns. Remember Ostersands? Arsenal had a 3-0 first leg lead and then lost 2-1 at home to the minnows. Stoke is arguably tougher than Ostersands, and are an incredibly physical team who will try to resort to put Arsenal off their beautiful passing game with a bit of Northern welcome.

It appears more make or break for Arsene Wenger than Paul Lambert. Lose this one to Stoke, and he can really forget about a top four finish, and the fans won’t let him off for a poor result.

Sentencing postponed

Has Arsene Wenger earned a brief reprieve? Two good results, one away at Milan and another home win over Watford yesterday, have earned him some breathing space away from the ire of the Wenger Out brigade. Perhaps the Gunners boss will use the lack of animosity as a sign to the board not to sack him whenever the fans chant for him to leave. After all, when his back was against the wall, he managed to get the team to pull out two wins in a row. In a season where the team’s form has looked like yoyo-ing between wins and losses alternately, two wins in a row looks like a winning streak.

Arsenal’s win against Watford was notable for reasons other than making two wins in a row for Wenger. Firstly, Petr Cech finally reached the milestone of 200 clean sheets in the Premier League. The last one had taken a long time to come, amidst a run of bad form by the team, and it was good for him to get the monkey off his back. The problem with goalkeeping records is that they are really dependent on the team defence as a whole, and playing for Arsenal means you are slightly disadvantaged in that respect.

Back in the reverse fixture at Watford, Hornets captain had made the remark about Arsenal lacking cojones. So it was slightly ironic that Deeney made a penalty miss in the game, and you could tell once that happened, Watford was going to lose the game. When your captain says the other team lacks balls, then doesn’t live up to his words, the psychological battle is lost. Lesson to learn? Hold your tongue.

Mesut Ozil made 50 Premier League assists. Confirming his reputation as an assist king, with that ability to unlock defences, Ozil provided the assist that allowed Mkhitaryan to score. How should Arsenal get the best out of Ozil? Creative players don’t like to do the dirty work like defending. When Ozil has to track back too much and play defense, it taps into his offensive capability. Perhaps this is how other teams have played Arsenal in the past to good effect, by sending midfielder up to pin Ozil back. If you watch the Manchester City triumphs against Arsenal, you would have seen how far up the midfield went, and then how they passed the ball around to sap the creativity from Arsenal’s attacking flair.

Is Wenger out of the sack race? Don’t count on it yet. The Gunners followed up a 3-0 win at Ostersunds with a loss to the minnows. Anything can happen. Don’t get too optimistic about Milan. They are still capable of an upset at the Emirates, and even if Arsenal triumph, the road back to the Champions League goes through Atletico Madrid.

Is Alexandre Lacazette the world’s most expensive bookmark?

New calls for Wenger Out

To be fair, it was the Arsenal defence, not just Cech.

But it highlights the posture taken by the team. Don’t score, then hope not to concede. Aim not to concede, then try to score.

Get defensive cover. Forget Aubameyang, who will only become another Sanchez. Plug the hole where it matters.

Maybe a change in thinking is required, which is where a new head may be better.

So good it couldn’t wait

A guy so good and so respected he got propelled to the top coaching job in his country immediately as a coaching debut, without having coached anywhere else.

It’s like Theo Walcott going to the World Cup without having played a single Premier League game.

Just hope Giggs’ doesn’t end the same way.

I still maintain the Gunners could have pulled off a coup if they had gone for Giggs.

Sub-plots of all sorts

Arsene Wenger must at least feel some tinge of happiness.

Not because his team are still in the top six and that the chasing pack led by Burnley haven’t made up much ground.

Not because the star of the show, Alexis Sanchez, looks to have his future at the club resolved, within 48 hours, in Wenger’s words.

Not because Jack Wilshere, before his most recent injury, looked capable of reproducing the form he had in the past, and could replace the want-away Mesut Ozil.

No, no, Arsene Wenger is happy because Manchester City lost to Liverpool.

Pep Guardiola’s team headed off to Anfield on Sunday. On paper it looked like a treat for attacking football fans, with the usual sub-plots. How would Liverpool survive post-Coutinho? The Brazilian had been an instrumental part of their season so far, and now that their Fab Four of Coutinho, Mo Salah, Roberto Firminho and Sadio Mane were now relegated to a Terrific Three, how would things be? It looked as if Liverpool would suffer. But the team managed without Coutinho, who like Alexis Sanchez, played with the form of his life in the run up to the transfer window. And they eked out a win against the City visitors, in a game of goals, edging the Blues out 4-3.

The Reds actually led 4-1 at one point, before the Disappointing Defence, the back four, leaked goals in to help City muster some form of comeback. But they survived.

But why is Arsene Wenger happy that Manchester City lost?

It’s because the record of an undefeated season stays with the Arsene Invincibles. Wenger still holds a record that looks ever increasingly difficult to emulate, and his name will still be long mentioned in Premier League history.

Few can argue that Wenger has been about records recently. He stayed on at the end of last season to surpass Alex Ferguson’s record of Premier League games managed, and in this day and age of changing managers that looks like one other record that is unlikely ever to be surpassed.

Ironically, one of the players that helped ensure his record for going undefeated in a season was the ex- Arsenal midfielder Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who may increasingly see a more influential role with Coutinho gone.

A few weeks ago I predicted that the longer Alexis Sanchez’s transfer saga dragged on, the worse it would be for all parties. He is no longer seen with the same eyes by City, and I also predicted another team might swoop in. Lo and behold, now Manchester United are interested. It would make for interesting sub-plots.

Ozil and Sanchez combining at Manchester United.
Jose Mourinho getting one up on his arch rival Pep Guardiola by obtaining Sanchez’s signature.

Arsene Wenger facing the ire of the Arsenal faithful by selling United a player, despite saying he would not sell to them after Robin van Persie.

Some of the Arsenal faithful feel you shouldn’t believe anything Wenger says nowadays. Last season he was coy with the press, toying around about the negotiations with his contract. And while he later admitted at the end that the protracted saga affected his team’s form, he doesn’t seem to have learnt with regards to Alexis Sanchez. One of the reasons the team is sliding further away of the top four, is that speculation plants doubt, and doubt affects form. What are Giroud and Lacazette thinking? “After all the effort we are continuing to show, why are we still behind Grumpy Sanchez?” Why is Arsene Wenger still wooing Sanchez in the hope he might stay, like an old lecherous landlord whose advances to a young female tenant – who is determined to move out when her tenancy agreement expires – have been continually rebuffed?

Wenger really needs to go, and as I have suggested, the club should bring in Ryan Giggs. He is unproven at the top level, but the Arsenal faithful will give him time because he has winning in his veins. He is young, he has energy, and is a refreshing breath of fresh air in the rank Arsenal boardroom.

And Giggs has a point to prove after being overlooked for the manager’s role at his old club.

If Manchester United do one on Arsenal by taking Sanchez and Ozil, then Arsenal could do no worse than by appointing one of the United winners to kick-start the revolution.

Dwell on that for a while.

And the new manager is …

Where would you find the team “al”?

That’s Arsenal without Arsene.

Is Arsene Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal finally coming to an end? Last weekend’s defeat to Nottingham Forest, embarrassed 4-2 by a club with only a caretaker manager in his second game must certainly seem that this is the last season for a manager whose popularity is slowly dying, even among the most hardcore of Arsenal fans. And having surpassed Alex Ferguson’s record of most Premier League matches played, there is nothing really much for Wenger to aim for. He could try to have the best winning percentage, but he would have to win a lot more than he is winning now to have a chance of doing so – and it looks highly unlikely.

The only thing left for Wenger is either number of games managed – but he is about five hundred short of the 2155 set by Ferguson from 1974-2013, and he would need around ten seasons to accomplish that. Either that or he could manage teams in different parts of the world, or find one to manage in the summer break of the Premier League to shorten that length of time.

Of course, it would help if Arsenal were a top team, playing Champions League Football and competing on various fronts. But Sunday’s defeat against lower opposition was surely enough for everyone – ex-players, the board, the fans – to see that the longer Arsene Wenger stays, the longer he hurts his reputation, and the longer he causes Arsenal to slide.

The last two seasons have been a difficult time. Last season light aircraft were flying the Wenger Out banners and they would have done the same this year, had Manchester City not so dominated the league that everyone else is fighting for the top four spots. The thing is, even the most hardcore of Arsenal fans looks at the team and sees overpaid, underachieving players. It is not their fault that they are underachieving. It is just that the manager doesn’t really motivate them to want to do well.

Arsene Wenger is not the kind of inspirational manager to be prowling the sidelines, gee-ing his team up in the most combative manner. He is reserved, a man more often seen to sit on the bench, rather than in the technical area shouting instructions to his team. He is less manager now, more executive coach. Has he, after two decades at Arsenal, lost the confidence of the team? The star player is vehement he will not sign a contract, the next best player is uncertain over his future, yet all Wenger does is live in a world inside his own head, so consumed by his own thoughts. The less vocal members of the group – Wellbeck, Giroud, Bellerin – perhaps seemingly tolerate Wenger’s presence, because he is such an authority figure that no one dares say the unmentionable and risk being another pariah like Alexis Sanchez. But the truth is, Arsenal are in decline, their ex-players are calling for Wenger to leave, the fans want him to go – depending on whether the team performs or not – and the players are not motivated by him.

The thing with Arsenal is that for all the talent they are stocked with, and all the internationals on their bench, they are not performing and this year no one even cares much if they get into the top four or not. In the past there was always hope that Arsenal might win the league, that their summer signings might help, that the year might always be that year, but they have always gone on a cold weather collapse. Lose in late November, from second to fourth, slide further within the top four in Feburary, and that has always been a source of the Arsenal fan’s disappointment – that the team do not live up to potential. In previous seasons they have always had Champions League football to blame, being stretched by a competition they would never win, but found redemption to stave off the execution by winning FA Cups.

This year, even without Champions League football, and with less matches, Arsenal have always had a bad November and December, are still losing to minor teams. Now without the FA Cup to hid behind, perhaps the patience with Wenger is starting to run thin.

Wenger hasn’t really learnt from his mistakes of the previous season. The uncertainty behind his contract last season influenced his team in the tail end of the season, so much so that their neighbours Tottenham overtook team in the standings. Not Premier League champions? Never mind. No Champions League football? Never mind. FA Cup winners? Who cares. But placing below Tottenham? It is the ultimate insult an Arsenal fan has to bear, being ribbed about it for at least a year. What’s more, Tottenham are still having a bad season by their standards, in fifth while they were second last year, but are still better than Arsenal in terms of points. They should have resolved Sanchez’s contractual situation in the summer, selling him off instead of letting him remain under a cloud. Sanchez has the potential to be a divisive figure. He pulls the team, but many despise him for his attitude. When he scored against Crystal Palace, only half of his team mates celebrated with him. But Wenger has to rely on him because he is such a star player. They might be further down the table in eighth or ninth without the heroics of Sanchez and Ozil, but had they sold them, they might not have been much worse.

Even if Sanchez had been sold in the summer with no replacement, things might have turned out better. He is like the Christmas present you don’t really want but have to keep because it was from your grandad Bertie.

How many recognised strikers do Arsenal have? Olivier Giroud. Theo Walcott. Lacazette. Welbeck. Sanchez. Ozil. Walcott, a signing from Southampton in his teens – he was so good that he went to the World Cup in the summer under Sven-Gora Erikkson before he had made an appearance for Arsenal – has had his development so curtailed and stunted that he is playing for Arsenal B, and not doing a good job of it all, considering how the team lost 4-2 to minnows Forest. Even Southampton are considering taking him back. How terrible it would be, to go back to the team he once played for, without having made much progress in the interim? Embarrasing.

It may be after the game with Chelsea, the semi-final of the Carabao club, that the full weight of resentment against Wenger is seen.

What can Wenger learn from former Stoke manager Mark Hughes? If you rest a team ahead of a key game, you’d better win the key game. And if the team has to lose in fhe key game, then don’t be embarrassed by a big scoreline. Hughes found himself at a difficult situaton losing 5-0 to Chelsea, then 1-0 to Newcastle, before losing in the FA Cup and being dumped by Stoke.

Wenger has already lost the FA Cup game. Recently he lost a few Premier League games against weaker opposition. A further loss to Chelsea would cement his fate.

A good clearout might be good this summer. The central defence is either aging or inexperienced. There is Mertersacker or Koscielny playing, two aging warriors past their prime for Arsenal. Nacho Monreal is perhaps the most solid at a back three, while Calum Chambers and Rob Holding are inconsistent. Is it surprising that the defence of Arsenal is what lets it down? As with Liverpool, they can have a good attacking threat with the likes of Giroud, Lacazette et al, but when your defence leaks in goals and you are prone to conceding at set pieces you will lose points. It used to be thought that even if Arsenal were two goals up with ten minutes to play, they might just find a way to drop points. These days, it is still never sure. Arsenal may have played out a 2-2 draw with Chelsea but don’t forget after Hector Bellerin scored the equalising goal in injury time, Chelsea nearly won and rattled the bar after that. Arsenal just switched off and nearly paid for that!

Who have Arsenal got in the midfield? Ramsey, Wilshere, Kolasinac, Xhaka and Bellerin are a pretty good unit, but what would Wenger do now with Elneny and Coquelin?

A clearout would do some good. Start rebuilding the team. And you know’ what? There might be the losing of games, but really, Arsenal have lost so many and are really a top-table team, that the fans won’t really care. In fact, if the fans adjust their expectations to feel they won’t win every game, even against lower opposition, they might just get less annoyed with an underperforming team. But if you really want to start rebuilding and a clear-out, start with Wenger and Steve Bould.

Who would you bring in? Mikel Arteta? The former Gunners captain, who so impressed in his Everton days but found himself often injured, is now a Manchester City assistant coach. Wenger recommends him but anyone wanting a change is unlikely to want the scent of Arsene around. Arteta however does fulfil the criteria of the kind of manager the Gunners need. Young, emotive – the kind of manager who might swing a ballboy around when they score a winner. Not the kind of guy that is often seen fumbling with the zip of his raincoat.

This season could be Wenger’s last. In fact, I predict at the end of the season that Arsenal will have a big clear out and Wenger will be in the boardroom. The hunt for Arsenal’s manager starts now, but the position is so tainted, as the leader of an underperforming bunch, that top managers might avoid it. Just like top players seem to shun Arsenal.

So who do you get to replace Arsene Wenger? You want a young manager keen to prove himself. You want a young manager used to winning. You want a young manager with good playing credentials. The problem is, if you look within the organisation, you won’t find someone who fits the bill. You don’t want an ex-player turned pundit because everyone knows all they do is talk and they are rubbish managers. Just look how Alan Shearer faired, unable to prevent Newcastle from being relegated in four games. Look at Gary Neville, failed at Valencia. And really, despite it being ideal that the new manager be Arsenal through and through, the fans don’t really care if the new manager never played for Arsenal. Because Arsenal in recent years have been on a slide that being Arsenal through and through just means being, really, a loser.

Arsenal need a manager who is young, has the drive, the vision, and is equally keen to demonstrate his qualities, instead of the current one who is content to sit on his laurels.

Arsenal don’t need a manager with Arsenal in his veins. They need one with winning in his veins.

Does this manager exist? You bet. @Arsenal, you need:

Ryan Giggs.