Paul Hayward: Arsene Wenger, one of the great football managers, must break up this side to save himself
YOU know the sky is falling in when the fans debate which was worse: the 8-2 thrashing at Manchester United or the 4-0 thumping in Milan; when a feeling of sadness creeps over the work of a once great team and a distinguished manager who has brought so much wisdom to the English game.
Power has been slipping from Arsenal for seven years now, since their last trophy. When it drops away incrementally, the loss of strength can be covered up with talk of prudence and faith in sacred principles. But some days that power splinters and crashes. It makes awful wrenching sounds, as it did when Milan humiliated the Gunners on a patchwork pitch.
Nothing about Arsenal worked. They failed to track runners, neglected to press the ball, made ruinous defensive errors and created little around the Milanese penalty box. The stats showed a respectable possession rate. But the eyes told another story. Even Arsenal’s vaunted passing was innocuous.
They caught the House of Berlusconi on a good night — that should be said. Robinho and Kevin-Prince Boateng punched endless holes in a comatose Arsenal midfield. The normally stately Zlatan Ibrahimovic decided it was finally time to stretch his legs, dashing about with lethal intent. Milan were a mighty force. They were quick, entertaining and bold: all the things Arsenal, in their torpor, were not.
The critical kicking they will receive on Thursday will come with no relish or schadenfreude. A great football manager is being humbled by the decline of a team he has built in his own intellectual image. He has a body of work stretching back 15 years to protect him from the hysteria of short-termism. But a defence is harder to mount when the decline is year-on-year: when the quality of players brought in is consistently lower than those who are lost to predators.
In the press conference afterwards Arsène Wenger made no attempt to surround himself with barriers or irony or optimism. He faced the reality of this performance head on and acknowledged that the struggle for fourth place in the Premier League could be undermined by this blow to their self-esteem.
The first test is an FA Cup tie against resurgent Sunderland. A sense of shock prevails. “We were never in the game. We were very poor defensively and offensively and it was shocking to see how we were beaten everywhere,” Wenger said. “It was our worst performance in Europe by far.”
The deeper The Invincibles retreat into history the greater the problem for The Inconsistents. Today’s Arsenal side are always fighting off comparisons, especially when Thierry Henry returns, woos the crowd, then glides off back to New York with the club he loves in such a mess.
The brief Henry comeback show ended in the stadium where the 2003 team beat Inter Milan 5-1 with two from the inventor of va-va voom. So desperate were Arsenal as they trudged off 2-0 down at the interval here that they thrust the cameo man into a central role for a whole 45 minutes as another European adventure imploded, this time at the first knock-out stage. Four years ago the Gunners prevailed over AC Milan in this arena, with goals from Cesc Fabregas (now with Barcelona) and Emmanuel Adebayor (currently on loan at Spurs). Fabregas and Samir Nasri are the latest in a long line of luminaries lost to more pragmatic and free-spending rivals.
The dispersal of these talents was shown up again when Dennis Bergkamp cast his expert eye on the scene. In an excellent interview with Alan Smith in these pages yesterday, Bergkamp observed icily: “You need a few strong characters who can get the team going, in training as well as matches. Sometimes you need more of a winning mentality than a passing mentality. I’m not sure Arsenal have enough of that in their players, when the attitude becomes more important than the ability just to pass the ball.
“I don’t know if the English mentality is missing a little bit. We had it with the back four, who had the mentality of thinking, 'OK, this game is ours now’.” Bergkamp evoked the midfield of Freddie Ljungberg, Ray Parlour and Robert Pires to paint more honey on the old days.
After that reminder of lost glories, Wenger’s toilers could have done without a real burst of first-half energy from Milan . Two strips of shagpile were laid down the flanks of the San Siro pitch, thus restricting the ball’s movement in wide areas and forcing the play into the middle third, where Robinho, Boateng and Antonio Nocerino ran amok.
Wenger’s men were no match for the industry and enterprise of the Rossoneri. Even after Boateng’s 15th-minute hooked finish, which was redolent of Van Persie or even Marco Van Basten, Arsenal watched the runners go by and failed to squeeze the space around those black and red shirts. Bergkamp’s complaints echoed round the stadium. As the goals poured in, the Arsenal fans who had chanted so lustily in the square outside the Duomo fell mute. Disconsolate London looked moodily down from the high altitude of the San Siro’s top tier. Premier League football looked pretty sick, too. Chelsea are in Italy next week too to face the lethal counter-attackers of Napoli, with Andre Villas-Boas feeling Roman Abramovich’s breath on his neck. There will be no more financial lording it over Serie A if all the English clubs are eliminated before the quarter-finals.
The traditional Arsenal cycle over the past seven years has been spurts of promise followed by hard landings and battered morale. A classic example was the Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham which sent the team’s confidence into a nosedive. Some frantic late transfer window trading in August seemed to have added experience and backbone but these are no good without top-grade quality.
The Bergkamp generation can hardly be expected to stay silent. There is no obligation for them to ignore this damning evidence of Arsenal’s mediocrity. Wenger’s professorial aura will come under renewed attack as the Sunderland game approaches and supporters direct their indignation against him for failures in the transfer market and his excessive faith in players who keep failing to justify his high opinion of them.
This squad can no longer save him so he must save himself by going on without large numbers of them. It will be expensive, but the alternative would be even more costly: the ruination of his work. We saw another step on that path here and it hurt the eye.