Saturday 10 December 2016

Arsenal are a soft touch when the going gets tough

Gary Neville

Published 29/08/2015 | 02:30

Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have endured a difficult start to the season
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal have endured a difficult start to the season

If this is my Alan Hansen moment ("you can't win anything with kids") then nobody will be more pleased than me. I would be delighted to see Arsenal disprove my criticisms of their playing style by winning the Premier League. But to do so they will have to defy history.

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Arsenal are a great football club with an illustrious history. Roll your eye down the list of league champions, though, and you see, in every instance, ingredients that are Arsenal are running low on.

The Liverpool teams of the 1970s and 1980s; all the Manchester United sides of the 1990s and 2000s, the Arsenal XI of Petit and Vieira and Jose Mourinho's first Chelsea team of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makelele. The Manchester City of Kompany, De Jong, Yaya Toure. You see power, character and a winning urge.

There are no exceptions to this rule. I could even go back to the good Everton teams of the mid-1980s to illustrate the point that championships are not won by a front six who are blessed with great technical skill but lack a counterbalance of big personalities, big characters, power and pace.

You could also say the same of the Blackburn and Leeds teams who finished first.

The league has never been won by a team without these characteristics in abundance. Kevin Keegan's Newcastle side played recklessly good stuff but still fell short. The Arsene Wenger teams of the last 10 years meanwhile have lacked the dominant personalities, strength and purpose of his earlier creations. You see the importance of these qualities at points in the season when you're not playing well and need to win by a set-piece; or in the winter months when the Champions League bites and you find yourself with two or three injuries.

We cannot be blind to the hard facts of football over 30 or 40 years. Pure football has never prevailed, though I would be delighted to see it happen for Ozil, Ramsey, Sanchez, Giroud and Coquelin, who together can summon a great deal of technical ability but not much pace, power, height or strength. Giroud cannot challenge the space behind defenders. Coquelin is the only one amongst them who has any true defensive intelligence.

Emphasis

I was asking Thierry Henry why there has been this big change from power and pace in the team to what I would call a wholesale emphasis on the more diminutive, technical footballer.

The definition of insanity, they say, is making the same mistake over and over again. My point was that the one black mark over Arsene Wenger is the change in the profile of players he has signed. I used the phrase "arrogant or naive" - and the headlines that followed were all about arrogance. I was in no way trying to be disrespectful. It was more a statement of fact. If you refuse to change your ways - and those ways don't take you to the top - naivety certainly comes into play. Only once against Manchester City last season have I felt that Arsenal adapted for the strength of the opposition with Cazorla and Coquelin at the heart of midfield. It's whether this can become the norm.

I was describing the style, the philosophy; how they play, come what may, despite the evidence that suggests those methods won't take a team to the pinnacle.

In my broadcasting life I hate to make wild statements. I like to protect my credibility and to speak what I see as the truth. I certainly don't want to be seen as an embittered ex-pro sticking the knife into one of the great Premier League managers. But when the screw really begins to turn I expect them to come up short on strength, power and pace. Thierry Henry is among those Arsenal greats convinced that Wenger is not going to change. He wants to win that way. He wants to play that way. And he is not going to let anyone persuade him he's wrong.

If, at the end of the season, Arsenal fans are laughing in the face of what I had to say this week then I will happily concede defeat. To see a team out-football everyone for a whole season, and never have to rely on grit or determination four or five times to keep them in contention, would be an amazing breakthrough. Precedent suggests it will never happen. To win the league with the front six he played against Liverpool would require history to be redefined.

In every one of the last 10 seasons Arsenal have finished either fourth or third. Those facts are pretty clear and suggest a lack of improvement. When I think of my own experiences of playing Arsenal, I recall facing champion teams, champion players; teams you would be happy to draw against after a massive struggle. Arsenal exhausted you.

Growing up you would watch fights between Nigel Benn and Chris Eubank or Marvin Hagler and Tommy Hearns, and remember them as mighty struggles. When the final bell tolled your thoughts turned to the sequel. There had to be another bout, like in 1999 when we drew 0-0 against them in that FA Cup semi-final and thought 'Oh my God, we've got to go out there on Wednesday night and go again with them'.

That's my sense of Arsenal. The other night Thierry Henry talked about joining the club in 1999-2000 and how Martin Keown and Ray Parlour explained to him what it meant to play for 'the Arsenal'.

Reminded

It reminded me of Alex Ferguson explaining what it meant to be a Manchester United player, and the players in the changing room passing that on to the younger ones. There is so much synergy in the ideals of Arsenal and Man Utd. But in the last 10 years Arsenal have become a soft touch.

They are easy to play against in the sense that they can be bullied, they can be worked over, knocked around the pitch. Beliefs are wonderful, and sticking to your beliefs is commendable, but in our upbringing at United attractive football was a must but with the order: find a way to win. Do what it takes. If beliefs have to be suspended for a week or two, and technical abilities dumbed down, then so be it. That is my major complaint.

The type of player I'm describing is not easy to come by. I accept that. To find them in the next two or three days would be hard. Over a 10-year period, though, you would have thought it possible to overcome a clear, obvious deficiency that everyone can spot. You don't need to have played in the Premier League to see it. But somehow they need to find those players.

His longevity, though, is a great example to all managers and I hope it goes on for many years. If Manchester United can't win this title race, I would like Arsenal to, as a reward for Arsene Wenger. However, I still can't see it happening unless they add a central midfielder and a striker. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk

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