Saturday 20 January 2018

Miguel Delaney: Arsene Wenger's stubbornness at Arsenal is approaching farce

‘Jose Mourinho likes physicality in his teams, in strength and running’. Photo: Getty
‘Jose Mourinho likes physicality in his teams, in strength and running’. Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

On Friday, before the new Premier League season had even started, Arsene Wenger seemed to finally bring an entire thought process to its logical conclusion.

The Arsenal manager had predictably spent much of his opening press conference at London Colney talking about transfers, since the club haven't actually spent all that much on the market, only bringing in midfielder Granit Xhaka. By the time it got to the Sunday newspapers, Wenger had exhausted all talk about actual tangible signings, so moved onto the intangibles. He was asked about how transfers can have positive effects even beyond a player's quality and importance, and how the right fresh face can just inject a bit of energy and vibrancy to a squad again to prevent a team going stale.

It was then that Wenger said it, and came to something of a rhetorical climax.

A man so often criticised for utterly refusing to change was here challenging the very value of "newness". He was arguing against the idea of just doing something different.

"There is always demand for new, but new is just new," Wenger began.

"Stale? Football players have to meet their needs. When they meet their needs they express their quality. What a football club is to be built on is to make sure the players meet their needs and can develop afterwards. The fact that it's new, after six months it's not new any more. You come every day, you drive in here, the first day it's new, after six months it's not new any more. What is new makes news. But apart from that it makes noise. The noise is not necessarily always quality."

These comments themselves would have much more value if some of the noise that Wenger heard in the last 12 years was the cheers that greet a title win. As it is, with Arsenal still going unchanged and unfulfilled, it's difficult not to think a football great worthy of so much respect was descending into self-parody.

If history repeating itself twice is farce, what is this, especially when the main figure speaks and acts in such a way that he seems to actively cultivate repetition? Arsenal go into yet another season facing the same old questions, facing oh-so-familiar problems.

Arsenal have yet again stayed still as a team, at a time when every other club has looked to make huge leaps. They seem determined to remain the bastions of predictability in a competition that Wenger himself has admitted has never been more unpredictable.

There is of course an argument that Arsenal's stability could actually be an advantage after a summer of so much upheaval, but Wenger seems to take even the monotony of stability to an extreme.

We've seen the worries of this summer so many times before, and to the same scale. A lot of this month has been reminiscent of the chaos of August 2011, when a lack of signings combined with a spate of injuries to produce a calamitous 8-2 collapse at Manchester United.

Now, having again been so inactive in the market, Arsenal go into their opening game against a focused Liverpool without their three primary centre-halves, including their captain, and without two of their best midfielders.

Wenger spoke, however, as if it was all under control; as if it was all going to plan. There was a serenity to him on Friday, given the pressure escalating before a ball has been kicked. He even had the confidence to be bold: "In the last three years, we have been fourth, third and second. We know that we want to move forward again, and that is what we need to focus on."

Aside from the suggestion that they're on course to win the league, the implication here is that Arsenal are making considerable progress as a team, that they're about to take the next step. That's an illogical conclusion to draw if you watched any of their football from January to May.

When memories of those hugely forgettable performances fade in time, that second-place finish will promote the idea that Arsenal put in a proper title challenge. They did not. What was superficially their best finish in 11 years actually involved one of their most dispiriting run-ins, as they lost the lead and all impetus, with any real chance of the title evaporating by late March. They almost finished second by default, because Tottenham suffered a farcical collapse, and all of this in a freak season.

That second-place finish came in a campaign when an unprecedented number of top teams underperformed. That is unlikely to be repeated any time soon, given all that's happened this summer at other top clubs. Last season may well be remembered as the great lost opportunity of the latter stage of Wenger's career, his greatest failure.

He doesn't see it that way. Rather he sees it as proving he is on the cusp of a great vindication. Rather than Leicester beating him to the title being the ultimate proof that he just doesn't have that edge to fully go the distance any more, he sees it as the ultimate proof his methods are working; that he doesn't have to make expensive signings; that it's all going according to plan. He will be the visionary who saw what no-one else did.

"It's not a financial competition," Wenger said on Friday. "Football is a performance competition. Finance does not always reflect the Premier League table. Leicester showed that last year . . . on the pitch, we can compete."

Even senior players within the Arsenal squad, though, feel they could compete much better with key, and necessary, signings. There is something of a mixed atmosphere around the training ground at the moment. While young players like Chuba Akpom and the excellent Alex Iwobi have lifted the mood with their liveliness, and because they know they're going to get their chance, some of the senior players know reinforcements are still needed. While Xhaka is an excellent player, the Swiss midfielder is a bit of an indulgence in that he only cosmetically improves the squad. He wasn't a signing that absolutely needed to be made. That is not the case at centre-half or centre-forward, areas that the senior players know desperately need enhancing.

Rather than get into that, though, Wenger appeals to apparent greater truths about the game, to abstract ideas beyond the superficialities of money and big names. It's just that abstract ideas don't win titles. Victories do, and those victories are helped by filling obvious gaps in your team with better players. Signings aren't always the quick-fix unthinking novelty that Wenger tries to dismiss them as when under pressure.

For the manager's part, those around the club are confident Arsenal will eventually complete the signing of German international Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia. It's also possible they could get the mercurial Riyad Mahrez from Leicester City, and striker Alexandre Lacazette from Lyon. It's possible that they will start the season defiantly and beat Liverpool, and that Wenger will be vindicated. It's just that, with Arsenal, we've been talking about 'possibilities' for close to a decade.

It's time for something to actually happen. Part of the problem is that they are the only club where nothing seems to be happening.

That has, of course, fed supporter mood, and the atmosphere at the Emirates today will be telling in what is a hugely awkward opening fixture.

"You're talking about the fans," Wenger countered. "But, if you want to make everybody happy, then just buy 20 new players and everybody is full of hope until the first game starts and then we're back to reality."

At the moment, Arsenal's reality is a bit deflating. Something really needs to change.

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