Thursday 23 November 2017

Too many of Wenger’s players hide behind manager’s goodwill

Arsenal is a world without punishment and his team have taken advantage

Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger

Paul Hayward

Among the irritations Arsene Wenger might like to get away from in May are the pressure, the intensity, the sense of entitlement and Jose Mourinho.

But top of his list might be the urge to escape his players.

When Arsenal's two all-time top goalscorers question the spirit of a side, the doubts are suddenly rooted in far more than fan fury or pundit pique.

Ian Wright (185 goals) says some of Arsenal's players "have taken kindness for weakness" in their manager, and Thierry Henry (228) said after the 3-1 defeat at Stamford Bridge: "What I saw against Chelsea is a mental problem. I don't want to go into details, but that is why Arsene's job is very complicated, because it is a mental problem. And it's not easy to manage."

Wenger's saturnine mood brightened after the 2-0 win against Hull, which is true to the old Arsenal pattern of setback and mini-recovery.

In the hours ahead, they limber up for an FA Cup tie on the all-weather at "plucky" Sutton United on Monday. But they also step into the blinding light of a club who have mercilessly shown the Gunners how far they are behind the great powers of Europe.

Six consecutive round-of-16 Champions League exits is analogous to Arsenal's 10 successive third or fourth-place finishes in the Premier League between 2006 and 2015 before they broke that pattern by finishing runners-up last year.

Arsenal's conquerors in Europe at this second-round stage were no pushovers, though the defeat by Monaco in 2015 was truly reprehensible.

The others were Bayern Munich (2013 and 2014), Barcelona (2011 and 2016) and AC Milan (2012). Winning their group this time round brought them no relief from this rocky road of knockout ties, with a visit to the German club even Uefa is calling Arsenal's "nemesis".

Every Arsenal foray at Bayern or Barcelona brings a reminder that this is where Wenger (pictured) set the bar for himself and his teams in the first, successful phase of his 20 years in north London. He is meant to be in the company of heavyweights and aristocrats - and always is, until the reckoning comes, home and abroad.

The brutal dichotomy in his Arsenal life is 1996 to 2006, then 2006 until now. In that first half: three Premier League titles, the 'Invincibles' and a Champions League final appearance in 2006. In the second: no league titles, one semi and two quarter-finals in Europe. So 2006 really was a watershed, beyond which innumerable theories have been laid out.

Amid the flailing, the need to understand, there was always the slim possibility that a unifying thesis would emerge.

And Wright and Henry may just have provided it, at a time when Wright suggested that Wenger, 67, was "coming to the end" and the man himself emerged from the Hull game to say he was not ready to quit.

It is almost too banal to state that another defeat by Bayern Munich would remove another foundation stone from Wenger's reign, and that a win over Carlo Ancelotti's Bundesliga leaders would take some of the heat off Wenger at home, where Chelsea and Manchester City seem the more likely Premier League champions. But the knife edge he is on, Wright and Henry tell us, is not so much the long one of near-miss results but the very relationship between him and his players: the bond, the trust.


Uniquely among modern managers, Wenger operates without serious sanctions for players who let him down, fail to press top opponents, make silly errors, start games slowly, go charging up the pitch in search of goals when defensive insurance is needed, or display a lack of leadership and fight.

It takes a lot to be abandoned by Wenger, and the reasons usually have more to do with passing stats or speed of thought than character.

Arsenal's inner nature is almost never in doubt with their commander-in-chief, who cannot bring himself to give up on a thing, or a player, he believes in, unlike a Mourinho or Alex Ferguson, who would have purged this Arsenal squad long ago, and kept purging it, so that nobody was in any doubt of the consequences of losing "physical duels" (Wenger's phrase) with Watford, or being half asleep at Everton and Manchester City.

This is what Wright was driving at. Arsenal is a world without punishment.

Whether deliberately or by osmosis, too many of Wenger's players have hidden behind his goodwill, his faith in them. His critics will say that this is precisely Wenger's fault and responsibility: the best reason to end it all with a hug in May. Talent retains one advantage.

It brings us to the stadium or the TV screen to see whether this will be the night, when Arsenal become warriors or whether Wenger's faith is betrayed, yet again. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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