After two hectic nights of European football, there were salient managerial questions to be answered. Should Arsene Wenger stay at Arsenal? Should Jose Mourinho remain at Stamford Bridge? On the same night Arsenal, in Munich, were simply destroyed by a Bayern team which ran through them almost at will, thrashing them 5-1, after surprisingly going down 2-0 at The Emirates in the first game. By contrast, Chelsea, dismally in the doldrums for so many weeks, slumping into the depths of the Premiership table while Arsenal were reaching the top, at last revived just days after one more embarrassing defeat at home to a Liverpool team now managed by the charismatic Jurgen Klopp; managing thanks to a superb free kick by their Brazilian Willian to squeeze past Dynamo Kiev 2-1 at Stamford Bridge. Where the whole crowd rose in support of the embattled Mourinho.
That 2-1 victory may well have saved Mourinho’s job at least for the moment. He is constantly deriding Wenger as a manager, who, whatever happens to the team, forever keeps his job. I, myself, felt he should have lost it a couple of seasons ago when the Gunners had some truly shocking defeats by large scores; by Chelsea themselves, by Manchester United, by Liverpool. He survived and last season went rather better. Now we have the anomaly of Arsenal being well placed to win their first Premiership for so many years.
Shocking record in Champions League
But, however well they have done so far in the League this season, surely the ultimate criterion is the European Champions Cup and here their record, even before they crashed in Munich, has been shocking.
They lost in Zagreb to modest opponents. Worse still they crashed at home to the far from scintillating Olympiakos. Wenger, seeming guilty of sheer hubris by leaving out the famed goalkeeper Petr Cech, who he had prised away despite Mourinho’s displeasure from Chelsea in the summer for GBP10 million. Replacing him with Ospina, a second choice ’keeper, who gave away a disastrous goal.
Wenger made no other acquisitions last summer, insisting that the players simply weren’t available. The feeling now is that he and his scouts should have looked a lot harder. No other major British club failed to make new signings in far greater numbers.
Wenger has been anchorage of the Gunners since 1996, a remarkable record surpassed, and substantially, only by Alex Ferguson at Manchester United. And there can be no doubt that Wenger, in many ways, revitalised the Gunners. With his acquisitions, such as the French stars Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, with his acquisition of fine, new training grounds near the former facility — property of University College, London, nearby at London Colney in Hertfordshire, where the Cup and League double was done. There was a remarkable 49-match unbeaten run. Yet, people forget that it should have ended very early on when, in a match I reported at Highbury, only a blatant dive by another French star Robert Pires gave Arsenal the penalty against Portsmouth which gained them an undeserved draw.
Yet, Wenger was capable of boldly choosing the very young and slight Cesc Fabregas to take over from the towering Vieira in central midfield; and it worked splendidly. And Henry, converted from a right-winger into a centre-forward after failing at Juventus, once under Wenger’s charge at Monaco, was a prolific revelation.
Tactics? Bayern’s celebrated Spanish manager Pep Guardiola was scathingly critical of the long ball methods the Gunners deployed against his team in London. Though they worked, they were the absolute opposite of the intricate and polished football for which the Gunners are now praised. Almost like a gesture of despair. And, to say as some British critics did that Bayern would have overwhelmed any opposition on the 5-1 night ignores the fact that a few days earlier they were held to a Bundesliga draw by modest opponents.A leading Dutch expert has recently and pungently criticised Arsenal for their training methods, pointing to the plethora of injuries, several of them muscular which has kept so many of their players out of the game. The list, indeed, is long and it was extended when Lauren Koscielny, in impressive defensive form this season, suddenly dropped out of the Munich game with a hip injury. Wenger has angrily and predictably denied that there is anything wrong with Arsenal’s training methods, but the dire statistics seems to suggest otherwise. Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere — vitally important but so often in the wars — Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Tomas Rosicky, Mikel Arteta, reserve ’keeper David Ospina and Hector Bellerin were all out of action when Arsenal failed in Munich. The alarming fact being that five of the recent injuries were not of an ‘impact’ nature, suffered in challenging games. Something seems seriously amiss.
Chelsea fans behind Mourinho
Mourinho may have the loyalty of the Chelsea crowd but for all the narrow and none too convincing victory over Dynamo Kiev, the fact is that even if John Terry suddenly came back to dominant life in that game, previously dismissed on television by the former star, Trevor Francis, as a busted flush, so many things have been going wrong, so many players losing form; and displeased by the chopping and changing of the team by Mourinho. One has been quoted as saying that he is happy for the team to lose. And hanging over Mourinho and the club is the Eva Carneiro case, his shocking and irrational abuse (I am convinced he used the Portuguese phrase ‘hija di puta’, daughter of a whore, than the word hijo, meaning son; for what, however limply, the FA committee accepted it) would be meaningless in the circumstances. Now she is very properly suing for wrongful dismissal. When Hazard was down injured, she had no alternative but to come on at the referee’s request.
There’s an old saying, a bad workman blames his tools, and it recurred to me when, after I’d seen West Ham well beaten at Watford, their Croatian manager, Slaven Bilic, criticised his team for their supposed failings. Yet, for me, the crucial factor was that he deployed the giant striker Andy Carroll throughout the game, rather than using him and his formidable head as a late substitute, which he’d done with such success in the previous win against Chelsea. In so doing, he broke up the usual smooth pattern of play. And Carroll even ineptly gave away a goal when clumsily trying to retain the ball on his own goal-line.