Broken promises

The loss to Monaco in the Champions League was a dismal and humiliating evening for the Gunners and for Wenger himself, the more so as it came against the club with which as a young manager he had won the French Championship. And Wenger not illogically came in for a substantial part of the blame. By Brian Glanville.

There is a very old Italian football axiom; the immutable law of the Ex. Meaning the way players always score against their former club. A dramatic example of which was furnished recently at Old Trafford when Danny Welbeck, who left Manchester United, his local and till then only club, for Arsenal last summer, duly scored the Gunners’ second goal against his old club, fastening on to a ludicrously mistimed pass by the Ecuadorian international right back Antonio Valencia, best known as a right winger, running on and comfortably evading the keeper David de Gea to find the net. Nor, as so many ex-players do when they score against their former club, eschew all celebration. He rejoiced exuberantly.

Behind those celebrations was no doubt that element of revenge on the club, for which he had figured so long, and its Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal, for the dismissive way it had got rid of him, Van Gaal stating publicly that Welbeck wasn’t good enough. Though, he had been good enough for some time for Roy Hodgson and England, even though Roy tended to use him wide on the left.

That wasn’t where Arsenal’s manager Arsene Wenger deployed him at Old Trafford. To widespread surprise, he was preferred at centre forward to the French international striker Olivier Giroud, who, after a long period absent through injury, had returned to score frequent goals, but had missed crucial, palpable chances in the recent humiliating home defeat by Wenger’s former club Monaco at the Emirates.

That had been a dismal and humiliating evening for the Gunners and for Wenger himself, the more so as it came against the club with which as a young manager he had won the French Championship. And Wenger not illogically came in for a substantial part of the blame though he was hardly culpable of the previously prolific Giroud missing those chances, even if he might have thought about replacing the German colossus Per Mertesacker at centre back. Mertesacker had a wretchedly vulnerable game in defence, when the quick young Monaco attack broke away with three goals, being no less than deserved.

As one who had thought Wenger lucky to stay in office this season, let alone to be given a three-year extension to his contract, I felt that the Champions League defeat by Monaco, with all its dire implications both in finance and prestige, could prove a large nail in his coffin. Last season after all, the Gunners had suffered shocking defeats by Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool. Abundant goals had been given away and the team had just about reached the vital fourth place in the Premiership to qualify for the ensuing Champions League. The problem arguably was that there was no one at Arsenal to gainsay Wenger; not even Steve Bould, once such a doughty centre back for the Gunners, made defensive coach and now assistant manager, seemed to have any sway over the inadequate defensive tactics.

In a radio broadcast, the Gunners’ former left back Nigel Winterburn asserted that in training, Wenger didn’t bother with defensive tactics; all the emphasis was on attack. An area in which Arsenal have certainly and consistently impressed, being splendidly adroit and imaginative, a close passing game gaining them a host of chances even if those were not invariably taken. But fourth place in the Premier League now seemed the inevitable fate of a club which had won the title so impressively in the past.

But as we have seen, Wenger at Old Trafford, where Arsenal’s 49-match unbeaten League run had controversially bitten the dust years earlier and where the Gunners hadn’t won for so long, had a trick up his sleeve. Horses for courses, you might say. A piece of practical psychology which would not have disgraced his illustrious predecessor and founder of the club’s fortunes, Herbert Chapman. He dropped Giroud, who since the Monaco debacle had seemed to be surmounting his problems, and put in Welbeck not on the flank but bang in the middle, plainly in the hope that returning to the club which once he had cherished but which had cast him out so casually, would motivate him. Which it did.

But what of the opposing manager, Louis Van Gaal, who had arrived last summer at Old Trafford to the equivalent of a fanfare of trumpets. Had he not just taken Holland to third place in the Brazilian World Cup, easily beating the Brazilians themselves? Had he not triumphed with such major clubs as Bayern Munich and Barcelona? And when things went amiss at the start of United’s season, did he not unconcernedly point out that so they had when he took over at Bayern, only for him to take them ultimately to the Bundesliga title?

At United, after a transitional period in which Ryan Giggs helped by a few other ex-stars ran the team, Van Gaal arrived and spent a great deal of money (GBP150 million). A record GBP59.7 million to Real Madrid for Angel Di Maria alone, sent off against Arsenal. A hefty fee for the highly promising teenaged-left back from Southampton, an England reserve in the last World Cup, Luke Shaw. Substantial money for Holland's young defender Daley Blind, son of a former Dutch star. Not to mention the money shelled out for the versatile defender Marcos Rojo, and the colossal GBP250,000 a week paid to the on loan striker Radamel Falcao, who, in the match against Arsenal, couldn’t even get off the bench and soon afterwards saw himself demoted to the under-21 team.

United’s fans surely felt that no manager could possibly do worse than the hapless David Moyes last season least of all a Titan like Van Gaal. But as the weeks went by and Van Gaal juggled unconvincingly with various formations, it became all too statistically clear that he wasn’t surpassing poor Moyes. True, he hasn’t been helped by the injury and absence of the striker in chief, Robin Van Persie, his fellow Dutchman. But he had to bite the bullet when fielding the giant Belgian Marouane Fellaini, which meant inevitably the long ball game which Van Gaal might fiercely deny, but which was quite inevitable and sometimes productive.

Meanwhile, he marginalised as fine an attacking talent as Spain’s Juan Mata, who never even got on the field against the Gunners. Instead, as a substitute, Adnan Januzaj, the far less experienced Belgian, was thrown on as an innocuous substitute, who got himself booked for diving. Only the supreme goalkeeping of Spain’s De Gea limited Arsenal to a couple of goals. Overall, a humiliating and all too significant defeat.

And what of the defensive collapse of Real Madrid at home to modest Schalke? Whither now Carlo Ancelotti? Or even Mourinho at Chelsea, after PSG.