Wenger's woes

Has Arsene Wenger been a great manager? Yes. Is he still a great manager? Arguably no, writes Brian Glanville.

Football, life itself, can have its bitter ironies. Few more so surely than what happened to Arsene Wenger at Stamford Bridge on the very day he was achieving, one could hardly alas say celebrating, his 1000th game in charge of Arsenal. When it comes to longevity only one British club manager could surpass him and that of course was Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, who had retired at the end of last season with yet another League title in the bag after an amazing nearly 28 years at the helm. Wenger, by contrast, had arrived at Arsenal from Japan where he had been coaching Nagoya Grampus in 1996.

On the day of the ill-fated match at Chelsea, Wenger received endless tribute, not least in the Press, some respectful, some flattering, some frankly gushing. The Gunners, at that point, seemed well in line to challenge for the League title, which in common with the FA and League Cups, they hadn’t won for nine long years. In addition, they had already crashed badly and humiliatingly both at Manchester City where they went down 6-3 and Liverpool where they had been thrashed 5-1. Before the Stamford Bridge disaster, Wenger had been presented with a small, solid gold model of a gun. You wonder whether he has kept it.

True, Arsenal were hardly helped in this debacle by the sending off, illogically and absurdly not of young Oxlade-Chamberlain, who on the goal-line had impetuously punched out a shot that had probably been going wide, but the Arsenal full-back Kieran Gibbs, who had been standing well away from the incident. Various excuses have been made for the inept referee, Andre Marriner, to whom Chamberlain came running in protest, mimicking spectacles with his fingers to his eyes. Marriner’s view, according to the photographs shown, was unimpeded. His linesman did nothing to help him and an absurd ruling meant that once having expelled poor Gibbs, he could not reverse his decision on Chamberlain’s evidence. So, 2-0 became 3-0 and there were another three Chelsea goals to come.

True, Chelsea are overflowing with attacking talent, the brilliant Belgian Eden Hazard complemented by the likes of Brazil’s Oscar and Germany’s Schurrle, not to mention that wily veteran Samuel Eto’o. But other teams in recent weeks had not collapsed so wretchedly as Arsenal that early afternoon. Galatasaray in Istanbul had held them to a first leg European Cup draw in Turkey and, though largely dominated in the return, went down only 2-0. Aston Villa, in a mediocre season, had actually beaten Mourinho’s team 1-0. The fact that the Gunners had to play so long with only 10 men might have been some mitigation were it not for the fact that they were already 3-0 down when Gibbs went off.

The depressing fact was that Wenger’s tactics were a disaster. They played into Chelsea’s hands, and feet, by stationing their defence too far up the field while leaving spaces behind them. True, there were wretched individual failings, inability to close an opponent down, careless loss of the ball, at least one major goalkeeping error. But why did Wenger go into a match like this keeping their French international holding midfielder Mathieu Flamini on the bench while so much damage was done before he arrived at half-time? And if the Gunners lacked several key midfielders in the shape of the dynamic Aaron Ramsey, the inventive Jack Wilshere and the GBP40 million-plus but sadly inconsistent German playmaker Ozil, Chelsea were without two of their best Brazilians, Ramires and Willian, in attacking midfield.

The truth is that Arsenal’s three chief challengers in the Premiership have all found ways to rout their defence and sweep past their midfield. Even if Bayern Munich on their own ground did not find it as easy.

The sudden snatching from Real Madrid of Ozil, almost at the end of the winter transfer window, smacked somewhat of desperation on the part of Wenger. He already had a bunch of talented midfielders. Yet later, he still, inexplicably, added the veteran Swedish international midfielder Kallstrom although, as he admitted, he knew that the player was injured and unlikely to be available for weeks to come. At Chelsea at least he was on the bench but never got off it.

Long gone are the solid defensive days of Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn. Bould, in fact, not long ago was made defensive coach, then more recently with the retirement of the former Gunners’ right-back Pat Rice, Assistant Manager. But if defence is his supposed forte, what has he achieved?

There is no doubt that in his earlier years Wenger transformed and revitalised Arsenal. He had a new training ground with superb facilities built near the previous one at London Colney, Hertfordshire, but owned by University College London. He meticulously supervised the players’ diet. He paid minute attention to their training. Cups and Leagues, including the double, were won even if the European Cup itself proved tantalisingly elusive. He converted Thierry Henry, whom he had once managed at Monaco, from an outside-right into a gloriously prolific centre-forward. He was fortunate though to inherit the masterly Dutchman Dennis Bergkamp, who had been bought from Internazionale by Wenger’s predecessor, Bruce Rioch.

And the astonishing run of 49 successive unbeaten matches in the League was in fact blemished by an early home game in the run against Portsmouth at Highbury, which would have been lost had Robert Pires not dived shamelessly in the penalty box, getting Arsenal a fallacious draw. But the acquisition of the powerful French mid-fielder Patrick Vieira was inspired, as was the decision to make the much smaller and younger Cesc Fabregas his unexpected successor.

Yet to see Wenger as a football purist ignores the fact that in his earlier years at Arsenal their disciplinary record was appalling; red cards swirled like confetti. So often did Wenger insist that he had not seen a negative incident that I once suggested his ideal half back line would be the Three Wise Monkeys. Has he, then, been a great manager? Yes. Is he still a great manager? Arguably no. Arsenal have offered him a new contract worth many millions which, until the Chelsea game, still remained unsigned. They owe him a great debt for the way he revitalised both the club and the team, but just as there is proverbially no sentiment in business, there should ideally not be in football.