Arsene Wenger was the future once. Now, he’s just a football manager, the same as any who has been in his job too long. The same as any boss who has been in his job too long. Having made his place with his own revolutionary thinking when he came to the Premier League - helped by his knowledge of (entirely legal) creatine - he transformed Arsenal into the best team in the league. He did it on such a regular basis that it was plainly no fluke. He is no Brendan Rodgers, even now. At this point, after a decade of failure, there are no signs that he will ever be able to topple Chelsea or Manchester City. For Wenger, with only a few years of a managerial career left, and Arsenal itself, it is time for the two to separate and try something new.
In the past, there was a clear advantage to Wenger’s stubbornness. He would refuse to curb his team’s aggression. Emmanuel Petit, Dennis Bergkamp, Nelson Vivas, Patrick Vieira and much of his best teams were all well capable of stamps, late tackles and sly elbows. Even Cesc Fabregas was an unpleasant gob*****, and the team were much better for it. Allied to a back four that has rarely been bettered, Arsenal could shut out sides with their organisation, and shut them down with their physicality.
That is clearly not enough to beat the best sides, or win leagues - at least in that era of the Premier League. So Wenger had one of the most devastating counter-attacking sides in history, with Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, amongst others, capable of switching from one end of Highbury to the other in less than 0.0000000000000000001 seconds. When sides sat back, they had the talent to unlock them; a skill that Olivier Giroud and Santi Cazorla are plainly unable to match, as capable as they are.
And the stubbornness that Wenger had allowed him to defend the violence, the snideness, and the aggression. He would claim not to have seen what everyone had seen. You got the impression that even if he was shown it right in front of his face, he would still feign ignorance with utter enthusiasm and no shame. It was magnificent, and entirely necessary to keep Arsenal at the top of the league. But now, the stubbornness is to defend his own nonsense, not his side’s competitive edge. Each year the failings are familiar and cyclical, and each year, despite the influx of cash from the new stadium, there appears no serious prospect of them changing.
At the end of the season, it was clear what Arsenal needed to improve and what they should do in the transfer window. It was clear, because it has been true in parts since Gilberto Silva left Arsenal, since Cesc Fabregas left, and since Robin van Persie left. Wenger has stripped the best side he ever had of its disparate qualities, and streamlined it into a club that has one principle - Wenger’s. It appears that left to his own devices, Wenger wanted to create a side that cost less than his available budget, that had no senior players capable of inspiring or leading by example, that was defensively brittle, and obsessed with beauty rather than winning. They might play the nicest looking football, but outside of Islington, there is no trophy or sense of satisfaction for such a thing.
Gary Neville described it last night as ‘arrogance’, but it might be closer to hubris. Arrogance is useful in a side, and for all its negative connotations, in a football team it can be used to force one’s will upon the other. Alex Ferguson’s sides had arrogance, and in his later years that was enough to beat oppenents despite not having roughly the same the squad David Moyes took over. Hubris is more accurate because of the assumption from observers that it leads to failure as a result of defying a greater power or truth, and failure is indeed what Wenger has specialised in, by defying the simple truth: you need to buy better players than Olivier Giroud and Mathieu Debuchy.
It was clear what Arsenal needed before the season started. They needed a far better goalkeeper than Wojciech Szczesny, a capable leader of the defence, a defensive midfielder, and a striker. It is true that Wenger bought Petr Cech, perhaps the best goalkeeper available to him, but he only managed that because Cech wanted to stay in London, rather than because of any persuasive powers on his part. And the majority of requirements remain outstanding.
That’s why last night Arsenal started with a central defence of Calum Chambers, still wantonly refusing a second ‘L’ in his name, and Gabriel alongside him. The first-choice central defenders already failed against Crystal Palace, and Francis Coquelin has shown that while currently very promising, he needs someone with experience alongside him. That Wenger allowed Morgan Schneiderlin - keen on a move to Arsenal - move to Manchester United instead, is close to criminal. But Wenger is a repeat offender when it comes to ignoring everything that needs doing in the transfer market.
Karim Benzema appeared to confirm he would remain in Madrid for at least another season, hours before Giroud demonstrated why he is the best back-up striker Arsenal never had. Danny Welbeck is currently out with a case of Arsenalitis, showing how seamlessly he has become a true Arsenal player. And yet, with a week left of the transfer window, Wenger appears serene, confident in his methods. In fact, perhaps Neville was right last night, but there are more words than just arrogant: negligent, complacent, hubristic all apply too. It will be no surprise to see them get the same results as ever as they embrace mediocrity yet again.