Many football fans and journalists alike have tried, and tried again to find an explanation for Arsenal’s steady fall from grace. Arsene Wenger has seen his side fall from title champions to title challengers, yet recently he has seen his side struggle to make fourth spot in the Premier League standings.
The last trophy Arsenal won was back in 2005, where they beat Manchester United in a penalty shoot out at the Millennium Stadium, nearly 7 years ago. They have however come within touching distance of silverware on a few separate occasions, reaching the Uefa Champions League Final in 2006 yet losing to Barcelona in a very unfortunate fashion. Arsene Wenger’s side also recently reached the 2010 League Cup Final, only to lose to an injury time winner by Birmingham’s Obafemi Martins after a defensive blunder involving Koscielny and a very young and inexperienced Wojciech Szczesny. Since going unbeaten throughout their 2003/2004 campaign, Arsenal have ended their season as runners up only one time, yet they have finished third twice, and fourth four times.
Fingers have been pointed at Wenger, with many Arsenal fans feeling fed up with the lack of real investment by the club to find suitable replacements after the sale of key first team players. The sale of Samir Nasri, who played a crucial part for Arsenal last season, scoring 15 goals and setting up another 5 was met by the low key signing of Yossi Benayoun, who joined the club on a season long loan from rivals Liverpool. Arsenal’s former captain Cesc Fabregas also packed his bags and left for the Nou Camp after months of speculations linking him back to his boyhood club has also been replaced by the much less glamorous Mikel Arteta, who was brought in as a knee jerk reaction on the final day of the transfer window to pave over the cracks that were brutally highlighted by Sir Alex’s Manchester United side after the Red Devil’s put 8 past their hapless opponents at Old Trafford.
Up until 2011, Arsenal had a net spending of just over £-28 million. When compared to the net spending of other clubs from the 2006-2011 period, only Newcastle had a lower net spending than the Gunners, with even bottom league clubs like Wigan, Wolves and Blackpool all ranking higher. While the majority of the blame for the lack of investment has fallen on the club owners, a fair amount of blame has been put on Arsene Wenger, with many believing that the funds are available for him, but he’s just too stubborn to spend on established players, with him depending on much less proven, younger players. It is important to note that, during that same period, Manchester United had a net spending of only £13.5 million through those 5 years.
It is fair to say that the lack of spending from the club has played a massive part in the clubs failure to win any major trophies throughout the last few years, but as always, there are many other variables that play a role in how well a club does over the course of the season. For example, Arsenal’s injury list, more often than not, seems to be twice the size of rival clubs’. Whether this is down to the players being very unfortunate with injuries, or that the manager’s training techniques have resulted in the players becoming easily injured, it is very difficult to identify. Regardless, most analysts see injuries as part of the game and something that the manager must anticipate prior to the season by signing players and strengthening the depth of the squad. This is something Sir Alex Ferguson has mastered over recent years, with him adjusting his team selection by playing multiple players out of position to minimise the effects of his missing injured players. A notable example of this is when Michael Carrick was recently used as a centre back vs Wigan in the league, with Antonio Valencia also thrown out of his usual wide midfield role and into right back; United went on to win the game comfortably by five goals to nil.
However, a major point which often seems to be overlooked is the psychological effect put onto the players by their managers. Here, Manchester United and Sir Alex seem to be the most suitable examples to use as a comparison with Arsenal and as both are many similar in terms of spending, or lack off, and managing hefty injury lists.
Whilst Arsene Wenger has felt the need to blame large amounts of his clubs failings on anything but his players, Sir Alex has taken a much different approach. Time after time, Arsene has placed a defeat solely on fatigue, poor refereeing or injuries. On various occasions, Wenger has even blamed his team’s results on the opposition, claiming that their very defensive and direct style of football is unacceptable and unfair.
Like most people, I’m completely against the idea of a manager publicly criticising his players. However, I do feel that over protecting your players will end up having a much more negative effect on the teams form instead of a better one. The reason for this is that it gives the players a sense of security where they feel that no matter how badly they perform, they will not be blamed for the result. If Arsene Wenger is repeatedly blaming their dropped points on anything but the players, those players are then left to perform as poorly as they feel knowing they will be exempt from criticism. Not only does this way of thinking reduce the motivation for the players to perform at the top of their game during every minute that they’re on the pitch, but it also feeds into the players mind and attitude. Such an effect may be the difference between those players playing for a draw and being satisfied with the result instead of going for an injury time winner.
We can see just how important a difference in attitude is by looking at the way Sir Alex sets out his Manchester United side every week. The second the referee blows his whistle for kick off, the manager expects the players to perform at 110% without question. The players fear their position in the team is at risk due to the mammoth expectations placed on the players shoulders by the managers will and desire to win every single game, whether it be League, League Cup or friendly. Knowing just how important winning is at the club, the players will push on even when physically and mentally exhausted, something which I believe is directly linked to how many injury time goals Manchester United score. As the players know that their poor performances will let the manager down, they will give everything at their disposal to please him.
To prove my point, I will use the last time either team suffered a major loss by a large score lines as an example. Whereas Sir Alex blamed his sides defeat in the Manchester derby, claiming that they were ‘suicidal’ when defending, Arsene Wenger felt that his side had ‘ not recovered physically’ from their Champions League game midweek, prior to their 8-2 loss to Manchester United and felt that that was the reason for their humiliating defeat.
This clear distinction between the managers attitude is what has lead to the massive difference in what both managers have won over recent years. While Arsene Wenger has gone 7 years without silverware, Manchester United and Sir Alex have finished as Premier League Champions four times, reached the Champions League final three times and winning it once, as well as winning various other trophies and accolades during that period.
When a manager is willing to accept anything but first place, the players will not perform to the maximum of their potential. If Arsene Wenger is to reinvent his team as title challengers, he must accept that his team is no longer good enough to compete at the very top, and instead invest in the squad. However, more importantly, he must raise his expectations and discipline with the squad.
A team can only be as good as their manager and with Arsene and Sir Alex, Arsenal and Manchester United have two of the best managers to have ever taught the game. However, while one manager has been happy with accepting a top four finish over their recent seasons, the other has asked for nothing less than to end up as Premier League Champions. And how it does tell.