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The myth of Arsenal and the case for the defence

April 18, 2010

“Arsenal without Wenger would not only be a grievous mistake. It would also be like a meal without wine, a day without sunshine. A wise Arsenal surely waits a little longer for the banquet.”

The Independent sports writer James Lawton’s assessment of Arsene Wenger’s position as Arsenal manager two days after their defeat at White Hart Lane is an interesting one. Reading it after today’s 3-2 defeat at Wigan it is even more so. The well-expressed eulogy to a football genius buys into the commonly-mooted idea that Arsenal are the greatest football side in the land, something that has long been exposed as myth by their performances over the last few years.

Wenger has brought a host of wonderful players to England; Henry, Bergkamp, Fabregas and Pires would have graced better sides (Henry already has, and may be joined by Fabregas in the summer). They brought excitement to the neutral, entertained and were – Fabregas apart – key figures in Wenger’s three title-winning teams.

Five years is a long time in football -

The last Arsenal side to lift the league trophy was in 2004; the last to lift any trophy a year later. They have come close since, but their successful time as one half of the duopoly with Manchester United is over, rudely truncated by the arrival of Roman Abramovich and Jose Mourinho and extended for a variety of reasons.

When it comes down to discussing performances though, there is little more than a scintilla of truth in the argument that they play the best football in the land. They are an entertaining team, capable of scoring brilliant individual and team goals, but playing the best football must involve more than finishing the occasional brilliant move with aplomb against one of the league’s also-rans. Good organisation at the back, willingness to battle for the ball when under the cosh, and the ability to finish chances are vital elements of a successful team. All of Arsenal’s current top players – Fabregas, Arshavin, Rosicky and Nasri – are midfielders (or, in the case of van Persie, always injured), so elegant attacking play is undermined by those in front of and behind.

They have no decent keeper: Almunia is a good reserve, Fabianski unfathomably error-prone. The team were, for much of the season, competing on three fronts with Mikaël Silvestre at the back. Sol Campbell has done remarkably well since his return from one of the most bizarre footballing journeys and latest addition Thomas Vermaelen looks solid, but there is no depth there, revealed when William Gallas (a laughable choice as club captain, a position he lost in 2008 after unwisely criticising his players for much the same reasons as this blog) is out injured. Their back line is often exposed, and not just by better sides at the top of the league. They have scored the same number of goals as United, and conceded 12 more; scored eight fewer than Chelsea and conceded seven more. They’ve even conceded more than Spurs, a position behind, and Liverpool, who are struggling to qualify for Europe.

Up front, Nicklas Bendtner has been given the uneviable task of carrying a strikeforce in light of Robin van Persie’s injury. Bendtner is a good player and has done well in the circumstances, but cannot be expected to do the work of a player twice as good as him. Their full backs are decent – though Sagna’s inability to control his emotions is indicative of the whole team when under pressure.

And yet despite these myraid flaws, this Arsenal side has come close to claiming the title. Wenger has done well with the squad he has, but it was he who built it. Bringing in players capable of giving the team what they require need not come at the expense of beautiful football. Chelsea’s champions under Mourinho in 2005 were not as attractive a side to watch as Wenger’s 2004 breed. But Mourinho instilled a sense of inevitability – once his side went ahead, they would not concede.

It is not even true to say that Arsenal are the most entertaining side in the league. United, with the pace of Valencia and Nani and the magnificence of Rooney are pleasing on the eye, albeit not as much as the vintage of 2007 and 2008. Spurs, with Bale, Modric, and Defoe are as good to watch as Fabregas and Nasri.

Arsenal have been beaten by more functional, organised sides this season; they have also been beaten by teams who were more or equally attractive – the 3-0 home defeat by Chelsea and 3-1 defeat to United cases in point, not to mention being on the sharp end of Barcelona’s several-pronged attack. That battle of the beautiful game (“football as art”, as the glib, vacuous ITV pretention went) saw Arsenal fluking a draw in London before being skewered in Spain. 

That Chelsea and Arsenal were helped by Arsenal’s ramshackle defending is the main reason, though, that explains why Wenger’s (and Lawton’s) supposed ‘vision’ of a magnificent footballing side is flawed. There is nothing attractive to watch about woeful defending, about a basic inability to stick to a man or move as a moving, yet flat line of four at the back – which is, yes, a pleasure to watch. The best game of the last World Cup was the Germany v Italy semi-final; two teams probing and defending with equal vigour and equal competence. It finished 0-0 after 90 minutes.

The admiring talk of Arsenal dancing their way to a trophy is far-sighted and hopeful, but should also wound Wenger. He, surely, does not go out to build a team so one-dimensional they cannot adequately adapt to protect a lead during the the most important phase of the season? Thus praise of Wenger doubles as critique, and is also founded in unfathomable optimism: Maybe, just maybe, Arsenal’s current squad could win a league – but it has fallen short (though not quite mathematically – of a stuttering Chelsea and limited Manchester United, neither of which will be remembered as a great title-winning side.

Cesc Fabregas embodies Wenger's philosophy

<Keeping Fabregas is key as the club moves into another stage of building; he is the perfect Wenger player – the most entertaining, skilful and the best player in his team. But too often Wenger has assembled a potent attack (though this time lacking a consistently fit and brilliant striker) at the expense of a solid defence.

This is not to say Arsene Wenger should resign or be sacked – Lawton is right that he has brought something truly special to the English game and his team remain worth paying money to see. Watching Arshavin, Denilson and Fabregas dismantling Everton at Goodison Park on the opening day of the season was available for around £30 live, or an ESPN subscription. That 6-1 win was a great top-flight performance, combining crisp passing, swift movement, clinical punishment of poor defending with exuberant and perfectly-timed counter-attacking. That, though, was the first game of 38. As so often, Arsenal have fatallyfaltered before they approach the final one, a victim of teams with more experience and more ability.

Wenger is a genius, but the best managers reinvent and build great side after great side. Arsenal are two or three players away from having a first XI as good as the teams that finished ahead of them. But a reassessment of what wins trophies must take place – emphasis must be put on the defence to complement the talent in front.  

Wenger, and Arsenal, must be close to reaching the conclusion that his way is not the only way.

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