Wenger needs to bring order to Arsenal’s naive tactical chaos

There was a time in my career when even as a Tottenham fan I felt that Arsene Wenger was a bit special. Today I feel, probably like Wenger feels, that he is oh so close from putting it all together. The trouble is that he just can’t find the right formula, writes The Secret Footballer.

Wenger needs to bring order to Arsenal’s naive tactical chaos

But the people you look up to will generally let you down anyway. Or worse, they’ll stay the course and other people will jump on the bandwagon and claim to have been driving it from the start. I hate that. Spotting talent is tough. Sticking with it is tougher. Sooner or later it’ll bite you.

Arsenal’s results this season are what Donald Trump’s social media manager might call a triumph of consistency. The human beings in the room might agree that if by consistency, you mean a shambles. All over the place, a mess. A disgrace? Possibly.

Arsenal were once the benchmark for clubs looking to trade up. And that was thanks to Wenger. The Frenchman’s degree in economics helped the Gunners move from a claustrophobic Highbury Stadium to a soulless Emirates bowl. His football nous enabled the club to buy talented players that ensured Champions League football and the all-important revenue that kept Arsenal solvent and competitive.

I applauded the approach at the time and I applaud it now. Wenger is more than just a football manager and he has had his fair share of internal politics to negotiate. Arsenal continues to be undermined by a power struggle over the club’s ownership between an American property investor and a Russian billionaire desperate to move his money out of the hands of Vladimir Putin. It never did Chelsea any harm. It won Russia this summer’s World Cup. That said, the struggle for full control of the soulless bowl has enabled Wenger to keep his job for far longer than any outright owner might have allowed. Every cloud…

Given such a period of grace, one might have expected Wenger would make hay but since their last Premier League title in 2004, Wenger has added four FA Cups. Fans can be a fickle lot these days. Tell them that the FA Cup means nothing and they’ll blind you by throwing tradition in your face. Win the FA Cup four times in 14 years and fans will ask where the Premier League title is. Believe me, I’ve walked in those moccasins.

I won’t pretend that playing against Arsenal was ever easy. But there were ways and means. I played for two Premier League sides led by managers who desperately wanted to beat Arsenal. Each had a personal reason for wanting to get one over on Wenger but both employed wildly different styles of football in the pursuit of that scalp.

The first time I lined up against Arsenal we played by the rules. Arsenal had Cesc Fabregas, Thierry Henry, Emanuel Adebayor, William Gallas, Tomas Rosicky, Robin Van Persie and Kolo Toure. We played football. It got us nowhere.

At my second Premier League club, Arsenal deployed Fabianski, Traore, Walcott, Denilson, Coquelin, Emmanuel-Thomas and Vela. And we deployed a version of football that cost a lot of Arsenal players months of their careers. Between those two Arsenal sides, we’re talking about a gap of around four years. A great side had been dissolved and sold and in its place was a shadow of its heyday. Players who clearly had talent but sorely lacked big-game leaders.

Wenger had to do it. The transition between Double winners and paying off a brand new stadium was an albatross for the Frenchman. We knew it, and that’s why our manager demanded that we kicked the fuck out of them. Wenger and Arsenal were weak and had to be exploited. And they were. Ruthlessly I might add. I never saw so many injuries and different coloured cards in matches between two clubs in my career, and in many ways, it heralded the decline of Arsenal as a physical force. Pretty soon there were teams far better than ours lining up to outmuscle Arsenal. Wenger stuck to his guns. Slick football would win the day. He lost that draw and has been a dead man walking ever since.

On Saturday I watched Spurs demolish Arsenal in the North London derby and the frustration Wenger exhibited down on the touchline seemed to be a culmination of years of false hope rather than just another crucial miss by yet another dodgy striker.

Tottenham is a club — and not just any club, but Arsenal’s fiercest rivals — replicating the Arsenal model right down to spending a season playing at Wembley while their new stadium is being built. And doing it a little bit bigger, and an awful lot better. Most of what Spurs has picked up regarding what works and what doesn’t in relation to the dynamics on the pitch during the building of a new stadium has been gleaned from Arsenal and Wenger. And that is always the danger when you go first. But somebody has to.

The upshot is Arsenal are in a mess. On Saturday Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a player I admire as a centre-midfielder was banished to the right of a clogged up middle third where the Korean Son Heung-min tortured him mercilessly with stepovers and crosses. It was unfair on Mkhitaryan and symptomatic of a manager who has no idea what his best 11 looks like.

Up front, a £60m striker replaced a £55m striker at the start of the game. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang touched the ball 22 times and only twice did he do so in the Spurs penalty area. On 65 minutes Lacazette was sent on to rescue the situation. He did. But for Spurs. The first of his two shots nearly collided with Elon Musk’s space-roving Tesla while the second drifted just wide of the far post when it looked odds-on that Arsenal would leave with an undeserved point.

It would have masked a performance we have seen repeatedly from Arsenal this season and we will see many more. Wenger must feel he is so close with the names on the team-sheet but he’d be better off realising names get you nowhere in football.

Like Wenger, I don’t sleep well anymore. At 4am every morning I wake up and put the TV on. At that hour there is nothing new I can learn, nothing that I haven’t seen before. But I allow my eyes to become tired by watching re-runs and the ghosts of past greats.

Flicking through obscure TV channels there comes a familiar face. No not her. Eric Morecambe is playing the piano.

What is immediately apparent is that it is clearly a gift to play the piano that badly. In other words, you have to be very talented to tinkle the ivories out of tune.

Arsene Wenger immediately jumps to mind as Eric grabs the composer André Previn by his lapels and defends his playing style.

And just like that the pay-off line comes to me: ‘I’m playing all the right notes, but not necessarily in the right order…’

Perfect. Or not, as the case may be.

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