The great Arsenal brain drain

ACCORDING to a study carried out by the CIES Football Observatory — a shadowy bunch of stattos based in Switzerland — Arsenal are reigning Premier League champions.

At least, when the boffins considered all the shots, assists, passes, dribbles, crosses, interceptions and tackles performed in the English top flight last season, they deemed Arsenal to be the country’s best side.

Watching them play Blackburn last Saturday, you could see why.

If you took away the comical defensive naivety; subtracted the astonishing second-half complacency; overlooked the ridiculous abdication of responsibility; what remained of Arsenal’s play was as good as anything Arsene Wenger has overseen in his 15-year-reign.

Alas, the powers-that-be who compile the Premier League table insist you can’t do any of those things; and moreover persist with the crude three-points-for-a-win system as its means of arbitration, so Arsenal this morning find themselves preparing for a relegation six-pointer with another of their old friends from the north, Bolton.

When you also take into account their dismal form at the end of last term, the disparity between output and results can mean only one thing; Arsenal have become football’s least efficient team, or if you are less kind, its stupidest. As Arsene himself once said, on foot of some perplexing refereeing: “It seems to me that we are living in farci-land.”

It’s an incredible accusation to level at an Arsene Wenger side. Career spoofer Damien Comolli — now playing moneyball at Liverpool having scouted for both Arsenal and Tottenham — once told us that “Arsene looks for four qualities in terms of his recruitment; he looks for power, pace, technical ability and intelligence in the guy.”

But it seems Arsene’s ability to recognise intelligence has diminished recently. Certainly football intelligence — that innate ability to slow the brain while feet and heart race; to make quick, efficient decisions; to draw more from yourself than should be there; to draw others along with you.

The 11th hour signing of Per Mertesacker indicates Arsene has finally acknowledged his side’s diminished smarts and was prepared to shelf the rest of his principles to rectify things. Big Per possesses almost no pace, precious little power in his gangling frame, and modest technical ability.

You sense Arsene has more or less thrown his hat at it, looked at Per’s 76 caps and admitted, like many before him, that, if its efficiency and a bit of know-how you’re after, you may as well put your trust in the Germans.

It badly needs to work out for him. To see substitute Johan Djourou, whose arrival was the catalyst for most of last Saturday’s calamities, look forlornly for guidance at Mertesacker at the first corner he faced was to shoehorn Arsenal’s problems inside a nutshell.

Last year, Chris Waddle called Theo Walcott a “football idiot”. The skittish Laurent Koscielny plays like Paul McGrath one moment, Rory the next. Alex Song’s sense of responsibility couldn’t prevent him tap-dancing on Joey Barton. New boy Gervinho appears lively but oblivious to all around him. Even Robin van Persie, the least of their problems, doesn’t always see or make the percentage run.

It wasn’t always like that at Arsenal. Players like Freddie Ljungberg squeezed every ounce of effectiveness out of limited technique and adequate speed. Sol Campbell, despite an M50 turning circle, was rarely exposed. Low-key thinkers like Gilberto focussed minds.

But Arsenal have suffered a brain drain.

The latest fad, it seems, is to demand Wenger employ a defensive coach to hold his hand and explain to the lads how you head away corners.

But no defensive specialist could flourish under Wenger, who has forged Arsenal’s unique playing style through short, fresh non-repetitive training sessions, not endless drills and an eye on the opposition.

Even former goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson once complained he could never get the keepers off Arsene in case he over-trained them.

The other growing clamour is that the Arsenal board take the view of their Monaco counterparts 17 years ago, who sacked Wenger after two early defeats and several years without a trophy.

But chief executive Ivan Gazidis had it right midweek when he insisted the club would do itself more damage if it “gave up the fundamentals that made it so strong”.

The things Arsene is doing right remain the hardest to nail. While the problems Arsenal have are actually the easiest to fix. They just need to start using their heads. Maybe Per will get them started.

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