A GUNNER’S DILEMMA

ARSENAL are in an awkward state and very soon fans of the Gunners are going to face a massive dilemma.

Arsene Wenger’s charges are a perennially top-four Premiership team but these days success and trophies always seem just around-the-corner.

If the 2009-10 season plays out like it has begun, Gunners fans are soon going to be met by an unwelcome thought. It is a thought which concerns a question no Arsenal fan will want to face up to answering; that being  ‘Is Arsene Wenger still the right man for the job?’

Arsene Wenger has truly transformed Arsenal Football Club for the better. The squad of players that Arsene Wenger inherited when he took charge of the club in 1996, produced football so lacking in entertainment, that since the conception of the Premiership, the name Arsenal had become completely synonymous with the word Boring.

The chant was ‘BOOOOOOORING ARSENAL, BOOORING BOOOORING ARSENAL’ and it was apt. You can still hear it in the stands if you listen closely. Now, in 2009 however, the chant is sang in sarcasm (despite its irrelevance it will always remain a classic example of football fans’ ‘if you can’t beat ’em, and you know you never will be able to beat ‘em, at least make sure you slag ‘em off’ attitude).

Why is it sung in sarcasm? Because each and every one of the Gunners squad seems in some way blessed with technical ability. Because of the manner with which any Arsenal XI can roam and spread the ball around the pitch until it seemingly becomes hallowed ground, tread only by untouchables.

Quite simply there is but one overriding reason as to why Arsenal have gone from being synonymous with the word Boring, to being mutually exclusive with the word Beauty – Arsene Wenger.

The French manager has developed a very special template for all of his players in his thirteen years at Arsenal – a template for the modern-day footballer to win at the very highest level.  The template moulds and sculpts youngsters progressing through the Gunners’ junior ranks, until they have the particular skill set which Wenger believes every young footballer should possess. The mould has classic European influences, inspired by the best teams on the continent in the 1970s and 1980s and at its core, is the principle and philosophy, that football is an art form, and should be treated as thus.

When Arsenal are on the television and you nip out of the living room to take the teabag out, there is a reason when you return from the kitchen that you don’t notice Wenger has made two substitutions. The reason is simple – the template. If a player plays for Arsenal they have graduated, they have been deemed good enough. The template permeates all of Arsenal Football Club which means all of their footballers share a lot of the same characteristics; quality runs deep throughout the squad.

Many footballers have unfortunately fallen foul of the mould at a young age and have been deemed not good enough. Some of these have gone on to have fine careers at other clubs – most notably Matthew Upson – and at times the need for excellence at Arsenal may seem harsh, but there can be no doubt, that what it has done, is create a club which is now world-renowned for its timeless grace on the football pitch.

What is most impressive about the template and what it has done for this once-dreary team? Arsene Wenger created it out of nothing.

In thirteen years the Frenchman has made the club cool. If he was a high-flying City businessman he would now be a world-leader in change-management and be giving lectures at Harvard. He has done the footballing equivalent of taking charge of the GEORGE clothing range at ASDA, and turning it into a shining beacon of contemporary fashion, a brand so chic that Vivienne Westwood stores nationwide could do nothing but enviously bow down to its simple elegance.

As we sit here on December 4th though, Arsenal lie eleven points behind Premiership leaders Chelsea and two nights ago Wenger’s men were dumped unmercifully out of the Carling Cup by Man City at the quarter-final stage. The match provoked widespread criticism of the Gunners’ manager. His refusal to field a strong team was for some, a sign that Wenger did not really care about the League Cup which – in a season in which it already looks unlikely that Arsenal will run out winners of the Premier League –  is annoying for many Arsenal fans. Worryingly for the Gunners, they have already been beaten convincingly by Man City twice this season and have also lost crunch-matches against Man United and Chelsea.

What seems different about this season compared to past years is that Arsenal now seem in some way lacking when they come up against the Big Four (maybe that should be Five with Man City). Against Chelsea last weekend the Gunners seemed totally unable to break down Carlo Ancelloti’s back line. Wenger’s team played beautiful football in possession but in the final third they found a very large Blue bus that was simply not going to move. Surely some Arsenal fans – if they haven’t already – will very soon have to start asking themselves ‘Could Wenger be doing more in the transfer market to help us compete?

We hear mixed signals from the money men at the Emirates, some reports emerge which tell us Arsene Wenger has considerable amounts of money available to spend on transfers,  but other reports tell us that the football club is pumping most of its revenue into paying off the debt it accumulated from the construction of their new stadium. The only thing we can be clear about, is that Wenger has said on numerous occasions in the past three seasons that he believes his team are  good enough to challenge for the Premiership without bringing in new faces. He has for a while now, not seen the need to bring in a group of new players at the same time; instead preferring to adopt a ‘one out, one in’ transfer policy. Denilson replaced Patrick Viera, Emmanuel Adebayor replaced Thierry Henry, Thomas Vermaelen replaced Kolo Toure etc.

Arsenal fans are left wondering why Wenger cannot just identify two or three world-class footballers who could be brought in, to make his team genuine title contenders once again.

Are Arsenal fans willing to wait for the latest crop of prodigiously talented youngsters to mature fully until Arsenal are in a position to challenge for the Premiership? Are they happy to have success just-around-the-corner? Or do they want to challenge for titles now, in the present? If they do want to challenge for titles in the near future, then is Arsene Wenger’s patient and articulate style of management and business going to bring this instant success? The answer can not be certain.

What we know for sure is that Arsene Wenger does not back down to a fight. If Arsenal fans do decide that they are not willing to wait around for Wenger’s boys to bring the trophies home, Arsene will rise against this and furiously defend his approach to management. We also know for sure that Wenger will not change for anybody.

So what now? Either one of two things will happen.

Wenger stays. Arsenal will play out the rest of the season well and will crush lesser opponents. Against the bigger teams however, the Gunners will continue to struggle as the fact that their squad simply is not as strong as Chelsea’s and Manchester United’s becomes increasingly clear. Arsenal will finish third, second at best. For Wenger to remain manager Arsenal fans must remain satisfied at supporting a football team who’s squad lacks the strength in depth to win the Premier League, but which remains a team that everybody knows, on their day, are the best in the country and which represent football at its most pure, artistic form.

If Arsenal fans can say ‘look we may lose now and then but we represent total, attacking football,’ then they should stick by Arsene Wenger because he has masterminded enough of a revolution at Arsenal Football Club to be given all of the time in the World to win the Premiership again.

If Arsenal fans start getting itchy feet however and begin to demand silverware, then Wenger may be pushed out. Arsenal already have a great squad that is so close to being the best in the country, but could a different manager improve their lot? If Jose Mourinho took over at Arsenal and signed the sort of players he brought in for Chelsea and is bringing in at Internazionale, would the Gunners be a stronger squad? Would another manager take the Carling Cup more seriously and field a stronger team than Arsene Wenger did against Man City? Would another manager be more concerned with results rather than the manner in which those results were gained? Lots of questions will soon have to be mulled over in Islington.

What a dilemma.

If Arsenal continue this season in the same manner that they have started it in, a storm is going to brew over North West London. Never since the Premier League was born in 1992 has a manager transformed the style, reputation and culture of a football club as much as Arsene has with the Gunners. Like a great sculptor he has spent years chipping away at his project slowly but ever so surely in an effort to achieve what he believes is pure perfection. He achieved this in 2004 but since then success has eluded Arsenal.

In this final paragraph I was going to alike Arsenal sacking Arsene Wenger to the act of biting off the hand that has fed them. But it is more than that. To sack Wenger would be to dismiss the mastermind that has made them. Arsenal may just keep their faith in Wenger, he has brought them enough success in the past to both warrant and deserve this. Equally however, they may decide it is time for another manager to lead them in to the new decade – if they do decide this, Wenger may go down in history as an artist who tragically fell just as he was about to finish his greatest masterpiece yet. The transformation of Arsenal FC has been Wenger’s career-defining achievement, but what does the future bode? Well, how long have you (and Arsene) got?

(P.S. my prediction – Arsenal finish 3rd, France fail to perform in South Africa and sack Domenech and replace him with Arsene Wenger)

By Ross A. Fox

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