“This team might not have the ‘Ronaldo’ factor, but it doesn’t understand the word, ‘defeat’. It’s determined, gritty and very professional…”
“I’m not here to motivate players. I’m here to help players who are motivated.”
These are comments made by Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, respectively. Certainly, they explain the contrasting fortunes experienced by Manchester United and Arsenal in not just this season, but in recent years.
Without doubt, we have not seen the best of Manchester United for some time. Yet, somehow, they currently find themselves in pole position for what would be a record 19th league title. Meanwhile, Arsenal, who please the eye almost every week with their dazzling football, are set to be left wanting yet again. What separates Arsene Wenger and his team from unprecedented and long overdue success?
The answer lies in the comments mentioned at the outset. Ferguson’s comment is rather self-explanatory and it rings true. A certain pizazz has been missing from United’s performances since Cristiano Ronaldo’s departure, but as was mentioned, most times they still find that extra gear to go to when needed. We’ve seen that as recently as this season, where United went in at halftime seemingly down for the count on more than one occasion, but somehow live to tell a remarkable tale come full time. That ‘never say die’ attitude is what champions are made of.
Though, it’s an attitude that couldn’t just come into existence among the players. It had to start with the manager. Indeed, when a team is against the ropes, it has to be able to turn to it’s manager for motivation to get back out there and fight tooth and nail right down to the end. Skill and flair are not the deciding factors. Rather, strong will comes to the fore, as does an unflappable desire to achieve set goals even when seemingly insurmountable barriers present themselves.
With eyes on the prize, a manager with a ‘never say die’ attitude lifts his players and moves them to claim that prize. Such an attitude is infectious. Thus, inevitably, the manager’s players would develop the same attitude. This is visible among the Manchester United camp and that’s why the club is where it is, regardless of the calibre of players no longer at Ferguson’s disposal. This is simply not the case with Arsenal.
Let’s examine Wenger’s comment. He may have said those words while fulfilling a role at a youth elite tournament, but no doubt he applies the same thinking to his dealings with Arsenal. That comment outlines a failure to put two key managerial duties hand in hand- helping a player who is already motivated and helping a player who loses motivation. Thus, it explains why Wenger and his team find themselves in the predicament they are in today.
Bringing already motivated players to the club and developing them is all well and good, but players are not machines. At some point and for some reason or another, they will lose focus. It’s a manager’s duty to put them back on track. If Wenger doesn’t see that as part of his job, then where does that leave his players? The answer- just where they are now.
Things are not right behind the scenes and they haven’t been for some time- dressing room bust-ups, a player stripped of the club captaincy and now the club’s current captain is publicly undermining his manager in addition to casting his glances at another club. These things have a telling effect on a team and certainly not a positive one. A manager has to not only nip these things in the bud, but lift his players off the pitch so that they can provide good, consistent performances on it. Although the main trouble-makers have since left the club, off-field problems still linger. The biggest of them all centers, embarrassingly, around the club captain.
“I would understand if Cesc leaves. He has been here at Arsenal for a long time and he wants to win trophies. As professionals, we want to be successful and win cups and titles, but we haven’t won a thing for six years. It’s embarrassing to be part of a team that hasn’t won a trophy for six years. We failed. It’s not the manager’s fault, it’s the players’. Some people say Arsene Wenger’s not doing well, but he doesn’t play. We know we are not a bad team. We have the quality to finish first, but we lost. This is the fault of the players – we have failed.”
Interestingly enough, Bacary Sagna says that they know they’re not a bad team and that they have the quality to finish first, but the players and not Wenger has failed to do so. What does that imply? Certainly, it gives one the impression that this Arsenal side is a bit lackadaisical in approaching fixtures, especially if they are the favorites to win them. Wenger’s philosophy of having young players play entertaining football is admirable, but could it be that this very philosophy has caused the development of this laid back, cocky mentality where the team thinks that it can win games based on talent and flair alone? Certainly, that’s something that Wenger needs to address.
Sagna’s willingness to protect Wenger in his comment to the News of the World is noble, but something else just does not add up here, especially seeing that the club captain obviously feels differently. Fabregas recently said that if Wenger worked at one of Spain’s top clubs, he would’ve been fired already. Clearly, he feels the manager is to blame for Arsenal’s trophy drought. Given that the likes of Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy are yet to sign new deals, are they too concerned about where the club is going or not going for that matter?
This is not the first situation this season where a player has challenged the goings on at his club. However, Arsenal is the first top club to not effectively handle the situation. Pepe Reina and Fernando Torres grew disillusioned with life at Anfield and were intent on quitting the club. Although Torres has since departed, the way Kenny Dalglish stepped in and handled things at the club has led to a vast improvement in on-field performances as well as a change of heart from Reina. Dalglish is a manager who commands respect and is great at lifting his players and getting the best out of them. The dramatic, positive change in atmosphere now seen at Anfield is clear evidence of this.
Wayne Rooney also became disillusioned with life at Old Trafford. He rejected a new, five-year contract extension and was adamant that he wanted to leave Manchester United. Sir Alex Ferguson showed his vast experience in handling the situation. After holding talks with Rooney, the player was moved to apologize as well as sign the offered contract extension. His on-field performances have improved since.
In both these cases, the manager’s interaction with their player(s) and overall handling of what was a delicate situation led to positive results. We have not seen that with Wenger and his Arsenal side, even though the situations are very similar. Thus, questions must be asked about Wenger’s ability to handle situations like these, where morale is at an all time low.
For more evidence, look no further than the extended, bad run of form Arsenal found themselves in after choking in the Carling Cup final. A win versus Manchester United was the perfect tonic, but unsavory performances and results prior to this victory do little to dispel the doubts that still remain. Certainly, if Arsenal are to win trophies again, Wenger must be prepared to effectively handle off-field problems and motivate his players when they lose focus for one reason or another, especially as they are at that young age. The lackadaisical mentality that seems to exist within the squad must be rooted out. He also needs to ensure that his team, starting with the captain, respects him.
He has already said that Fabregas was feeling the strain of captaining Arsenal. How he handles that situation will have a crucial impact on the team, particularly from a mental point of view. A strong, unified and determined spirit within the team off the field will see a remarkable change in performances on it. In a nutshell then, dipping into the transfer market is not the only solution to Arsenal’s problems.
While we are on that subject, what kind of changes does this Arsenal side need? Generally, their starting lineup is good, but one must wonder about the depth.
Alex Song and Robin van Persie have been immense this season. Theo Walcott, Laurent Koscielny, Wojciech Szczesny and a few others have also been doing well of late. When these players went missing through injury or otherwise, the likes of Bendtner, Denilson, Squillaci, Rosicky, Almunia and others failed to effectively deputize. There have been endless cries for experienced players to be brought in. Wenger has done this, but the problem surrounds the quality of experienced players that he brings in. The likes of Sebastien Squillaci and Jens Lehmann, for example, have not been great or sensible recruits.
While Lehmann is just a short-term option, the likes of Squillaci must be moved on. Other dead wood like Bendtner, Denilson, Rosicky, Eboue, Arshavin and the like must also be moved on so that fresh, quality players can be brought in to make a telling, positive difference. The team certainly lacks maturity. That’s something that even Wenger has admitted. Thus, these new players should represent a quality mixture of youth and experience.
With Vermaelen on his way to full fitness and with Koscielny and Djourou continuing to mature, a Center Back is no longer a priority. The fourth Center Back slot can be given to a promising youth. The young Spaniard, Ignasi Miquel, seems a bright prospect.
Confident performances for the most part by Szczesny indicates that a Goalkeeper may not be needed either. On the agenda should be an Attacking Midfielder who would provide cover for Cesc Fabregas. If the Spaniard leaves, then Arsenal would need a top quality Attacking Midfielder to play off of Robin van Persie. Wilshere and Ramsey can both play there, but they both look at home alongside Song in Arsenal’s ‘double pivot’. A Defensive Midfielder may be needed to provide cover for Song. However, with the impending return to fitness of an impressive Emmanuel Frimpong, Wenger may well decide to hold off buying someone for that position.
Quality cover for Theo Walcott on the right and Samir Nasri on the left is also needed. As mentioned, Arshavin and Rosicky have been anything but impressive. Meanwhile, Bendtner has no business being in those positions and one can hardly see a future for Carlos Vela at the Emirates.
Finally, proper cover for van Persie is a must. Bendtner has been struggling for form and fitness for some time and Marouane Chamakh seems to be suffering from burnout. After a glut of goals at the start of his Arsenal career, his form has dried up. We must remember as well that van Persie is an injury-prone player and therefore, when he goes missing, a quality finisher is needed to ease the loss of the Dutchman.
All in all, Arsenal are not far off from silverware. We’ve seen that Wenger has some work to do though, if he is to appease the many fans who feel frustrated and let down as the club’s trophy drought extends by another year. Important changes are to be made, both from a mental standpoint and a personnel perspective. It’s good that Wenger has finally conceded that his side is not good enough and that he has made the decision to get some help come the summer. If he gets things right, we will be in for a thrilling campaign come next season- in the Premier League and the Champions League.