Arsenal players watch as Bayern Munich's Thomas Mueller scoresED mused some weeks ago that the current incarnation of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal are missing a key trick in the system they pretty much perfected in their early-mid Noughties pomp - being “beautiful with the ball but horrible without it”, in the words of Pep Guardiola.
Arsenal had five players booked in the 3-1 home loss to Bayern Munich. But by “horrible” Pep did not mean they should run around kicking people - only that possession-based teams must dominate and attack the time and space between their passes.
Aside from the second-half spell when Arsenal got back into the match, this brief was largely shunned. That Arsenal were able to perform the tactic adequately for that 20-minute period makes things all the worse, and points to a wider problem of personal responsibility.
That was highlighted in Bayern’s first two goals, and arguably the third. When Per Mertesacker flew in with a fierce shot, Daniel van Buyten hurled his body in the way; David Alaba also ‘did a John Terry’ when his error allowed Theo Walcott to shoot. Arsenal, meanwhile, failed to get any kind of block on Thomas Mueller’s cross for Toni Kroos, who was allowed to finish far too easily, while for the second they quite literally stood around watching as Mueller turned in the loose ball (see above).
And generally speaking, Arsenal were second to far too many balls, and far too inclined to wait for a team-mate to lead any kind of charge, whether in attack or closing down the opposition.
The Arsenal of old was immense in this regard – ED remembers watching a league match with Newcastle at Highbury in 2003, when a pack of Arsenal players hunted down Aaron Hughes like hungry wolves. A pack of Arsenal players led by Robert Pires, of all people.
It’s all very well criticising the current crop of players for a lack of determination and desire (how very English!), but with Wenger solely responsible for acquisitions he must take the blame for a strategic failure in this regard.
Wenger is an economist, as we are often reminded, and a pretty good one. However – and many economists suffer from this problem – he is an ideologue, with a strong but mostly fixed worldview based around an intellectually sound concept that, for much of his working life, has yielded a degree of success.
Most economic theories are deeply flawed if strictly held. Occasionally a fiscally disciplined organisation or government will need to spend money to mend divisions or discrepancies in the business or society; at times a socialised employer or state will require to make cuts if productivity declines or a loosely-related variable adversely impacts value. The world has also been known to change on occasion.
When there is a clear shortfall in key positions Wenger has, historically, been willing to spend money; he learned the hard way after losing his job at Monaco when he showed an even greater degree of transfer market stubbornness than he has in North London. Since then, he has on occasion brought in experienced players for decent sums.
Relativity comes into play here. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Wenger and Arsenal had a competitive advantage in terms of the relative quality and breadth of their scouting network, and the relative strength of their training facilities. They were subsequently able to isolate and exploit value in the continental transfer market, particularly in France, but also in the Netherlands and Italy.
Arsenal no longer have this competitive advantage. A player like Patrick Vieira could not be bought for the equivalent of £4.5m from a club like Milan, even accounting for inflation. Not unless there was a contract issue (more on that later). The same applies to Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, and Even Thierry Henry, who may have cost upwards of £11m but was still seen as great value, particularly with hindsight.
Arsenal no longer have this competitive advantage because – thanks in part to the proliferation of digital technology on a global scale – there are no secrets in football any more, certainly not in terms of known quality or assessed potential.
As a result, such bargains are impossible to come by. Arsenal’s wonderful scouting network is no more useful than an up-to-date version of Football Manager, and every top-flight club worth their salt has a state-of-the-art training facility; clubs in France, Holland and Spain have superior academy systems.
Excellent value is possible if there is a contract issue. It is ironic that Newcastle United’s acquisition strategy is loosely based on Arsenal’s, with one key difference. Instead of wringing their hands when a star player’s contract is inexplicably allowed to wind down and the club forced to sell at a reduced price (Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri), or if a head has been turned by those sneaky Clasico types (Cesc Fabregas, Henry), they look for the known or predicted quality with a soon-to-expire contract or time-specific buyout clause.
Wenger seems oblivious to this development, or so stubbornly entrenched in his revised development-based theory that he will not factor 2013’s method into his assessment of value. It is inexplicable that he allowed, for example, Demba Ba to slip through the net; that he was not able to outgun Newcastle to sign Moussa Sissoko; that – a few years back – he did not swoop for Adil Rami when he moved from Lille to Valencia.
It’s a huge failing – there is no point in getting a good fee for Van Persie if you replace him with a full-priced Olivier Giroud, when the smart move would have been a cheaper yet equally effective Ba, plus Michu and Sissoko chucked in for £1.8m apiece. There is one exception, which was the relatively low price at £17m for Santi Cazorla. But he is the exception, not the rule, and while it is unfair to label him a ‘luxury’ player, he operates in the zones where Arsenal have relative strength in depth.
There is value in the market, if that’s what you want. But if Arsenal are willing to spend reasonably big then why bother dealing in marked-up prices for ‘possibles’ with three years left on their contracts? Why spend £10m on Giroud – who is effective but limited and only had one standout season – or £13m for Podolski – who was always known to be gifted but inconsistent – when the money is there for a guaranteed return from an Edinson Cavani or a Radamel Falcao?
Wenger’s impasse was neatly encapsulated in a tweet from one of ED’s human rivals, ESPN’s James Tyler, who humorously mused: “Arsene Wenger feels like a guy who invented the internet and got angry when no-one kept their Hotmail accounts.”
While a switch to Gmail comes at no cost, Arsenal do have the funds in place, which is the source of fan frustration. A frustration that looks set to extend to the board. How long Arsene lasts is probably up to him. But he needs a stark re-evaluation of his principles if he is to avoid ruining his glittering reputation.
QUOTE OF THE DAY: "Any player at City is prepared to play anywhere, and I'm no different. Midfield, defence, I have even played out wide for Everton, so I will do a job anywhere and give 100 per cent. (Vincent Kompany) is a good player, and I look up to him, watch his game and would definitely take the same path as him. He started out in midfield and is now one of the best centre-halves in the world." - Jack Rodwell's enthusiasm is admirable, but ED can't help but wonder if the cut-throat City will give him the time to develop. Certainly patience is not the greatest virtue at Eastlands.
FOREIGN VIEW: Companies like Sportradar have sprung up around the world as football tries to combat illegal betting activity, which has been acknowledged to occur on a global scale. While the problem appears to emanate in Asia and Eastern Europe, it has a wider impact on world football as players and referees are bribed and threatened to spot fix or change outcomes of matches so betting syndicates in far-flung countries can cash in.
COMING UP: Milan host Barcelona in the glamour tie of the Champions League last 16 from 7.45pm, although sadly Mario Balotelli is cup-tied and won't feature. The other match has an air of the derby about it as Schalke visit Istanbul to face Galatasaray. We also have this lovely feature from Andy Mitten on the greatest stadiums in Europe.