Saturday, 10 October 2015

The Diary Of A Pessimistic Arsenal Fan - Winter Is Coming

By Shane Thomas

One would think I've missed the boat for a doleful piece on Arsenal. After all, the time for pessimistic sentiments should have been in the aftermath of their dismal showing in defeat to Olympiacos last Tuesday. Now the bulk of Arsenal's players go into the international break on the back of thumping Manchester United 3-0. All is rosy in the Emirates garden again. What could there possibly be to worry about?
I imagine the crossover between fans of the Premier League and Game of Thrones is probably negligible. But Arsenal have a problem on the horizon that is redolent of a key theme in the aforementioned fantasy show.

Musa Okwonga once opined that all involved in the scramble for power in Westeros are being blinded by the trees, and losing sight of the forest. Because in the distance, the White Walkers - in a clear allegory for the threat of climate change - draw ever closer; a force so indiscriminately destructive that it threatens to render all the characters internecine betrayal and duplicity petty and redundant.

By the same token, the febrile nature of conversation among Arsenal fans focuses on numerous topics concerning the health of the club, apart from the most important one.

Forget spending money, mental strength, and even Wenger in/out, because Arsenal are approaching a liminal moment in the long-term future of the club. At last year's AGM, club chairman, Sir Chips Keswick[1] said of Arsene Wenger; "It's not up to me as chairman to decide on football, not the fans, it's up to Arsene Wenger... If he has a plan we back it, if he doesn't have a plan we keep quiet."

So, the real concern shouldn't be if Wenger should still be manager, but what's the plan for when he's not. Because at some point - probably not too far in the future - Arsenal will need a new person at the helm.

Wenger's current contract is up at the end of the 2016/17 season, so it would be nothing short of negligent by the club's executives to not already be laying inchoate foundations for a succession plan. The problem is that they don't appear to have much of a plan. Where winning football matches are concerned, they don't appear to have much of a clue.

Beyond Wenger, who at Arsenal has any kind of football pedigree to ensure that the team remain (relatively) competitive? There's no doubt that he has made errors, and that coaches exist who could probably do a superior job. But how many elite coaches work without a person above them who takes care of duties such as player acquisition, salary negotiations, and financial sponsorships, leaving the head coach to focus on getting his players to perform to their optimum on the pitch.

Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Diego Simeone, even Jose Mourinho. They all work under this structure. And while Jurgen Klopp is currently being touted as Liverpool's saviour, much of the credit for his success at Borussia Dortmund was down to sporting director, Michael Zorc.

With Sir Alex Ferguson retired, Wenger is probably the last of omnipotent managers. No Champions League club has their manager so embedded in their makeup than Arsenal (unconfirmed rumours suggest he even had a hand in the design of the Emirates Stadium). It's a rum irony that the names are so similar. For nearly 20 years, Arsene has been indivisible from Arsenal.

The latitude afforded to the Frenchman from his employers extends to him not only choosing his own time to leave the Emirates, but also eschewing a timetable for his departure, with Wenger recently declaring he "will be more instinctive" about stepping aside, rather than giving a set date.

But even if Wenger won't plan in advance. Arsenal's board need to. While Wenger has struggled at times to navigate choppy waters, he's been steering the ship on his own. Whenever he takes his leave, it's foolhardy to expect the job to be handled by only one person in the future. To consolidate their position in the English game, Arsenal need clarity in how they will manage their affairs.

Who will take coaching? Who will sign the players? What will the budget be for transfers and wages? Will the style of football have to change? Much like Ed Woodward at Manchester United, Arsenal's chief executive, Ivan Gazidis is a money man parachuted into the world of football. And while Gazidis knows how to monetise the club, he may not be able to say, "Let Arsene handle it", and continue to count his money when issues arrive in his in-tray in about 18 months.

Much like Game of Thrones, Arsenal's own personal winter is coming. If they don't take the necessary steps to secure their house, it won't take long for them to be frozen out of the elite of the English and European game.


- A quick note on Arsenal's dismantling of Manchester United on Sunday. What was most heartening for Gooners was the industry of the players, particularly the midfield and wide men. A key facet of the win was the diligence to ensure that their back four were seldom left exposed.

United's Memphis Depay was substituted at half-time after an moribund display. But it should be highlighted how Arsenal ensured that the Dutchman had no space in which to operate. Whenever he tried to isolate Hector Bellerin, Aaron Ramsey immediately doubled up on Memphis, applying suffocating pressure in tandem with Bellerin, and regaining the ball.

This was a motif of Arsenal's defensive strategy. Much like how Michael Hooper and David Pocock strangled the England rugby union team at Twickenham on Saturday, Arsenal kept forcing United in positions when they were outnumbered, 2 vs. 1.

Arsenal used a similar strategy against Manchester City in their unexpected 2-0 victory at the Etihad last season. If the Gunners are to have any chance of a serious tilt at the title, this has to be a regular feature of their play, not least against Bayern Munich in a fortnight.

- The only observation I have on Chelsea's current malaise, beyond Jose Mourinho daring the FA and Roman Abramovich to pull their respective triggers, is the loss of certainty around things of which we used to be so certain.

A Mourinho Chelsea making individual errors? Looking vulnerable in defence? Models of consistency such as Branislav Ivanovic and Cesar Azpilicueta looking out of their depth? Rolls Royce players like Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas at times looking disinterested? If there's one team you felt this would never be an issue with, it's Chelsea under Jose Mourinho.

The reason why it's so hard to have an accurate appraisal of Chelsea right now is because we have to rethink entirely everything we thought we knew about them.

[1] - Yes. that's an actual name, It's often forgotten how far back Arsenal's links go with the upper-classes of Britain.

This piece was first published on Think Football.

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