I've just returned from the Q & A session with Arsène Wenger that was held at the club this evening for the benefit of around 100 odd shareholders. I only happened to be there as the proxy for a pal of mine, as to be totally frank, if I was in possession of any Arsenal shares at present, I'd probably be forced to flog them in order to pay for our all too imminent season ticket renewals! The event was recorded for Arsenal TV and I believe it's aired at 9pm tomorrow evening (Friday) but I assume as with everything on the Arsenal channel, there will be plenty of repeats. It's well worth watching, as Wenger was asked several questions for which we all wanted answers (eg. why Arshavin didn't start in the FA Cup semi-final)
It was only as Arsène reflected on our season and attempted to put things into some perspective that I realised I'd neglected to post out this week's Irish Examiner diary piece. With the great man having given voice to some of my own thoughts and with some of the questions that he answered reflecting my own concerns, it seemed appropriate to send it out in advance of the broadcast of the program, if only for the benefit of my own smugness :-)
What's more, with some misguided Gooners having been sharpening their knives these past couple of silverware-starved seasons, I suppose it was inevitable that these would be drawn and aimed at Arsène's back, no sooner had our prospects of the big-eared prize disappeared over the horizon. So having felt obliged to jump to his defence in this week's piece, it wouldn't be right for me not to let it see the light of day.
Meanwhile for those who've moaned about me harping on constantly about the fickleness of our home support, le Boss also made a point of differentiating between our staunch travelling supporters, compared to the crowd at home games, where he believes that with such a young side, it has never been more important for us to get behind them, rather than on their backs.
BTW although Arsène was typically supportive of his squad (even Adebayor!) with his customarily blinkered efforts to deflect all criticism (and it would be foolish of us to expect anything else when AW speaks in public), he did make some effort to reassure us that he would be splashing the cash this summer....so let the speculation commence?
If there is some consolation for us to take from the events of the past couple of weeks, it is that if we had gone on to make either of the finals, or somehow pipped Chelsea to third place, it would've only had the effect of papering over the cracks of the current squad's deficiencies. Whereas with the embarrassing manner of our defeat to Man Utd, even the most biased Gooner would struggle to deny our obvious weaknesses.
However Arsène was quick to point out this evening that for all the potency of the Man Utd strikeforce, they've only scored 67 goals this season, compared to our 64 and on browsing through Sunday's matchday programme, whilst sitting on the throne these past few days, I noticed various references to several similarly positive statistics this season (eg. our unbeaten run, Almunia's clean sheets, away goal record etc).
Those of us who watched all of these games in person will know that no matter how much of a positive slant one puts on such statistics, they don't really tell the true story of something of a damp squib of a season, where the Gunner's flame has only truly burned bright during all too brief cameo moments.
Therefore I can't help but have some concerns that as Arsène spends his summer analysing all such information down to the Nth degree, he will end up coming to the conclusion that the current squad are only a whisker away from having what it takes, when we'd want him to be banging down Hill-Wood's door to get to the cheque book!
For most football supporters, a "close but no cigar" season, including two semi-finals and qualification for the Champions League, would be considered a relatively successful campaign. Yet judging by the recent shameful displays from the not so staunch sections of the Arsenal’s audience, I can’t envisage too many Gooners lingering to express their gratitude, when it comes to the now traditional trudge around the pitch at our last home game in two weeks time.
Arsène Wenger set the bar so high, with all the success that followed his arrival at the club that far too many of our spoilt rotten fans now seem to fail to appreciate that it is an inevitable fact of life that the vast majority of sides are destined to end virtually every season empty-handed. Turn the clock back a couple of months and most Gooners would’ve bitten your hand off, just to be guaranteed to finish above Villa in that precious 4th place. Whereas the absurd levels of displeasure being expressed following last weeks’s abject failure to reach a European final in Rome and Sunday’s subsequent capitulation, might lead one to conclude that le Gaffer has been transformed from one of the most respected managers in world football, into an utterly clueless Mr Magoo!
Let us not forget that this is a man who in the eyes of most people within the game, is singlehandedly responsible for changing the face of Premiership football. If you put the events of the past few seasons into proper perspective, in truth the fact that Wenger’s managed to merely maintain a veneer of competitiveness, is no less a feat than his former glories. All around us other clubs have either gone out and actively pursued a sugar-daddy investor, or have mortgaged themselves up to the hilt, so that they could spunk up millions in vain attempts to try and play catch-up with the top four posse, or merely to avoid the dire consequences of losing their place at the Premiership trough, while Arsène has been expected to work miracles on a comparative shoestring.
If le Prof is under pressure now, as fans lose patience with his failure to deliver those all important silver pots, for me the fault lies with the club, for feeding our expectations instead of dampening them down. Instead of spouting all this “ringfenced” rubbish and repeatedly insisting that their parsimonious manager had plenty of money to spend, in my humble opinion, it would’ve been much better for them to have admitted that the new stadium project was going to put a strain on our resources which would necessitate a period of belt-tightening. We could’ve coped with that, if we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel, where we would come out on a sound financial footing, with a stadium to provide us with the sort of spending power to match our competitors. It certainly would’ve been preferable to trying to kid us that we’ve been starting every campaign on a level playing-field with the competition, leaving us bitterly disappointed because we’ve come up short once again.
Arsène has received plenty of criticism for his rigid refusal to deviate from a policy of producing our own teenage star turns, instead of splashing the cash to buy experienced talent off the shelf. But le Boss is no fool, he must know only too well that a winning team requires a blend of characters. Personally I don’t believe his is some sort of crusade to force the rest of the footballing world to bend to his will, but that he’s merely been making the very most of his rather limited resources. A quick glance at the two benches last Tuesday night, comparing the likes of Berbatov, Tevez and Giggs, with Bendtner, Vela and Eboué was all the evidence one needed of the Gunners struggle to punch above our weight.
Despite Arsène’s best empirical efforts, football is far from being an exact science. You buy the best available individual ingredients (or attempt to grow your own) and throw them into the melting pot, in the hope that this will produce the sort of chemistry that results in a tasty team. Setting aside the complaints about individual inadequacies, for me, the most patently obvious deficiency in our last two thoroughly depressing outings has been a lack of character (both on and off the pitch!). This is a quality that can’t be measured in all our manager’s statistics and it’s appeared to be a blind-spot of his, ever since he belittled the captaincy by handing it out as a carrot, or merely as a recognition of seniority, rather than using the armband to identify leadership traits.
When this team’s talent takes centre stage, we’re capable of giving anyone a run for their money. But it’s how one reacts in adversity which is the true mark of character and watching the players drag themselves back into the dressing room at break in our last two defeats, it’s been evident that our squad is sorely lacking, when it comes to players with the strength of personality to impose their will on their team mates and inspire a comeback.
Perhaps Stan Kroenke’s ambitions will negate the effects of a recession and provide Wenger with a real war-chest this summer, rather than an imaginary one. But buying players is a relatively easy task, compared with the problem of unearthing the grit and determination necessary to triumph in the sort of backs to the wall encounters that are the mark of genuine contenders.
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Tuesday, May 12, 2009