Don’t let the monicker fool you, I’m not a Gooner. In fact, Thierry Ennui has been known to be a vocal critic of Arsene Wenger for several years. Aside from his public whining about injuries and criticisms of the style of football that other teams have played, my major gripe has been that he seems to have forgotten how he won trophies in the first place.
Arsenal fans have been waiting for the departure of Fabregas for years, and now that he has gone with Nasri rushing out the door after him, they are already lining up a succession of speculative replacements; from Juan Mata – before Chelsea swooped in with a serious bid – to Joao Moutinho and Marvin Martin. Yet Thierry Ennui contends that the problems were never a shortage of lightweight creative players: what Wenger has forgotten is that his best sides compete with a spine of sluggers.
The team that Le Professeur inherited featured such players as Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Nigel Winterburn, Martin Keown and Lee Dixon – not necessarily proponents of slick passing football. One of his most early appointments was that of a talented young French midfield general called Patrick Vieira, who along with Remi Garde was signed to “plug a midfield gap“. Arsenal finished an improved third, their best finish in the Premiership and best position since their title win of 90-91 season. Garde would ultimately play a supporting role in the Arsenal squad after Emmanuel Petit joined in 1997. Petit, a central defender under Wenger at Monaco, was re-modelled as a defensive midfielder, and forged a successful partnership with Vieira which culminated in Arsenal winning the Premiership and FA Cup double. Pivotal to this was the revelation by Tony Adams that “Wenger had a ‘thrash it out’ meeting [with the team] during which Adams demanded that the defence receive more protection from the midfield”. The Vieira-Petit axis was a powerful one, one that Arsenal arguably lack now. Consider also the symbolism of the goal that clinched the league title, scored by Adams and created by Bould – the dogged old guard.
The lack of an imposing leader at the back has long been the subject of media speculation, and it can be guessed that the proposed signing of the giant (6’6″) Per Mertesacker is a step in this direction. After all, “The Invincibles” of 2003-04 featured the commanding pair of Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure (as well as Lauren at right-back). However it is clearly presence in the centre of the park that Arsenal lack. Remember that The Invincibles also featured a midfield pairing of Vieira and Gilberto Silva – a man called “The Invisible Wall” in his native Brazil. Therein lies Wenger’s major problem – he has forgotten about the men that made his side tick best, the invisible men of “the Makelele role”.
In the rush to field younger players Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, Gilberto – who was an instrumental part of the rest of Arsenal being allowed to play attacking football – was made to feel “totally useless” by Wenger. Flamini ostensibly plays the defensive midfield role too, but arguably lacked the presence of the burly, skilled hustle of Gilberto, and probably experience too. Abou Diaby was expected to be a Vieira-style replacement, but he is less defensive and more direct as a player. Since Flamini left, Arsenal have been using Alex Song in the defensive role. Examining his goal returns 2010-11, Song’s contribution of 4 league goals last season has been described warmly as his becoming “a more adventurous element” in the Arsenal midfield. Yet one could correspondingly argue that he has been neglecting his defensive duties in the holding role in favour of attacking participation, to the detriment of results.
Arsenal’s back line was consistently placed under the lens of intense scrutiny last season, and the squad overall has notably dropped points in 4-4 games where they had scored four goals first (Newcastle, 2011 and Tottenham, 2008). Pundits have suggested that youthful exuberance prevented the players from maintaining possession and running down the clock when they need to. The absence of an experienced head to tell the midfield to protect their back four – like Tony Adams did in the double-winning season – suggests a team whose philosophy has forgotten about defending, and a manager who lost his way tactically. Is it a coincidence that Arsenal didn’t win a trophy after the emergence of Fabregas? The young Spaniard became emblematic of Arsenal’s style, and yet they have failed to deliver any silverware, including the morale-sapping League Cup defeat to a Birmingham side that would later be relegated. This in turn sparked questions of a crisis that are still being asked. The signing of forward Park Chu Young – which prompted the BBC’s Phil McNulty to Tweet that Arsenal’s signing policy was looking increasingly like “a trolley dash” – is looking suspiciously like Wenger’s previous habit of overloading on forwards when trouble threatens. However, unless they find a competent defensive midfielder to sit in front of Mertesacker, someone in the mould of Petit or Gilberto, they can possibly expect more humiliations like the one handed to them by Manchester United last weekend.