Arsene Wenger’s Dogmatism
Rewind ten years and Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over Arsenal two weeks ago would have been perceived as a shock. In Arsene Wenger’s early days he went a staggering 17 games without defeat to the Stamford Bridge club, and also knocked them out of the FA cup on four successive occasions. But a decade later, Jose Mourinho’s victory almost seemed customary; no one gave Arsenal a chance, and Chelsea won with an almost nonchalant ease- rarely threatened and unassumingly more dangerous in attack.
Such highlight’s a greater trend. Wenger’s decision to not purchase a more dynamic, aggressive defensive midfielder has been heavily scrutinised. In fact, on a more general level, in an age of intense pub-ridden debate and greater social media microscopic attention, every decision Wenger makes becomes the product of intense discussion.
Why, then, does he persist with favouring more nimble, technically adept players, at the expense of a more dynamic, physical balance to his teams? It is an interview conducted with Sky Sports’ Geoff Shreeves from the end of last season gives more gravity and depth to his thought process than any other in his 18 year tenure.
Shreeves poses the exact question aforementioned in this article; that being, if Wenger like Chelsea, had imposed a more pragmatic approach to their big games last season, would Arsenal have perhaps won the league (they were top for 128 days and kept 17 clean sheets- one less than Chelsea who kept the most).
Wenger explains that, at end of every Premier League season he heads to Geneva to analyse statistical data on why the champions came out victorious across 38 games:
‘Every year (in Geneva) we produce a model for a team that was successful, and why they were successful. It’s very simple, when Barcelona win the Champions League, everyone says you have to play like Barcelona. If a team who defends very well and doesn’t want the ball at all wins the Champions League, everybody says this model is successful and everybody has to play like that. The truth is the best system, is the one that suits the players you have’.
That explains so much; Wenger generally believes that he’ll manage on his terms. In the short term for the big games (like against Chelsea), he will select his eleven best players and empower with them with the staunch belief that they can play their own unique brand of football and come out victorious.
He adds to this though, more significantly, saying:
‘The style of play has to reflect the personality of it’s manager because you cannot go against your own beliefs, that’s why every manager has his own strengths’.
This explains on a longer term basis why Wenger has neglected building a more rounded, physical teams. His beliefs and personality translate to a team not too dissimilar from Pep Guardiola’s incredible Barcelona team, or those of Johan Cruyff and Charly Rexach, with perhaps a lesser emphasis on high energy counter pressing. Guardiola’s ‘model of success’ gives fire to Wenger’s aspirations: it is possible to build a team of technically adept passers and bring great success.
That, at least, explains why Wenger can be painfully dogmatic. But he isn’t blindly attributed to building something that is utterly unattainable:
‘I agree that in some games we have been defensively too fragile (0-3 Everton, 0-6 Chelsea, 1-5 Liverpool, 3-6 Man City), but the same team that started in the (0-6) game at Chelsea started at Bayern Munich’ (where they won 2-0).
In many ways, Wenger’s critics would tear their hair out at that Bayern game, because it offers insurmountable evidence that this group of players can compete with Europe’s best and come out victorious. It fuels him with the belief that he is working towards a winning formula.
But he sends out a further message on the culture that has evolved in the modern game:
‘I ask you now, in 2013-2014 at the start of the season you have 20 managers full of hope and desire. If I invite you in 2014-2015 to see how many are still in place and to compare that with other seasons in the Premier League, you will see a huge trend that is very dangerous. Even if you change those 20 managers, only one team can win the Premier League or the FA Cup and maybe no team will win the Champions League’.
The culture he outlines is a product of the affluent, highly staked and universally popular entertainment stream that the Premier League has evolved to. It means that his decision to not purchase a player of a specific weight class evokes a gargantuan media response.
Perhaps Wenger’s longevity affords him to be like this. The same ring trues with Alex Ferguson, who confesses in his autobiography that he has no regrets in not adapting to try and wrestle with Barcelona in the 2009 and 2011 Champions League Finals:
‘In each of those two European Cup finals we might have got closer to Spain’s finest had we played more defensively… but by then I had reached the stage with Manchester United where it was no good trying to win that way… I’m not blaming myself, I just wish our positive approach could have produced better outcomes’.
The overwhelming message that rings true when looking at the shortcomings of both Wenger and Ferguson is something that’s so easy to forget when scrutinising others. Hindsight. Wenger chose a flat back four with Flamini in front at Chelsea, before selecting a nimble attacking front that failed to break Mourinho’s side down. But think about it again. Before any of the drama ignited, Gary Cahill might of (and probably should of) been sent off. Wilshere then gets through on goal, and is let down by a shocking first touch. Sure, you can argue that in the grand scheme of things Wenger got it wrong (and has consistently got it wrong against Mourinho), but things are not as misguided as they appear.
Either way, it is this prognosis that helps best explain why Wenger continues to make what appear to be superficially stubborn decisions. Strip away the hyperbole, hindsight and take away the microscope of analysis, and see that he wants to take the club forward on his terms, and in his image. Only then can you see through his dogma, and understand why Arsenal continue to appear as they are.