Sultan Wenger (A Crumbling Empire)

In the first of our guest articles our friend Harj Sandhu takes a break from writing his excellent travel blog over at globalstepper.com to assess the reign of Arsene Wenger at Arsenal to determine why the empire is crumbling.

Imagine a man who has everything that he could possibly desire who feels a sense of entitlement to what he has created. There have been numerous examples through history of men who fit this description. We’ve seen plenty of leaders that have just stayed a little too long and in their delusion have watched their empires crumble beneath their feet. Maybe this is a human trait, where our ego gets overly enlarged, and our pride prevents us from seeing the truth. After all these years, it’s a real shame to see Arsene Wenger steadily falling into the same delusional trap. It’s a sad state of affairs because I genuinely respect the man and what he has done for the sport in general.

As most Arsenal fans would agree, there is a widening gap between expectation of the team and the final product delivered. There were years of great football that saw huge rewards and Arsenal standing at the pinnacle of English football but those days have gone. The changing of times is the inevitable fact of life and it is what most Gooners are trying to comprehend this is evident in the irritating moaners of social media whose sense of identity depends on an Arsenal victory.

This article takes a look at the role that Arsene Wenger has played in taking Arsenal up and then bringing them back down to where he found them all those years ago. Many players have come and gone during his reign at the club, and a running dialogue that follows those players to the next club is that Arsenal FC “lacked ambition.” Now, that is a dangerous thing for any sports team, as that is more or less what drives them every season to go one better. The manager is a fundamental cog in driving that ambition, and a running theme is a development of an inferiority complex embedded in the side.

Now, I see this complex arising out of being a team that has lacked the final product. A few seasons ago, the side would create a ridiculous amount of chances, only to see many not being converted. I’m not sure if this is down to training and not enough focus on finishing being the culprit or a lack of a killer instinct in the team. There’s only so many times you keep on trying before your determination begins to wane which is so evident in how Arsenal look on the field. It hasn’t surprised me that players as talented as Alexis Sanchez, had enough of the club and decided to go up north.

I can see the significant moment when things started to unravel on the pitch, and this has to be the 2006 Champions League Final in Paris. An unbeaten side that had not even conceded a goal throughout the tournament faced a classy Barcelona team who were almost destined to create a dynasty. His decision to tinker with his starting lineup was a practically criminal decision, and for me, that added to the pressure already on the team. The anxiety of the occasion was evident throughout that side who were made up of many members of the ‘Unbeatables.’ It was a distinctly tense affair which was made that little tenser by an erratic error by Jens Lehmann.

Arsene taking off one of Arsenal strike weapons in Robert Pires, for me, signaled a lack of ambition and it was a shocking decision. The team completely lost its shape against a side that could create something out of nothing. The side choked in Paris and the player who optimised this was the leader, Thierry Henry who let the occasion get to him and was a shadow of himself on that Stade de France field. This loss did feel like the beginning of the end of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, as the side soon after was dismantled and Arsenal’s position in subsequent league campaigns after started to slip down.

Another mark of Wenger’s time in charge at Arsenal has been the inability to keep star names at the club. Apart from the financial balancing of the books which of was to blame for allowing these names to depart, didn’t the club forsee what was going to occur to the league in the future? The massive television deals over the past few seasons have brought in cream of talent from other leagues. Was the club that unaware of what the future earnings could be moving forwards? For me, most of it was down to top directors taking big dividends and poor reinvestment back into the playing side. Other clubs adopted Arsenal’s model and made it even better. Significant players left the club during these bleak times and under the watchful eye of Arsene Wenger. Contract disputes have been a common theme, and it is laughable that rivals could and still do meet the terms demanded. A significant moment was Robin Van Persie’s contract and subsequent departure to a big rival which was a colossal loss to the club. There hasn’t been that desire to build a team around a player who commands respect from fans and players alike, as every time there’s been an opportunity to, that player has moved on. For me, this reflects on a manager who isn’t willing to learn from his lesson and too headstrong to realise his shortcomings.

These shortcomings are reflected in the heavy losses that have plagued the team over recent seasons in Europe and the Premier League. Worse still these have been to rivals, and it’s clear that the psychological edge has been lost and it looks as if it’s hard to regain. Confidence in big matches seems to be something that the club lacks, and the crushing defeats only go on to highlight that Arsene Wenger has lost his way. His tactics seem to lack the maturity of a manager of his experience, with many younger managers showing greater awareness of the tactical shift of top-level club football. For him to walk away after a cup final victory, would be fitting for a man who has had a profound impact on world football. He has had multiple chances to do so and end his time on a high. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like it’s going to end that way for Arsene Wenger. It appears that the sultan’s time is nearly up, with his empire disintegrating through a combination of neglect and stubbornness. I guess a man’s greatest enemy is his own pride and history does love to repeat itself, just in different guises.

Harj Sandhu

Globalstepper.com 

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Manchester United – Why They Can Win the Premier League This Year

For many the 2016-17 season was to be the year that Manchester United returned to their familiar place at the top of the Premier League.  In Jose Mourinho they had the coach that they had been crying out for since the departure of Sir Alex Ferguson.  On the field, the then World record signing of Paul Pogba along with the capture of Henrikh Mkhitaryan added some much needed creativity to a one paced midfield whilst Zlatan Ibrahimovic promised, and ultimately delivered goals.  However, whilst they proved hard to beat, they lacked the overall goals to turn draws into wins and finished the season in a disappointing sixth place, 24 points behind eventual winners Chelsea.

Despite the disappointment of last season though, 2017-18 looms as an exciting one for the Red Devils for a number of reasons.

Once again, United have strengthened their squad.  The loss of club legend Wayne Rooney to Everton does not hurt as much as it may have given the recent decline in his production and though many fans were hoping that the club would offer Ibrahimovic another contract, the club looks stronger in attack now that an any point since Robin Van Persie left.

The key arrival up front is that of Romelu Lukaku.  Whilst a transfer fee of a reported £75m would have made the eyes water a mere two years ago, the way that transfer fees have exploded this year makes it look like a reasonable amount to pay for a forward that has scored a phenomenal 85 goals in 186 Premier League games and is still just 24 years old.  Perhaps most importantly for Manchester United is that Lukaku is the sort of forward that Mourinho loves to have in his teams, the comparison to Didier Drogba is a lazy one but the truth is that Lukaku plays a similar game, he is quick, strong and a good header of the ball.  At Chelsea Mourinho had Drogba, at Inter he had Milito and at Real Madrid he had Ronaldo.  If Lukaku can have the same impact in a Mourinho team as these guys did then he will be a very good signing for Manchester United.

What is also significant for United from a forward perspective is the progression of the other younger players in the squad.  Marcus Rashford is developing nicely and seems to be high in the coach’s plans for the new season, perhaps even starting in a wide role supporting Lukaku.  Anthony Martial had an unimpressive 2016-17 season but has raised eyebrows in pre-season, none more so than with his scintillating run and assist against Real Madrid in Orlando.

In the wide attacking positions United are well stocked.  Mkhitaryan took some time to settle into life in the Premier League but is now a favourite of the coach, Juan Mata though not always a Mourinho favourite is a classy creator whilst Martial can play anywhere across the front line.  Manchester United don’t really have traditional wingers and usually play a fairly narrow, high pressing game but these players are all capable of playing effectively out wide.

In the midfield Paul Pogba may finally be able to sleep easy, safe in the knowledge that Marouane Fellaini should get less playing time this year given the arrival of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea.  For all of Pogba’s qualities, he does sometimes have a tendency to try and do too much on his own resulting in a larger number of turnovers than United would like.  However, with a true, ball winning lynchpin like Matic sitting behind him, Pogba should have more freedom to continue to try and make things happen.  If the European Super Cup Final defeat to Real Madrid was any kind of guide we can expect to see a central three of Pogba, Matic and Ander Hererra.  The evergreen Michael Carrick and enigmatic (if we are being kind) Fellaini offer experienced back up, whilst youngster Andreas Perreira proved he is ready for first team action after an impressive loan spell at Granada last year and could see plenty of action if Mourinho decides not to loan him out again.

In defence, Mourinho looks set to consist with a back five with width being supplied by the excellent Antonio Valencia on the right and Daley Blind on the left.  The strength in depth that Manchester United posses means that these wide players can be selected based upon the needs of the team and Mourinho is not afraid to play more attacking players in these roles with Jesse Lingard and Ashley Young having appeared there last year.  Whilst neither Lingard or Young would be players that you would expect to feature often in a championship challenging team, they are effective options to have when needed.

In the centre of defence, the first choice three look to be last year’s success story Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and new boy Victor Lindelof (though the fans don’t seem too happy with his early showings).  Phil Jones has proven that he is a good option when he stays fit, which unfortunately is becoming rarer and rarer, whilst Marcos Rojo is an adequate back up.

Back stopping all of the above is possibly the World’s best goalkeeper in David De Gea.  Rumours of De Gea’s departure have followed the club for the past few years but still he remains a Manchester United player and he just gets better every year.  A goalkeeper of De Gea’s quality gives any team an opportunity to win and United need to take advantage of that before he does move on.

There is no doubt that Manchester United have strengthened their squad and now look well placed to launch an assault not just on the Premier League but also on the Champions League which they qualified for as beneficiaries of the recent rule changes decreeing that the Europa League champions gain entry to the Champions League.

The problem for Manchester United is that, perhaps barring Chelsea, their rivals have also strengthened.

Manchester City clearly decided that full-back was a position of weakness for them and have spent a considerable amount to rectify that in addition to other areas.

Arsene Wenger has had his usual summer of promising much and delivering little, but Alexander Lacazette does look to be the forward that Arsenal were missing.

Alvaro Morata spent much of this summer awaiting the call to become a Manchester United player and ultimately ended up signing for Chelsea and their ever decreasing squad of players.

Liverpool haven’t had the summer that they or their fans were hoping for as of yet and the jury is out as to whether former Chelsea flop Mohamed Salah can justify his large transfer fee, however, they are pushing hard to get more targets in before the end of the transfer window.

Tottenham have perhaps had the most significant season of all of the title contenders by not losing any of their key players.  Whilst Mauricio Pochettino would love to bring some quality into the squad, he is not one to panic buy and if the players aren’t available to improve his team then Tottenham won’t do too much more this window.

However, despite the moves that their rivals have been making, when you consider all of the other squads in the Premier League, it is hard not to see Manchester United’s as the strongest.  With Jose Mourinho in his second season as coach and a number of the younger players developing further, this is the year for Manchester United to show that they are once again the top team in England and I’m backing them to do so.

Ian O’Brien

@VFTCS_Blog