On The Brink: The Old Master.

The spotlight is on Wenger
One year ago Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal closed the gap at the top of the Premier League table to within one point of Manchester United. Four days later they would narrowly miss out on their first trophy since 2005, going on to be knocked out of the Champions League and dramatically fade away in the title race, winning only two of their eleven remaining league games.

A fourth placed finish and sixth season without a trophy spelled the end of the Fabregas-to-Barcelona saga as the talismanic Catalonian returned to his hometown club. Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy also left the club heading north to Manchester City.

The months between February and August 2011 were some of the most painful of Arsene Wenger’s reign. A Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City was quickly followed by Champions League exit and a slide from grace at the top of the table. The misery surrounding the transfer of the club’s two best players, and lack of adequate replacement, was cemented with an 8-2 defeat at Old Trafford. The BBC’s Chief football writer, Phil McNulty, said of the result “It was a performance, or lack of one, that proved the folly of his [Wenger’s] summer of transfer inaction”.

Although improvements have been visible, the players brought in to the replace Fabregas, Nasri, and Clichy, have so far failed to match the early promise of last season’s squad, crashing out of both the Carling and FA Cup, embarrassed in the San Siro and embroiled in a four way battle for the remaining Champions League position. Wenger’s position as Supreme Leader of Arsenal has never been so strained.

Since his appointment sixteen years ago, the former Nancy-Lorraine, Monaco, and Nagoya Grampus Eight manager has won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with Arsenal, as well as various runners-up medals, including a UEFA Cup and Champions League. Simply, the Frenchman represents the most successful modern period of Arsenal Football Club.

However, the six, and more likely, seven seasons which have followed the club’s 2005 FA Cup win represent a period of stagnation for supporters. A period they believed would build them a team capable of challenging for major honours once again.

Following the dispersal of Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ it was widely appreciated by fans that he was to oversee a period of renewal within his squad as youth replaced the ageing experts. Eight years on from the extraordinary achievements of Lehmann, Campbell, Toure, Cole, Vieira, Pires, Bergkamp and Henry, and following the departure of Fabregas- Wojciech Szczesny, Kierna Gibbs, Francis Coquelin , Jacks Wilshere, Johan Djourou, Henri Lansbury, and Emmanuel Frimpong, are the remainder of Arsene’s in-house youth experiment. An experiment which has seemingly produced too few players capable of walking in the shoes of the aforementioned giants.  

With many of his young pretenders failing to make the grade, Wenger has continually dipped in and out of the transfer market to bolster his squad with the quality necessary to pose a title challenge, as they did for much of last season. Since 2004 he has signed a total of 46 players, and although this includes success stories such as Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen and Bacary Sagna for a combined fee of £31.8m (Robin Van Persie was signed in 2003 for £2.75m), it has been a chequered task. Good players have been bought, such as Emmanuel Adebayor, Eduardo, Alexander Song, Aaron Ramsey, Lauren Koscielny and most recently Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. But many more have severely underwhelmed, Jose Antonio Reyes, Phillipe Senderos, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott have never lived up to expectations, whilst Alexander Hleb, Abou Diaby, and Maroune Chamakh, have all suffered similarly.

Up until August 2011 much of Arsenal’s shortcomings were masked by Wenger’s greatest success since the league title of 2004; Cesc Fabregas. The young man, acquired for nothing, became the centre piece which his manager built his side around. The degree to which Fabregas carried the team around him was subject to much debate in the years up to his exit; following the defeat at Old Trafford it was rife.

The tale end collapse of the 2010-11 season, teamed with the exit of Fabregas and Nasri led fans to call for a new rebuilding phase. One supported by the £70.7m acquired by the club through transfers that summer. Wenger did indeed go back into the transfer market. Everton’s Mikel Arteta, Ivorian international Gervinho, and Southampton youngster Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were seen as adequate midfield replacement for the departed, whilst Andre Santos and Per Mertasacker bolstered a defence which had crumbled in the close of the title race months earlier.  In total Wenger spent £53m in 2011.

However, once again, Wenger’s activity in the transfer market appears to have fallen short. The lack of quality supplied so far this season by his new signings, with the exclusion of Oxlade-Chamberlain, has amplified the glaring hole left by Fabregas. The long-term injury of Jack Wilshere, Wenger’s best hope of replacing Fabregas, has also added to the underperformance of players such as Andrei Arshavin and Theo Walcott.

Following the 4-0 defeat to AC Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League, former Arsenal manager George Graham described Wenger’s side as “a team in crisis” whilst Emmanuel Petit declared it the “worst moment of Arsene’s career with Arsenal”.

The pressure is undoubtedly mounting on Wenger. His supporters suggest that injuries and the departure of Fabregas were matters beyond his control and as such a fourth placed finish is all that can be expected. His critics call into question his handling of the squad; the youth which he put so much hope in has fallen short, as have many of the signings which he believed were capable of carrying the club forward.  The Frenchman still represents the club’s greatest successes; the problem appears to be that there aren’t many more on the horizon.


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