How Wenger's Spanish Obsession Stopped Arsenal Winning Things

Remember when Arsenal were a physical outfit, who could play teams off the park and defend brilliantly? Then you'll also wonder why Wenger discarded his approach...
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Remember when Arsenal were a physical outfit, who could play teams off the park and defend brilliantly? Then you'll also wonder why Wenger discarded his approach...


Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is a common topic on The Whitehouse Address, somewhat of a fascination.

Since Wenger arrived at the club there has been much success and a large amount of quality football played. However in the past several years Arsenal have become something of a laughing stock in the football world. Wenger has gone from the professor to the mad scientist, professing he knows best and yet constantly failing, his 'experiements' blowing up each season and his frustration becoming ever more pronounced and expressive. Eight years without a trophy does that to a man.

The exodus of star talent from Arsenal in the past eight years has been quite amazing. Yet, Wenger has weaved his propaganda machine and stressed patience was key. For years he has promised that Arsenal will be a force again, it just needs time, yet it never materialises. Quite simply, this hope has become nothing but a dream and a fallacy. Arsenal lack the qualities in ALL positions to compete with the best sides in England and in Europe. The gap between them and the Manchester sides is immense, yet alone Europe’s top sides.

Now many will argue that Arsenal’s decision to build a new stadium has hampered the finances of the club and made them weaker in terms of their ability to challenge Europe’s top sides. It is a fair argument and the decision to build the Emirates apparently was a short term loss in order to secure the long term financial stability of the club. However, to say Arsenal have not spent money is ludicrous, perhaps their 'net spend' makes them appear to have been savvy in their business, yet the truth is they have wasted much money on poor players these past several years.

Arsenal have spent much money, yet on average players. The problem is twofold. A failed philosophy and a neglect of what made Wenger so successful in the first place. As this article will cover, Arsenal's failings can be laid at Wenger's door.

A French revolution

It is important to note that when Wenger arrived at Arsenal he was very fortunate; he inherited one of the best defences in England and was fortunate enough to be gifted the talents of Dennis Bergkamp. He developed his side on these strong foundations and in the period between 1997-2001 he brought in the French connection of Vieria, Petit, Pires, Henry, Anelka and Wiltord.

The French had won both the World Cup in 1998 and the Euro Championships in 2000 and were without doubt the best side in international football at that time. Wenger used his connections and knowledge of the French side to build this foreign force in English football. Arsenal’s success came from the quality and importantly mentality of this group of players.

The side recaptured the Premier League in 2002 along with the FA Cup again, yet it was the 2003-04 season which would show the greatness of the work Wenger had done at Arsenal, the team would go unbeaten all year long and would play some of the best football ever seen in the Premier League.

Yet in 2005 the era of Arsenal’s dominance would begin to fray. It was Arsenal’s centenary year and yet the “Special One” would make sure Arsenal did not celebrate it with a title. In fact Arsenal finished 12 points behind the winners. An FA Cup success would bring some joy for the fans and the following season Wenger took his team to the Champions League final, yet would lose to Barcelona. Yet after that final it all started to unravel for Arsenal.

Between 2004-2008 Arsene Wenger went about on dismantling his Invincible team. Out went Keown, Parlour, Vieria, Pires, Cole, Henry, Campbell, Reyes and Llungberg and Lehmann in the space of four seasons. The end to the exodus was Gilberto Silva who left in 2008. Many at the time believed Wenger was a 'genius' as the belief was that 'he knew the right time to let players go'. And perhaps it would not have been as catastrophic had his approach to the 'modern game' not been so flawed. However, what came in to replace this winning group of players has been the reason for Arsenal's failings.


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Replicating Barcelona

It is important to consider Wenger’s time at Arsenal in two periods. Simply put I look at it not as the Highbury/Emirates periods but as the French/Spanish eras. Perhaps it was the 2002 World Cup in which France were nothing short of awful, which alerted him to the fact that the French period of dominance was at an end. Perhaps Wenger was ahead of the game and envisioned the growing power of Spain and Barcelona. And it is clear that he set out to revolutionize his club in that image.  However in his attempts to replicate the Spanish model Arsenal have lost their power, strength and dominance. Wenger's legacy will be based on a decision which has ruined Arsenal as a force in both England and Europe.

If this was his belief, that the Spanish model was the future, then he was both right and wrong. The Spanish model of development, notably being put in place by Barcelona more so than others, was already a decade in, being set up around 1990. For Arsenal to overhaul their previous French style and philosophy was risky, dangerous and ultimately flawed.

In the past decade Arsenal have embarked on a Spanish revolution which saw the arrival of players like Jose Reyes and Cesc Fabregas. The new mentality pointed to a new type of player, a smaller player like the players we see for Spain now. A move towards a more slight player has seen players like Rosicky, Flamini, Oxlade Chamberlain, Walcott, Ramsay, Arteta, Wilshere and Cazorla come into the team.

It has led to an era of mediocrity and the present day Arsenal is a shadow of it’s former self. I do not buy into the argument about finance, which although the net spend of Arsenal is excellent and as a business Arsenal have been run fantastically, do not tell me they have not spent money. The problem has been the type and quality of the players bought. There is no doubt for me that the change in the size of the players has had a major impact on Arsenal’s success. Wenger rid his the side of winners, strong mentalities and intimidation.

Arsenal went from possessing World Cup winning players in his midfield and possessing a squad who knew what it took to win the Premier League. The “French era” did not possess just brutes, in fact Arsenal played better football than they do now, football which led to titles and success played with a style and flair which captivated many hearts and minds.

The evolution or rather revolution of the midfield has seen the might and power along with skill and quality of Vieria, Petit and Silva, replaced with the abject, average quality of Arteta, Ramsay, Song, and Diaby. The fact that Flamini was so essential shows how far Arsenal have gone backwards. Yes Cazorla and Wilshere are talented players yet Arsenal possess too many similar players and simply overpowered by most of Europe's top sides.

Although Wenger saw a new style of football coming into being, one which we are witnessing presently, he forgot some key and crucial things. Firstly, his French style side was perfect for the Premier League, they were tall, strong and powerful. In the unbeaten season Arsenal conceded only 26 goals. They possessed quality and importantly, intimidation, remember Van Nistelrooy’s penalty for United and the intensity and dominance of the Arsenal players around him. This was a team which was feared. And for some reason, call it ideology or misguided vision, Wenger threw it all away.

Look at what Jose put together at Chelsea; Essien and Drogba were Arsenal type players before they switched the to the Spanish way, a major difference and one which catapulted Chelsea to the top of the league and which put Arsenal into the league of teams just below.  As cliché as it is, Arsenal became timid, small and vulnerable where they once were strong and fearsome, and with the change came a lack of success.

I understand that finances played a part for Chelsea and that Essien and Drogba were very highly priced, I understand also that even sides like United could not compete financially with Chelsea and now presently there is Man City, who with players like Yaya Toure, have fitted a side together which is now title winning. Yet players like Kompany cost only £6 million, surely he would have been excellent for Arsenal? Unfortunately Arsenal spent a lot of money on many average players, instead of spending big on one or two.

Defensive neglect

Secondly, if Wenger sought to replicate Barcelona then he forgot or neglected the biggest factor as to what has made Barcelona so great. When I watch Barcelona and Spain I see a world class defensive side.

Their ability on the ball is excellent, their movement and timing is mesmerising, yet they never lose their shape or their tactical role and understanding. The whole side understands where to be and what to do in and out of possession and this is what has put Spanish football on the top of the pile. It is an issue which Wenger overlooked in his Spanish quest and it is the reason have become an average side.

Wenger’s failings was that he saw only the passing and ability on the ball, yet neglected or was ignorant to what these players and sides do defensively. Without a defensive foundation, a side will not win anything. And this is true for all successful sides.

Arsenal simply are a shambles out of possession; they don’t press quickly to stop counter attacks, they don’t press from the front, or drop off and deny space. The midfield looks disorganised and clueless when out of possession. They allow too many 2v1 situations and fail to deal effectively with long balls and crosses.

Naive defending and a lack of understanding and cohesion comes from the coach. Wenger is to blame for the team's failings. Wenger was a great and visionary coach, yet that time is over. He is now nothing but a stubborn old man who has no answers to the modern game and what is necessary to compete and be successful.

The problem was and has been since that Wenger neglected the biggest asset he had, the thing which won him the league three times and which made Arsenal such a force, the defence. I have alluded already to what Wenger inherited when he arrived at Highbury. Importantly, he inherited a world class defence; which was organised, unified and solid.

Did he forget that his success at Arsenal was built on some world class defensive foundations? Yes Bergkamp and Henry were great yet it was Seaman, Adams, Keown, Vieria and Petit who were the key to that sides success. There are no players which resemble these players now.

The lack of success has come from this poor transfer policy based on a failed ideal. Wenger seeks ball playing centre backs, yet neglects to work with the defence sufficiently. Players like Szczęsny, Sagna, Koscielny and Vermaelen are all good players, yet they are not a great defence.


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A grave mistake

Arsene Wenger made a grave mistake in trying to revolutionise Arsenal, quite simply he failed, he misunderstood what made his side so strong in the late 90’s and early 2000’s and believed that he saw a change in how the game would be played. He was right about the Spanish, yet forgot that the Spanish football is based on more than just their technical skills and possession. Above all, Wenger forgot the importance of a solid defensive foundation, which was neglected for "beautiful football". It has led to a period of mediocrity and worryingly for Arsenal fans, a very empty trophy cabinet.

Spain is not England; the leagues are different, as too the politics, the culture and the climate. The Spanish league is a much more technical and the pace of the game is slower and the physicality less so than in England too. Now I would argue that to try to have a side play a “Spanish” way in England is simply nonsensical. By not taking into account the differences between the countries and the style of play each league has, coaches attempting to play like Barcelona are only heading towards failure.

In England as in Germany it is important to have a strong, physical foundation. The top sides have a balance of defensive security, physicality and attacking skill. Look at Mourinho, Ferguson and Mancini, they all understand the league and have built winning sides based on this.

Since his transformation of the side Arsenal have not won anything. I do not believe this is a coincidence.

What next?

Wenger has professed that gaining Champions League qualification should be regarded as a trophy and be seen as success. One can understand why he believes this; the financial rewards and the appeal for players to play for a Champions League side are essential. However, for all the rewards that the Champions League brings, for all the revenue that the Emirates brings in each week and with next seasons increase in TV revenue, is this acceptable for fans? It has been too long without a trophy and more needs to be asked of Wenger.

Right now Wenger knows his job is safe, the players appear to know that the expectation is to finish in the top four, so where is the motivation? Where is the desire to challenge the top sides? It appears the club is in a period of contentment, as long as they are in the Champions League and making money, this is regarded as adequate. This mentality is unfair on the fans.

In my opinion Wenger needs to move on and allow a new coach to come in and push the side on. If there will be money available, then Arsenal will need to bring in the talent required to make them a force again. A new manager needs to understand that Wenger has taken this team in the wrong direction and a move towards buying more physical players like Arsenal saw during their successful years in the early 2000's would be smart.

You only have to look at Bayern and see what Arsenal could have been had they not been led down Wenger's flawed path. Strength, skill, defensive quality and an insatiable appetite to win are what Bayern has and Arsenal lack. A team which mixes experience, youth, world class talent and academy products appears the perfect blend. If only Arsene hadn't changed his approach at Arsenal then I highly doubt it would have been eight years without success.

Follow Mike on Twitter @The_W_Address or check out more of his work here.