With a baffling propensity for buying attacking mids while ignoring the brittle areas of his Arsenal squad, has Arsene fallen foul of the Championship Manager curse of going attack mental?
When I was growing up, my father and I played a lot of Championship Manager. Because we were normal, self-respecting football fans and because Champ Man was brilliant, if occasionally infuriating, fun. From the first ever instalment up to the birth of Football Manager, rarely would an evening go by in our house where one or both of us didn’t spend at least an hour on the current incarnation. Often, we’d both play; one of us hunting for the next Cherno Samba while the other prepared for the following day’s respective school or work, and then swapping over. And sometimes we’d just sit in on the other’s game for a while to see how they were getting on.
I have some fond memories of my dad’s games. I remember him signing a then-unknown James Beattie for his Norwich side, and Beattie going on to score over 50 goals in that season. I vaguely remember Alexander Zickler revelling in a free role in his Bayern Munich side and scoring over 30 goals to secure him the Bundesliga and Champions League double. But the game of his I remember best is one in which he was managing River Plate in Argentina.
Whenever it was, to my great amusement he’d compiled a squad that was completely saturated with attacking midfielders
I think it was just after the halcyon days of the deadly Pablo Aimar/Javier Saviola axis, maybe just creeping into the time where Andres d’Alessandro was the big name there. Whenever it was, to my great amusement he’d compiled a squad that was completely saturated with attacking midfielders. Out of a small group of around 18 players, he had managed to amass 6 or 7 of them, and could come nowhere near fitting them all in his side. A couple of them were versatile enough to play on the wings, AM L/C or AM R/C, and one, the splendidly named Camel Meriem, was a coveted AM/F R/L/C but most were just plain AM C’s and all but one of them sat on the metaphorical bench. When quizzed about his unconventional transfer policy, he wasn’t really sure why he signed so many of them and was as amused as I was about it; as if it was as much a subconscious inclination rather than a concrete decision. In any case, the ‘collection of attacking midfielders’ slipped into Hepburn family lore and became a running joke over the years that we would raise occasionally. I certainly never expected it implemented in real life.
But last week, when my father sent me a text message to say that Arsenal had reacted to their 8-2 defeat at the hands of Manchester United by enquiring about Yossi Benayoun, it struck me that it had indeed come to fruition, and on a fairly grand scale at that. No less than Arsene Wenger had adopted the Brian Hepburn philosophy of football and had begun to collect attacking midfielders with little interest in addressing any of the other deficiencies in his squad.
If you’d asked a cross-section of pundits, neutrals and Gunners fans at the end of last season where they felt Arsenal needed to strengthen to mount a serious title challenge, you would have received a fairly consistent set of answers.
-An experienced goalkeeper to compete with, or succeed, Szczesny.
-An aggressive, dominant centre back to partner Vermaelen.
-A combative ballwinner in the Keane/Vieira mould to anchor their vastly talented midfield.
- A centre forward to provide genuine competition for van Persie, and successfully replace him when he is inevitably injured.
Perhaps there is only one man who would have answered this question with, “Two undeniably talented and highly-promising wingers with no immediate end product”
Perhaps there is only one man who would have answered this question with, “Two undeniably talented and highly-promising wingers with no immediate end product”. That man, however, is Arsene Wenger and his first two signings of the summer were Gervinho and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for a total outlay of £22.7m. And, with the exceptions of Carl Jenkinson and Joel Campbell for nominal fees and the return of Ryo Miyaichi from loan, that was it until August 30th. Before the deadline passed, he brought in 5 players, 4 of them direct replacements for players he had allowed to leave; Andre Santos for Gael Clichy, Mikel Arteta for Cesc Fabregas, Yossi Benayoun for Samir Nasri and Park Chu-Young for Nicklas Bendtner; the other being German international centre back Per Mertesacker.
Whether these players represent financially and technically inferior like-for-like replacements is entirely subjective. The more pertinent point is that Wenger saw no reason to address any area of his already-unbalanced squad before the start of the season, other than bringing in an additional two attacking midfielders to complement Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Andrei Arshavin and Nasri, later Benayoun. And as 4 of the 5 other signings merely filled additional positions that had been vacated over the summer, the only area of weakness he ultimately addressed was in central defence.
In fact, approaches for yet more attacking midfielders, Lucho Gonzalez and Yoann Gourcuff, have been confirmed by Marseille and Lyon club officials in the last week and the club were also recently linked with moves for the mercurial Lille winger Eden Hazard and Sochaux playmaker Marvin Martin. And while it seems likely that the club would have signed two of these ahead of Arteta and Benayoun if possible, the time spent chasing all of these players would undoubtedly have been better spent on securing recruits in more pressing areas for concern. French holding midfielder Yann M’Vila was a major target but a deal could not be concluded before the close of the transfer window; one can’t help but think that a successful resolution would have been more likely had his move been prioritised ahead of Gervinho and Oxlade-Chamberlain’s back in June.
As a result of the transfer activity, Arsenal’s midfield is worryingly imbalanced. Even the bulk of his central midfielders are more inclined towards creativity than disruption; none of Jack Wilshire, Aaron Ramsey or Arteta seem likely to warrant a ‘Tackling’ stat of 10 or more, whereas Abou Diaby is of the box-to-box variety. Alex Song is the only recognised DM C in the squad and Arsenal have already paid the price for their lack of depth in this department. In Song’s absence through suspension, youngster Emanuel Frimpong started the home game against Liverpool and was sent off at 0-0 as they slumped to a 2-0 defeat; in the 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford, Francis Coquelin deputised alongside Ramsey and Rosicky in the centre of the park as the Gunners failed to contain a rampant United side.
Maybe Arsene is just as unaware that he is neglecting other areas of his squad in favour of AM C’s as my dad was. But ultimately, my father’s stable of flamboyant attackers went on the secure him the Argentine League title and victory in the Copa Libertadores; undoubtedly in highly entertaining fashion. After a well-documented barren spell of 6 years, Wenger will be hailed as a miracle-working visionary if his young Arsenal side secure the equivalent Premiership and Champions League trophies this season. But you and I will know where he got the idea from.
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