Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Wenger's Voyage Enters Its Choppiest Waters

Over the last few years transformation has been the keyword for England's top clubs. Whether it is the wholesale change in ownership, status and fortunes at Chelsea, or the 'Rafalution' at Liverpool which has seen their European and domestic reputation restored, or the Glazer family's tumultuous takeover at Manchester United, coupled with Alex Ferguson's attempts to build yet another new team in the twilight of his career - the landscape at the top of the Premiership has been dramatically altered. It may seem as if Arsenal are the most inert of all these clubs, retaining stable managerial and boardroom structures, but they are, in fact, going through changes as great as any of their rivals.

Arsene Wenger, while no pauper about the football marketplace, never had the financial clout to match his actual achievements. More typical of Wenger was the kind of careful husbandry which either saw a $500,000 fee for Nicolas Snelka transformed into a £22m sale to Real Madrid, or the competitive £4m paid in 1996 for the club's figurehead skipper, Patrick Vieira.

Arsenal's move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium is the key manouevre in boosting their financial competitiveness, adding as it will 22,000 spectators to their ground. The emotional impact of the switch has been matched by the stress placed on Wenger's custodianship of the club, however, as it has further curtailed the manager's ability to maintain the quality of his squad.

This difficulty was entirely expected by the Arsenal board, and they have never wavered from their commitment to and support of their manager, seeing in him the qualities of vision and leadership to bring the club through such a huge transition.

The sense of trust in Wenger's abilities was not even widely questioned when he sold Vieira to Juventus for the healthy fee of £13.7m. It was almost a matter of faith that 'Le Boss' would know best, and believed that Vieira could be satisfactorily replaced from within.

The loss of his captain, has - at the most difficult time in his tenure, as the club copes simultaneously with the domination of Chelsea and the huge unrest of moving ground - destabilised Arsenal on the field beyond any predictions. Vieira's leadership qualities have been woefully lacking in the Gunners' feeble defeats in the North-west to Bolton (twice) and to Liverpool last night.

It seems now apparent that Vieira was the mainspring from which the entire side drew its spirit, and the absence of fight in the team last night has been the key criticism from their supporters. Wenger has found that his other senior players - Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Freddie Ljungberg, Sol Campbell - have been sadly incapable of providing the qualities the former captain possessed in abundance, in particular leadership for Arsenal's glut of exciting young players.

Wenger's position and Arsenal's plans are both long term, but the manager knows that if the club is to avoid slipping out of the financially crucial Champions League places and losing the benefit of his decade of great work, some short term measures are desprately needed to stabilise what is a dangerously listing vessel


Anonymous Ruairi said...

excellent summary. we really do mis pat...and its only now we are really seeing HOW influential he actually was.

5:26 p.m.  
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