I have been thinking a lot recently about how my feelings toward Arsene Wenger have changed over the course of this season. In recent years whilst having complete and total respect and gratitude for what he had achieved for our club I had found myself drifting away from the man. It was not a conscious decision and it certainly did not happen over a short space of time but I had reached a point where my initial reaction when seeing him from my seat near the dugout or when interviewed on television was not one of warmth. Indeed if I was asked any time between 2012 and the end of last season to use one word and one word only that best summed up by it would have been ‘Frustration.’
Had I been asked would I want him sacked my retort would have been ‘No’ but were I asked would I want him given a new deal my answer probably also would have been ‘No.’ It would be safe to say that I therefore fell into neither acronym camp but it would also be fair to say that my frustrations at the great man were not born out of the lack of big money signings or even his inability to deliver trophies as with many. I always recognised the constraints and whilst not a scholar of the accounts like some it was not his perceived unwillingness to spend the money that was reportedly always there, that irritated me.
Equally I hold no truck with the views of some that Wenger in fact over achieved or remained at par given the unlimited wealth of some of his competitors. Wenger never had the money of United in the late 90s or early 2000s but he was able to out deal and out think Fergie on several occasions. I think that view is rife amongst those who only recognise the Premier League and the Champions League as noteworthy silverware. For those traditionalists such as me, both domestic cups mean everything and in the well documented 9 year gap Wenger could easily have won them on several occasions had he taken them more seriously.
However that is going over old ground and perhaps opening old wounds which I have no wish to do. These musings are inspired by a growing realisation in the past 12 months that my recent indifference toward Wenger was lessening and my affection for him growing and a healthy respect re-emerging from somewhere within me.
In reality the soul searching to find the cause of these unexpected symptoms is not actually so hard. You see the ice began to melt for me on the FA Cup run last season and really kicked in when I was at Wembley for both the semi final and the final. Certainly as waited for the team to go up the steps to lift the FA Cup once more and during the lap of honour I was crying for joy. For myself, for the team and yes for Arsene Wenger, our much maligned manager.
When thinking about it after the event my joy at the trophy however was actually underpinned with a more analytical joy. A joy that Arsene Wenger had on both Wembley occasions fundamentally changed the team’s formation in order to change the pattern and ultimately the outcome of both games. Not just because he had shifted to my old favourite 442 but that he had reacted to a game that was going against him emphatically and by doing something fundamentally different and not just changing personnel. And make no mistake it was a tactical shift based on Hull’s organised 352 and the inability of our midfield to combine with an isolated Sanogo.
So with a trophy secured was this new flexibility and pragmatism actually real or was it born out of desperation? This for me was critical because whilst others bemoaned the lack of decisiveness in the transfer market and the lack of star signings it was the apparent lack of decisiveness on the pitch that had become my biggest bugbear. I have lost track of the number of times I have written about this but it was Wenger’s seeming unwillingness to change tactics and formations from match to match and in game, to adapt to opposition and emerging situations that was the principle cause of my huge frustration. I watched other coaches change team structure, personnel to win matches against certain opposition so effectively and it angered me that Wenger always seemed to play the same 4231 regardless. Whether it was arrogance, believe in the system or his players I cared not because I watched other managers totally change their teams to play us and get results against us whilst we simply refused to so the same.
I am not arguing the semantics of how fluid and flexible our 4231 was or indeed is but even with our player interchange and skill with the ball when we did not have the ball we were always reliant on the players getting back into the same defensive shape and that shape was always the same. The same and arguably utilising players not as comfortable defending as they might have been. Let’s not forget we spent 6 months of 12/13 with a 3 of Podolski, Cazorla and Walcott and wondered why we leaked goals.
So in essence my recent antipathy at worst and frustration at best at Wenger could all be boiled down to that one factor. I wanted him to accept the limitations of the 4231 and to use different systems dependent on the stature of the occasion, the opponent, and the gravity of the fixture or a match itself as the game unfolded. After the Wembley triumph and the swift movement in the summer transfer window what I needed to witness was that the decisive tactical changes at Wembley were not flashes in the pan.
As we sit here now in March there have been disappointments of course but that is the nature of football but I am happy as an Arsenal supporter and that is down to Arsene Wenger and his coaching staff. I have seen him experiment with 433, 442 and of course often play the 4213 that has been his favoured formation since Cesc emerged. I have delighted in the perseverance with the 4141 even if it has had mixed results and I have felt the elevation in my soul as this experimentation produced HUGE results away at both Manchester’s.
So regardless of what happens between now and May 31st Arsene Wenger has won back my full support for now. Not because of silverware or the big names he has bought or may buy but because he has restored my faith in his ability to set up a team for a particular opponent and crucially his attitude and approach to games. You can respect the opposition and plan for them without being negative and respecting and planning for a team does not equate to fearing them. Wenger has proved that this season and I am enjoying the second guessing as a Gooner of which team, which formation and who will play where. Moreover I am relishing it even more when I think about the second guessing required by LVG, Maureen and Rodgers in the coming weeks.
I cannot imagine I am the only Arsenal supporter who has warmed to this new proactive adaptability demonstrated by our manager but long may it continue. No one wants a return to ‘Boring Boring Arsenal’ but I had grown equally weary of ‘Predictable Predictable Arsenal.’ So congratulations to Wenger who has won me back with ‘Surprising Surprising Arsenal’ and long may this unpredictability reign. Could we even see the 3 at the back formation I speculated about a few weeks ago? I certainly hope so next season.
Just maybe the Magic Hat is back – Until next time, thanks for reading.
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