Wenger’s dilemma

I knew being at Oxford was like living in a bubble when, in five weeks, the only live football match I’d seen was Balliol v Worcester. Stuck in my high-security college, I’ve had to turn to the newspapers, the internet and the occasional viewing of Match of the As Chelsea march on, barely looking over their shoulder to catch a glimpse of their retinue (not that they’d be able to see anyone at that distance), Arsenal proceed to lock themselves inside their sole style of play that brings about any effect.I’m not the first one to say Arsenal need to vary their style if dominance domestically and in Eeurope can be achieved. But what they really need to do is not just try and perfect the present team, but have a whole new outlook. Arsenal need to resort to imitation.Eeuro 2004, Liverpool in their Eeuropean Cup win and Porto a season ago. Martin Samuel, the Times columnist, was on the right track when he wrote earlier this season that Arsenal’s 2003-4 side, who went the full Premiership campaign without defeat, were not just great but inimitable. Only Wenger could have moulded the team that could play in the blistering style they did.Chelsea, Samuel added, are only half of that: they are great – the best in last season, I believe – but they are not inimitable. Arsenal’s style was unique; Chelsea just churn out the same old stuff we saw done by Greece when they won Except Chelsea are better at it, and that’s why they win.In the current climate, Chelsea et al are the models. If a team wins something they’ve probably employed that style. Copying it effectively leads to success.But mimicking the top-level style is not something any old team can do well. In January 2004, Liverpool beat minnows Yeovil Town in the FA Cup third round, initially struggling as Yeovil’s tight defence frustrated them, but eventually clearing up with a comfortable 2-0 victory.The following morning, Simon Barnes, another Times columnist, (you think I have time to read two newspapers?) remarked that Yeovil had shot themselves in the foot. They had tried to imitate Gérard Houllier’s team by playing the civilised style that Premiership teams go for. They tried to pass, and defend with tactical precision, and keep to a system, and attack with caution, and all the things José Mourinho probably tells Chelsea to do. But they weren’t good enough at it, so they lost. Years ago, noted Barnes, Yeovil – – the kings of cup upsets – would have abandoned any tactics or discipline and gone all out to overwhelm Liverpool with passion and hard work and the help of an intimidating set of drunken fans. Instead, Yeovil played like a modern Premiership team, the fans sat and sang “Yeovil till I die” in the sweetest voice they could, and everyone wondered why they barely came close. In a battle between two identical systems, class will inevitably prevail.Currently, Arsenal can only beat the best if they are on form on the day. To achieve bigger things at home and in Europe, Arsenal need to imitate the imitable Chelsea. But unlike Yeovil that Sunday afternoon, Arsenal have the class to live up to the system. Eeven with Patrick Vieira gone they have enough quality players to form a system to compete on equal terms with Chelsea. Arsenal must stop wondering why their system is failing and start adapting to the present. If Chelsea’s bubble is going to burst, Arsenal have to get out of their own.Day to keep up with the world of football. Otherwise, escaping the vacuum is not easy. And it seems that my team are suffering from a similar problem. Arsenal have started the season – in fact, continued from where they were in May – in a bubble that seems to have been cutting them off from their rivals.ARCHIVE: 5th week MT 2005