Arsenal need muscle in midfield
Add some brawn to artistic brains, or forget about title
Somewhere, presumably in a locked cupboard, Arsene Wenger keeps a voodoo doll of himself.
A closet masochist, the Arsenal manager feels compelled to punish any pre-season positivity with a little self-flagellation.
As soon as there is any optimistic talk of titles, he brings out the pins. He inflicts pain. He tortures himself.
Stubborn to a fault, he won't give in. He won't pander. He won't mind the midfield gap and add some brawn to go with those effete, artistic brains.
The 0-0 draw at home to Liverpool yesterday morning (Singapore time) added further confirmation, not that it was needed, that the Gunners will not get within a whiff of the Premier League title without adding some grit to the gloss.
Such a grubby notion almost offends Wenger's purist sensibilities, as if true grit can only ever be associated with cowboys, all spit and no polish.
His noble insistence that artists can outlast the artisans comes across as quaint, even naive, like John Lennon claiming that love is all you need to overcome the planet's problems.
But Arsenal's problems cannot be brushed away by their exhibitionists painting pretty red pictures. Panache without power isn't a title-winning formula.
Against Liverpool, particularly in the first half, the home side's central midfield resembled a confused gathering of Olive Oyl impersonators waiting for Popeye to arrive with a tin of spinach.
He always showed up in Arsenal's title-winning sides. Whether it was Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit or even Ray Parlour, there was midfield mettle behind those Premier League medals.
But the Gunners' steady fall from the Invincibles to also-runs remains exasperating, partly because the slide is easily arrested with one or two solid signings and most because it makes Wenger wrong and Gary Neville right.
It's debatable how many people want to live in a world where Neville holds sway over Wenger in the court of public opinion, so it could be a case of apocalypse now.
Sitting in a TV studio, the TV pundit shredded both nerve and sinew in his vein-popping rant against Wenger's obdurate transfer philosophy. Arsenal just won't sign enough water carriers, as if blue-collar labour is beneath their hallowed traditions.
The late Bobby Moore once said that his West Ham manager Ron Greenwood was the most intelligent, far-sighted coach of his generation.
But, the aloof, dignified man couldn't bring himself to sign roguish types to stick the boot in when required.
Even Alf Ramsey and Matt Busby acknowledged that every winning side need a Nobby Stiles to function and flourish.
Wenger shares Greenwood's discomfort. He stumbled upon Francis Coquelin last season and threw the Charlton loanee into central midfield almost in desperation and the move worked. He got lucky.
But Coquelin and Santi Cazorla are unlikely to make the leap to the Premier League summit.
Coquelin was slightly unfortunate that he also had to babysit a makeshift central defence against Liverpool. But his running had a headless chicken quality as he scrambled to cover Cazorla's defensive indiscipline.
A wonderful passer when granted time on the ball, Cazorla was hurried and harried by the excellent James Milner, who was ably supported by the lively Nathaniel Clyne.
With Joe Gomez flying along the left for Liverpool, Arsenal were alarmingly overrun in the first half and in their own backyard, too.
Petr Cech's astounding reflexes spared them defeat. They may not be so lucky next time, particularly against settled midfields.
The away point was a worthy one for a Liverpool side still in transition, but there are sleepless nights to be hand for any Arsenal follower who wants to contemplate what Manchester City's midfield might do with Cazorla and Coquelin.
Mesut Oezil and Alexis Sanchez have mostly shone this season, adding window dressing in front of a slightly grubby glass pane.
Arsenal's facade remains attractive, but it's like a Hollywood movie set filled only with bright, exterior shop fronts and nothing behind.
One signing could save the day, but that's highly unlikely to happen now. Wenger doesn't acquiesce to the whims of the masses. He's hardly going to listen to Neville.
So the Gunners must plod on with their eternal weakness, a stylish spine propped up with brittle bones.
Wenger won't break the bank because he knows Arsenal's back probably won't break.
But title winners are made of sterner stuff.
WAR OF WORDS
“I just cannot get my head around why he would not sign players of power to assist these talented players that you’ve got “I don’t know what that has to do with arrogance. I try just to do my job well. Everyone’s entitled to their “I don’t think it’s arrogance, I think it’s belief. Arsene and the players believe they can outplay teams.” — Thierry Henry defending former boss Wenger to enable them to win the league. It’s a continual string of errors. It’s the one big black mark that I’ve got over Arsene Wenger these last 10 years — why he hasn’t identified the issue with these types of players in central midfield because they ›‹ WAR OF WORdS cannot win the league with these types of players. I think it’s arrogance. To think that you’re not going to adapt your opinion. I could prove to you that it’s not necessarily right, but let’s not go into that debate. When you don’t win, you’re wrong. team to change to impact on another team’s strengths. It’s either naive or arrogance because they keep losing this way.”
- Gary Neville (above)
“I don’t know what that has to do with arrogance. I try just to do my job well. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion. I could prove to you that it’s not necessarily right, but let’s not go into that debate. When you don’t win, you’re wrong. But I think I have enough experience and intelligence to know when it’s right and when it’s wrong.”
- Arsene Wenger (above)
“I don’t think it’s arrogance, I think it’s belief. Arsene and the players believe they can outplay teams.”
- Thierry Henry defending former boss Wenger