Arsne Wenger saw Arsenal defeated on the opening day against Liverpool and it proved the Frenchman and his side have lost the tough approach that brought them league titles
It is rare that a good novel fails to proclaim its promise on its opening page. Which is why the crowd at the Emirates Stadium were so distraught at the final whistle last Sunday. As opening pages of a new football season go, this one could be endlessly parsed for meaning and portents, but with only one conclusion: the insipid nature of Arsenals football in recent seasons seems likely to continue, along with a regular drowning of illusory optimism in an ocean of disappointment.
Here was the football equivalent of the post-modern classic that begins: You are about to begin reading Italo Calvinos new novel, If on a Winters Night a Traveller The message from Arsne Wengers Arsenal was that their followers were about to begin a new season of watching Arsne Wengers Arsenal, with everything that has come to mean since they last won the league 12 years ago.
On a glorious early August afternoon in north London, the first line of Samuel Becketts Murphy seemed even more appropriate: The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new. Writing in 1938, a year in which Arsenal won the league title under the largely hands-off management of the former journalist George Allison, Beckett might have foreseen the passive approach Wenger would take to the summer transfer window, failing to correct his teams long-established deficiencies with a series of half-hearted bids for unsuitable targets.
Afterwards the Frenchman only 90 minutes into the new campaign, but already ashen-faced offered the conventional excuses. The squad was short, he said. Short in numbers, short of fitness. There were absences through injury, including Per Mertesacker, Gabriel Paulista, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere, and through other significant players Mesut zil, Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny being granted extended holidays after reaching the later stages of the European Championship.
After the convulsive 4-3 defeat by Liverpool, Wenger could justify the extended break for those players by pointing to the hamstring injury suffered during the match by Aaron Ramsey, who had returned to action after appearing in the quarter-final of the Euro and will now be unavailable until September. No one can say, of course, whether another weeks rest would necessarily have prevented the Welshmans injury, but the sight of Koscielny sitting in the stands seemed to confirm a pervasive softness in the clubs mentality.
When Gary Neville claimed that the absent centre-back would not have been able to prevent the goal with which Adam Lallana gave Liverpool the lead and shattered Arsenals composure, he was wrong: even a half-fit Koscielny would not have permitted the passage of indecisive defending that immediately preceded it.
It seemed symbolic that Wenger should announce Mertesackers elevation to the club captaincy, in succession to the departed Mikel Arteta, a couple of weeks after the German centre-back suffered a knee injury that will probably keep him out for four months.
No doubt Mertesacker will fill the role admirably, but of more immediate importance is leadership on the pitch during the vital coming weeks. There is something to be said for the approach of Bill Shankly, who reacted to the absence of injured players by carrying on as if they did not exist, concentrating his energy entirely on organising his available forces, an attitude Jos Mourinho is said to share.
Life sometimes seems to be too easy for Wengers current generation, whose reaction to adversity or even momentary disappointment has never seemed to be that of the kind of bred-in-the-bone winners cherished by certain other managers.
All too often the reaction from Giroud to a header over the bar from a good position or from Ramsey to a close-range shot skewed wide is a telegenic astonishment, the hands raised to the face, eyes wide and mouth open in a theatrical expression of dismay with just a hint of rueful laughter that suggests the influence of a malign and quixotic fate rather than mundane technical failings.
At the end of Sundays defeat, a smiling Santi Cazorla could be seen sharing a hug with Philippe Coutinho, whose two goals had done such damage to Arsenal. The Spaniard seems to be a cheerful fellow as well as a fine footballer, but it would surely have been wise to postpone the expressions of fraternal warmth.
Like letting Theo Walcott take the penalty he had just won, with all too predictable results, it offered evidence of the managers failure to prioritise the kind of mental strength and leadership once embodied by Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira.
It is surely time to stop offering him the ritual thanks for his modernising influence on English footballs daily habits and to hold him to account instead for what Arsenal have become since his patron, David Dein, stepped down from the board nine years ago.
Deins departure removed the only voice capable of asking constructive questions about the approach of a manager who let Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra go from central midfield while spotting neither Paul Pogba nor NGolo Kant fellow Frenchmen, at that as potential replacements, and whose faith in a succession of young forwards Carlos Vela, Marouane Chamakh, Jrmie Aliadire, Ryo Miyaichi, Yaya Sanogo, Nacer Barazite, Park Chu-young proved unfounded.
The knack of maximising the talents of players discarded by other big clubs Vieira by Milan, Dennis Bergkamp by Internazionale, Thierry Henry by Juventus also seems to have deserted him. Alexis Snchez and zil are extremely fine footballers, but in Arsenals colours they are doing little on a consistent basis to make Barcelona and Real Madrid regret opting for upgrades.
Wengers past decade has also demonstrated that, in football at least, good husbandry can be an overrated virtue. Arsenal built a 60,000seat home at a cost of 390m. But where once they had a proper football ground, vibrant with history and designed to allow the fans passion to influence the mood of a match, now they have an elegant bowl where the emotions are easily disengaged and the most familiar one is dissatisfaction.
No manager currently working in the Premier League has more control over his environment than Wenger. Last Sunday it was his only job to put out a team capable of making a convincing start to the season on their own ground. Now, a week later, he goes to the home of Leicester, the underdogs who decisively beat them to last seasons title with a chance to put things right.
As the pages turn ever more quickly, the concluding chapter of his time in north London is approaching the final paragraph and it grows harder to believe in a happy ending.
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