The bench mark
While we wait with baited breath for Arsene Wenger to spend that mountain of cash he's sitting on I have to find things to write about for this site. In a year where there's a major championship that's not too difficult. In a year where there is no Summer tournament it becomes a little less easy. However, I do have some things lined up to fill the gaps that lie ahead and I hope that Arsene does the rest by brining in some quality. He's certainly started on the right foot by bombing out some of the dead wood, and freeing up a massive chunk of money that was being wasted on their wages. What you won't get on this site is any comment on the "gossip" surrounding transfers. If a signing is announced, or looks like a stick-on deal, then I'll write about it. Otherwise, there will be nothing to say on here, as is the policy.
On with the business of the day and I want to share a piece I mentioned at the beginning of last week with regards to Bayern Munich and what their winning of the European Cup and, more particularly, their thrashing of Barcelona tells us about Arsene Wenger's methods.
When Arsene arrived at Arsenal he had already secured the signing of Patrick Vieira. At well over six-feet tall Vieira was quite the sight in an English midfield. He was joined by Emmanuel Petit, and later by Gilberto Silva and Edu. Out wide there was pace in the shape of Overmars and Parlour, and later with Pires and Ljungberg and Sylvain Wiltord (Parlour's qualities allowed him to move all across the midfield and slot in anywhere with comfort). In short, Wenger had identified that pace and power in the middle of the pitch was the way to dominate English football. These physical specimens in the centre were simply too strong, too quick, too skillful and too powerful for just about every other team to handle. The performance of Petit and Vieira at Old Trafford in March 1998 was a seminal moment in the English game as Arsenal showed themselves to be the side that could beat Manchester United in every department. The two Frenchmen were an unstoppable force over the next couple of years. Added to this physicality was the searing pace of Overmars and co and, with the exception of Parlour (who only chipped in occasionally) the ability to score lots of goals from wide. Behind this midfield was a trio of inter-changeable centre-backs in Adams, Keown and Bould. They were flanked by the two defensively brilliant full-backs, Dixon and Winterburn. The fact that both men were also more than capable to supplementing the attacking play of this team was a huge bonus. Put together with the World Class goalkeeper in David Seaman the side had a solid base. Within a few years the defence had changed and Sol Campbell, Kolo Toure, Ashley Cole and Lauren provided the same qualities at the back, with another great goalkeeper in Jens Lehmann replacing Seaman. Throughout these halcyon days there was the genius of Dennis Bergkamp to link midfield with whichever prolific centre-forward Wenger was employing. Between 1997 and 2005 (Wenger's golden era) we always had someone scoring goals for fun, whether it was Ian Wright (for half of 97-98), Nicolas Anelka or Thierry Henry, Bergkamp had a man up front who could benefit from his peerless quality. In short, Arsene Wenger had found the blueprint for success in this country. For some reason he couldn't turn it in to European success. And then came Barcelona.
The great Barcelona team of the last seven years was built differently from Wenger's great Arsenal sides. There was an emphasis on small, quick, technical players. They beat Arsenal, of course, in the European Cup Final. By that time Arsene had already begun to change things. Out had gone the likes of Vieira and Edu and Parlour and Lauren and Wiltord. Pires, Campbell and Cole were also on their way out. In their places had come Fabregas, Hleb, Eboue, Flamini and Clichy. Soon arriving would be Rosicky and Nasri, while the likes of Gilberto were to become marginalised. It was often termed "project youth" by Arsenal fans as that seemed to be what Wenger was going with. In hindsight it should have been "project Barcelona" as that was what he was trying to emulate. The difference was that they had Xavi and Iniesta and Ronaldinho (and later Messi). We had Nasri, Flamini and Hleb. We also abandoned having a World Class goalkeeper and the centre-backs gradually got worse and worse. In terms of the copying of Barcelona that was fine, as they have never had a defence or goalkeeper worthy of the name. Thierry Henry would leave the following year, so Barca had him and Samuel Eto'o to play up front. We had Emmanuel Adebayor who thought he was in that sort of company but really never was. Arsene's midfield midgets couldn't win in England, never mind in Europe.
So we come to this year, and it seems that Bayern Munich have re-written the blueprint for success once again. But how have they done it? Well, if you look at their side it has more than a look of Wenger's great teams about it. They have the best goalkeeper in the World in Manuel Neuer. They have attacking full-backs in Lahm and Alaba who can spring forward at any time to create from wide, but who know that their main job is to defend. Lahm's performance at our place this season was a case in point. For an hour he was the outlet, but when Oxalde-Chamberlain came on down Arsenal's left he sat at right-back and snuffed out the threat. Their only weakness at Bayern is centre-half where Dante and Jerome Boateng are no Tony Adams or Sol Campbell. In midfield they have Bastian Schweinsteiger, the best central midfield player in the World, for me. Out wide they have the pace and goalscoring of Ribery and Robben. At times that pair can be unstoppable, if only Robben would learn to pass the ball. Up front they have had Mario Gomez (who is about to move on, apparently) and/or Mario Mandzukic and Claudio Pizarro. With Thomas Muller playing the Bergkamp role (not in the same class, mind you) they have basically taken the Wenger model and won everything. Bayern play the same fast, physical, skillful attacking game that Wenger's great teams did, rather than the slow possession game of Barcelona and the modern Arsenal side. With Javi Martinez and/or Anatoliy Tymoschuk in midfield they also have their Petit/Edu/Gilberto type who will defend and mix it with the opposition as necessary.
If only Arsene had kept doing what he was doing we might have had a better time since 2005. I hope he can see what has happened and realises that he must go back to his original plan to be successful again. The power of Bayern was too much for the art of Barcelona. I know what I prefer to watch, and it is the Wenger side of ten years ago, rather than the one of now.