Arsenal’s capitulation at Anfield seemed almost pre-ordained. Danny Welbeck’s goal offered a flicker of hope before an injury-time strike from Georginio Wijnaldum shattered the club’s morale and further dashed their chances of finishing in the top four.
It has seen renewed calls for Arsene Wenger’s head from Arsenal fans, a situation that has become as regular in March as the passing from winter to spring in recent years.
The pressure on Wenger is nothing new, but something feels different this time according to one of his former players. Gilberto Silva was part of Wenger’s fabled ‘Invincibles’, but the midfielder feels the current malaise at Emirates Stadium may finally spell the end of the Frenchman’s reign.
“I feel that the time has come,” Silva tells Sport360. “The more the past is coming to a close, the more his time is coming – not because he can’t do the job any longer, but, perhaps because the other clubs have changed their way of working, the way of doings things. He hasn’t changed much, he hasn’t changed his way of working – not, because he doesn’t want to, but it is not so easy to compete with clubs who spend a lot of money every season.”
In the Premier League, Wenger is the longest serving coach by a considerable distance, with his two decades at the helm of Arsenal putting him a full 16 years ahead of the man in second place, Eddie Howe. The past 20 years under Wenger have seen glorious success mingled with serial failure. But with the influx of many young and modern coaches – Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp, Pep Guardiola and Mauricio Pochettino – the Frenchman’s methods are lagging behind.
“He has been in the Premier League longer than those coaches,” Silva says. “Wenger has spent a lot more years than them in the Premier League. They are younger and motivated. They have a lot of energy to look around and source ways to win against Wenger. He has his own way of working, in which he believes. Irrespective of whether you are either a young or an old coach, you have to believe in something, and that’s what he does.”
The 5-1 defeat at Bayern Munich was a new nadir for Arsenal. The Londoners imploded after their captain Laurent Koscielny limped off injured. They made elementary defensive mistakes, showed tactical ineptness and lacked a genuine backbone, all arguments that the restless and ever-growing ‘Wenger out’ mob have repetitively hurled at the club’s coach as they demand his departure. For Gilberto, many of Arsenal’s problems come down to a question of leadership.
“We had Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell, Tony Adams,” explains Silva, referring to the team that went unbeaten to win the Premier League in 2003-04. “They imposed themselves on the field and were respected. It shouldn’t matter who isn’t playing. At Arsenal, all the players should feel like a leader. That’s what they have to do. Not every player will be comfortable with this role, but a leader needs to confront and push other players. You have to tell them the truth if they are not doing the right thing.”
In recent weeks, Alexis Sanchez had been the sole Arsenal player to resist the negative narrative around the club, with some spirited performances. But then Wenger dropped the high-energy Chilean against Liverpool, allegedly for storming out of a training session. In the second half, Sanchez’s introduction gave Arsenal purpose. His mobility and guile troubled Liverpool, but Arsenal were unable to turn the tide.
“He is very visible with his game and he can express himself on the pitch,” Silva says of Sanchez. “If he would push the other players and find a way to unit them, he’d help the team. It is up to him to find a way to push his colleagues more – to defend better – and he will do the job up front.”
The pummeling that Arsenal took at Liverpool was yet again marked by an absence of competitiveness. This was Arsenal at their most tepid, with Wenger seen clutching his face on several occasions. Has the Frenchman, with all the existential angst surrounding Arsenal, and after an introspective journey, come to the conclusion that Arsenal no longer need his services? After the full-time whistle Wenger was asked, “Is that it?” Perhaps this last installment of serial failure and disillusion one too many.
“He is a strong man, because in the last few years he has been criticised a lot,” says Silva. “At the end of the day, he is upset with all the comments and it’s not so easy to cope with that criticism, year by year. He has kept competing with the other big clubs, despite not getting a major trophy. When I worked with him, he always found good players in every position, with a mix of experienced players and youth. The younger players could learn and that was important for the team’s transition from one year to another.
I’d love Wenger to leave the club with another trophy. That way he can end his time at Arsenal properly.
“I don’t know if he will leave the club at the end of this season or next season, but it looks like it. Honestly, I’d love Wenger to leave the club with another trophy. That way he can end his time at Arsenal properly. Perhaps he can then opt for another position within the club.”
As well as keeping an eye on Arsenal, Silva has noted the Premier League impact made by his compatriot Gabriel Jesus. The young Brazilian enjoyed a wonderful start to his Manchester City career before that metatarsal injury.
“It is great to see a Brazilian player with his ability adapting so quickly to the Premier league,” Silva beams. “Moving to England was a big step for Jesus. He has not only shown his ability, but also his maturity.
“He is a natural player – the way he does things. He plays in a simple way. He is young and he still has a lot to learn in terms of tactics and team play. Jesus can also improve his game individually. The Premier League will be a great school. He should absorb everything he can. He has to absorb the maximum to produce his very best.”
While Jesus is settling well, fellow Brazilian Oscar chose the exit door at Chelsea. His transfer to China was tragic to many, the midfielder seemingly alienated by the tactical vision and preferences of Italian supremo Antonio Conte, and choosing to move for a remarkable salary.
“It was his decision about the proposal he got,” Silva states. “Nowadays a lot of players are persuaded to go to China, because they are paid huge amounts of money. It’s not easy to tell them not to go. Honestly, from a professional point of view, Oscar would be much better off at a top club in Europe as he has got the potential.
“China wants to be a part of the game – not just a part, but they want to be the new number one. As an outsider, it sometimes looks crazy what they are doing – with the money they are spending. You don’t know if it will have results in the long run.”
Back at home, Gilberto Silva has seen the Brazilian national team reinvigorated following the appointment of coach Tite. The former Corinthians strongman has taken the five-time world champions in a new direction, the Selecao enjoying six straight wins in World Cup qualifying, including a thumping 3-0 victory against rivals Argentina. But will Brazil, who still rely a lot on Barcelona star Neymar, be able to compete with the likes of Germany and France come the 2018 World Cup in Russia?
“At the moment, Brazil suffer from a dependence on Neymar, but that may change with Jesus,” explains Silva. “He can help Neymar and lift a bit of the responsibility of his shoulders. But it’s not only about Neymar and Jesus. The players need to take their responsibility to deliver what is expected from them.
“The experience they have now is very different from the 2014 World Cup. The World Cup qualifiers in South America are a big test and help you mature. That’s the level of difficulty you’d face at a Confederations Cup or a World Cup, but, in 2014, Brazil didn’t have the experience of the qualifiers.
“That was an important part that Brazil had missed out on at the time. You go to Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia and those games are very helpful. This time around they will be more experienced in terms of the big games and the circumstances. Brazil will be much better.”
Hammers boss Slaven Bilic took advantage of a fixture-free weekend last month to jet off with his squad to seek out some sunshine.
But winger Snodgrass, a £10.2million January signing from Hull, revealed the so-called warm-weather training was a washout due to the constant rain.
“To be honest with you, the weather was worse than Scotland,” he said. “It was raining a lot, and cold. It felt pretty much like I was back home in Glasgow.
“So the lads were gutted. They had some swimming shorts for sitting around the pool after training, but there was none of that. Absolutely none. Some of the lads had jackets and hats on, it was unbelievable – something I had never seen in Dubai before. I still had to use factor 50, mind.
“But it was good. We probably trained harder over there than we did here. Because that was one thing the manager stressed, that we have to work harder out there. The only disappointing thing was that we thought it was going to be hot-weather training, but it was totally different.”
The Hammers did manage a spot of team bonding between the downpours, including a visit to Salt Bae chef and internet sensation Nusret Gokce’s restaurant.
“The chef was there, he came and did his thing with the salt,” added Snodgrass.
“I think if that restaurant was in Glasgow it would be shut down, it’s just a guy walking round with a big knife!
“But he was such a nice guy. I think he was going somewhere else but he drove back for us to cook the stuff and chop it up which was really nice of him.”
Snodgrass is now hoping to cut Chelsea down to size when the runaway Premier League leaders visit the London Stadium on Monday night.
“We have got players here that can cause any team problems,” he said. “But it is the teams in the top six that we have not picked up a lot of points against this year, so we need to start on Monday against Chelsea.”
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal are going through tough times.
The Gunners haven’t ended a Premier League season out of the top four since 1996, but Wenger’s charges now sit fifth in the table after being defeated by Liverpool at Anfield on Saturday.
Do you think Arsenal will finish outside the Premier League top four this season?
Let us know your thoughts as our two writers discuss the topic.
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ALAM KHAN, SAYS YES
Inexplicable and indefensible – words to sum up Arsene Wenger’s decision to bench Alexis Sanchez at Liverpool and probably cost Arsenal a top-four spot.
This was a blunder too far as they may not recover from the fallout of the decision, and 3-1 defeat against one of their main rivals for a Champions League spot.
After the 5-1 battering at Bayern Munich, the Anfield test was crucial for Arsenal to respond, while the hosts came into it hurting from their own loss at struggling Leicester, where the pace of Jamie Vardy inspired their downfall.
So it made absolutely no sense in making Sanchez, who has 17 goals and nine assists, a substitute and only bringing him on when the Gunners were 2-0 down. Wenger said he preferred a direct attacking approach with Olivier Giroud and Danny Welbeck, but that was laughable.
Arsenal are no route one side and never have been under him, and surely, even then, Sanchez should have started ahead of Alex Iwobi or Alex Oxlade Chamberlain on the wing? You just don’t leave your best, world-class player out in major, must-not-lose games.
The thought process was baffling even if it was a message to the Chilean over his refusal to sign a new contract, or a case of saving him, Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey for the second leg against Bayern on Tuesday?
Sacrificing their league position, though, was somewhat suicidal. Arsenal dropped to fifth with Liverpool moving above them and while there may be only two points between them, the psychological blow could be more damaging.
Arsenal lack the motivation and momentum of Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester City and even Manchester United. Two will miss out and Arsenal look the most vulnerable.
They have to face three of those teams and it’s difficult to see them coming out on top. The ‘Wenger Out’ bandwagon is rolling and in the past two games, against Bayern and Liverpool, the players have looked dishevelled, devoid of belief and destroyed.
JAMES PIERCY, SAYS NO
Arsenal fans can be split into two camps right now: Those optimistic they can finish in the top four based on the fact, well, that they always finish inside the top four, and a growing number who secretly hope they miss out as a means to finally cut the cord with Arsene Wenger.
It would be a cruel, and slightly ironic, end to his reign should this come to past – given over the last 10 years his reputation has been built around such remarkable consistency in qualifying for the Champions League.
But followers of the north London club have reason to be positive beyond history and blind faith.
Firstly, too many of their players are underperforming for it to last until the end of the season – Petr Cech, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey and Shkodran Mustafi are all quality internationals and the axis of this side.
Laurent Koscielny aside, when that core underperforms so does the team overall; it’s inconceivable their respective lean spells will continue for much longer.
Secondly, Arsenal will be eliminated by Bayern Munich tomorrow night and Arsene Wenger’s squad rotation for the Premier League can stop. Predicting their starting XI is something of a lottery.
Adapting your XI to match up against certain teams is normal, but Wenger has robbed this team of a degree of its character. Consistency in selection must now be paramount.
Fixtures-wise, they do still have to play Manchester City, United and Tottenham but the latter two are at the Emirates where they have won nine of 13 league games so far.
Arsenal’s destiny may be out of their hands but there are 12 matches still to play and try and convince yourself erratic Liverpool won’t drop points or United won’t struggle to score against teams they should be beating comfortably.
Since 2011-12, in the last 10 games of each season, Arsenal have lost just five of 50 matches. Since the overriding narrative surrounding the Gunners is “same old story”, maybe we should just come to expect them to kick into gear again.