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.”
GILBERTO SILVA MAJOR HONOURS
- Atletico Mineiro: Copa Libertadores '13
- Arsenal: EPL 03–04; FA Cup '03, '05;
- Panathinaikos: Greek Super League 09–10; Greek Cup '10
- Brazil: World Cup '02; Copa America '07; Confed Cup '05, '09
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.”