Arsene Wenger of Arsenal looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Villa Park. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
Somehow, for very different reasons, both Arsene Wenger and Andre Villas-Boas are slaves to systems they didn’t, or didn’t mean to, create.
Seven seasons without a trophy! Worst Arsenal team in 10 years! Crisis!
Obligatory observations out of the way, it is worth noting that the perceived facts of Arsenal's current situation both under and overstate the severity of the situation. "Worst" is, by definition, a relative term. "Crisis" really should be one too. Manchester City went 35 seasons without a trophy before winning last season's FA Cup. On the other hand, Arsenal won seven trophies in their first eight years under Wenger and the 2002 vintage won the double. Crises come in different sizes and smells: a huge empty stadium and a pissed off, ripped off community of supporters definitely qualifies as one (albeit a somewhat middle-class and privileged one).
Whatever the extent of it, though, it is clear that Arsenal has problems. The solution to these, so the orthodoxy goes, is "leadership." Patrick Vieira, Martin Keown and Roy Keane, "winners" all, have weighed in to lament / laugh at the lack of "leadership" (a lack which, in Keane's scary old mind at least, is manifested in knitwear).
These former players, disciples of English football's peculiar conceptual set (whereby individualistic intangibles like "bravery," "leadership" and "passion" are the particular units of analysis), cite the lack of an archetypal leader as the cause of Arsenal's troubles. Doing so, however, simplifies the problem; it implies that Arsenal would be back where they want to be if only Arsene would stop being so stubborn and bring in Karl Henry to angrily anchor the midfield. That isn't right. Arsenal play a directionless, fuzzy sort of football not because they lack a leader to tell them what to do, but because they lack a tactical focal point to make sense of what they do.
Arsenal's current brand of 4-2-3-1 was implemented in 2009 to make the best of Cesc Fabregas's brilliance. The strange "pivot" midfield that Arsenal operates was conceived to allow Fabregas to play as close to the striker and with as little defensive responsibility as possible. It was relatively successful and, had Fabregas and Robin van Persie's periods of sporadic fitness been more coincidental, it would surely have led to tangible success to go with the aesthetic pleasure it produced. Now though, with Aaron Ramsey filling in in Fabregas's absence, the system leaves Arsenal looking ponderous and directionless. This is not Ramsey's fault - he is not physically ready to play an entire season in any midfield position, let alone one with such unique responsibilities. Robin van Persie, although clearly a top-drawer player, cannot be the focal point of this team because his lone striker role means that he is matched up against two centre-backs, which means that he needs the support of an offensive midfielder. Ramsey currently is not offering van Persie that support. As a result, the captain cuts an isolated and frustrated player.
Perhaps, if Marouane Chamakh had any form, or Park Chu-Young any ... whatever it is he's lacking (I know almost nothing about him or why he's not playing; is there anything to know?), Wenger could change things by dropping van Persie back to play behind a more orthodox target-man in the way Arsenal started last season with Fabregas off Chamakh. Maybe, if Andrei Arshavin or Tomas Rosicky were more reliable, they could have played the Fabregas role. Jack Wilshere was possibly supposed to play there. Currently though, with none of these options apparently viable, Wenger has no option but to persist with the system towards which all of his recent recruitment has been directed. Paradoxically, that system requires a player which he currently does not have available.
This leaves a physical vacuum in the middle of Arsenal's whole system and it is this, rather than the absence of a traditional "captain" figure, that explains the club's apparent lack of on field direction.
Evidence for this, in fact, can be found across London. Andre Villas-Boas has found himself similarly stymied. His Chelsea team, like Wenger's Arsenal, resembles an Italian cruise ship despite having a plethora of leaderly archetypes (the likes of which Arsenal apparently require). Didier Drogba, John Terry and Frank Lampard are, in fact, the problem for Chelsea as they require the side to play an anachronistic type of football for which Chelsea's new breed of players (Fernando Torres, David Luiz and Juan Mata) are tactically unsuited.
Both Wenger and Villas-Boas, at the helms of the Premier League's "crisis clubs," are trapped in tactical systems that neither seems able to change. For different reasons, and via different routes, both managers oversee rudderless outfits. That being the case, no amount of leaders or quality of leadership, will solve problems which instead require the far more complex salve of a complete tactical refit or personnel overhaul.