WHAT I'VE LEARNT THIS WEEK
IF Arsenal fail to win the Champions League – and let’s be honest, that seems an inevitability in a competition that still compromises the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United and their opponents at the Emirates Stadium tomorrow evening, Bayern Munich – Arsene Wenger will have gone eight seasons without a trophy.
Wenger has been an overwhelming force for good in English football and his varied achievements in North London should be applauded and celebrated but sometimes a change is needed, and at a time when his club is no longer merely stagnating but going backwards, a parting of ways in the summer – a year before his present contract ends – seems logical.
There was a time when Arsenal’s elimination at the quarter-final stage of the Capital One Cup and FA Cup to League Two and Championship opposition respectively would have registered as a seismic shock. Not any longer. Defeat by Bradford City in December and Blackburn Rovers on Saturday invited what have become routine inquests into where Arsenal, or rather Wenger, is going wrong but neither could be said to register as a seismic shock.
There is this notion that Arsenal could come again under Wenger if Financial Fair Play has teeth and clubs are forced to spend only what they earn, but even discounting how Uefa’s rules might affect Chelsea and Manchester City, are we to seriously believe that tighter financial controls alone will usher in a new period of success for the Frenchman?
He has had money to spend for a number of years now and has either chosen not to spend it or, a few notable exceptions aside, frittered it away on a succession of underwhelming signings that have failed to address what have become almost in-built failings – an unconvincing goalkeeper, a weak central defence, at least one dodgy full-back, the absence of a tenacious, reliable destroyer in midfield and a lack of cutting edge upfront. So even if Arsenal’s rivals are hindered financially, what is to say Wenger will suddenly start using the money he has to spend more wisely?
And then there is the thorny subject of Arsenal becoming a selling club, a predicament brought about in large part by their lack of silverware but also exacerbated by their failure to address the contractual situations of their most important players early enough to avoid calamity. That’s not to say everyone will always stay – the departures of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were probably unavoidable – but Arsenal have been playing a dangerous game of chance for too long and have invariably suffered for it.
In the past, it was easy to suggest Wenger should go but harder to come up with the name of a credible successor. That seems less of an issue now. Wenger has reached a point where he seems unable to take a step back and detach himself for long enough to realise that he has too many players who are not and never will be good enough to challenge the elite. Unless he recognises that and brings some fresh ideas and impetus to Arsenal, it is hard to see their present cycle changing any time soon.
For all of Arsenal’s troubles, they pale by comparison to the problems that have plagued Blackburn since the Lancashire club’s takeover by Indian poultry firm Venky’s in November 2010, but are Wenger’s conquerors last weekend finally be getting enough momentum together to make a late and sustained bid for promotion back to the Barclays Premier League?
Blackburn’s 1-0 victory at the Emirates was their fourth win in five matches, and if they can overcome second-placed Hull City at the KC Stadium tomorrow night, the Championship’s other play-off hopefuls will really be looking over their shoulders.
It is hard to escape the feeling, though, that Blackburn’s next three fixtures – Hull, Leeds at home on Saturday and then Leicester City, who are fifth, three days later – will be crucial to their prospects. If they can take at least seven points from those matches, they should be well worth keeping an eye on in the final three months of the campaign.
On the subject of in-form Championship teams, let’s spare a word for Barnsley, who, in the space of six remarkable weeks, have gone from being dead-certs for relegation to League One to a strong bet to survive and FA Cup quarter-finalists. The Yorkshire club’s win over MK Dons in the Cup fifth round at the weekend was their seventh victory in their last eight matches under David Flitcroft, who took over from Keith Hill on a caretaker basis at the end of December but whose promising start as manager prompted him to get the job on a full-time basis. Only once, in his first game in charge, has he tasted defeat, and there is such a momentum and confidence to Barnsley at the moment, that it would be no surprise if they finish in the top ten.
Roberto Mancini described himself as “the best manager in England in the last 15 months” after Manchester City’s 4-0 FA Cup fifth round win at home to Leeds yesterday. Fifteen months takes us back to November 2011. Since then, City have been eliminated from the Champions League group stage twice, beaten by Manchester United in the FA Cup third round, beaten by Liverpool in the League Cup semi-finals, beaten by Aston Villa in the League Cup third round by Aston Villa and are presently 12 points adrift of United in the title race with the FA Cup their last chance of silverware this term. Yes, they won the Premier League on goal difference in that time and yes, Mancini deserves credit for overseeing that but they were far less convincing in the second half of last season than the first and were indebted to United throwing away an eight point lead with six matches remaining. If anything over the past 15 months, City have stagnated and are in danger of going backwards. Best manager in the past 15 months? If you say so, Roberto.