It's perhaps indicative of the short-termism of perception in modern football that Arsene Wenger's reign at Arsenal feels as though it's spiralling toward its end just days after the glowing celebrations of his remarkable 1,000-game achievement.
Yet, the barrage that the Arsenal boss now finds himself under is something that has been bubbling beneath the surface for a considerable stretch of time.
Of course, his 1,000th match—a 6-0 drubbing at the hands of Chelsea—was an unmitigated disaster, and indeed, an occurrence that would have left many neutrals feeling for the Frenchman. But, rather cruelly, that miserable afternoon at Stamford Bridge was a perfectly timed reflection of Wenger's detachment from the game in its current form.
Against Jose Mourinho—who for all intents and purposes is football's antidote to the 64-year-old—Wenger's defining trait, his unwavering adherence to his all-consuming philosophy, was exposed as both his and his club's biggest weakness. In the modern game, where the ability to adapt and evolve is a manager's key skill, Arsene's rigid beliefs and footballing ideology is now the Achilles' heel of the Arsenal Football Club.
Certainly, no man could expose such a flaw as spectacularly as Mourinho. A man defined by his pragmatism, the Portuguese has no time for the romanticism of style or the inflexibility of unyielding philosophies. Instead, the Chelsea boss is a results-driven man. The journey taken to get to the destination is of little consequence to Mourinho. The outcome is all that matters—aesthetics, principles and even tastefulness are merely expected casualties.
In essence, it's the telling difference between the two men. Yet, in a wider context, it's also what separates Arsenal from their superior English rivals.
Whereas Wenger is a supreme footballing philosopher, a man responsible for revolutionising the game in the 1990s, he's an indecisive gameday tactician. Instead of acknowledging the power of game-to-game adjustments and immediate reactionary decisions, the man in charge of Arsenal is steadfast in his belief of all-encompassing principles. Arsene believes that a team's mantra, the established pillars of a team's identity, will always prove superior in the end.
Like Mourinho, Liverpool's Brendan Rodgers is a new and dynamic adversary for Wenger, and possibly a man who represents the sumptuous middle ground between the Chelsea and Arsenal leaders. Indeed, Rodgers is indicative of the new wave of football managers; his philosophy clear but—in contrast to Wenger—his approach infinitely flexible.
Nothing highlights Rodgers' adaptability more than his use of Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suarez this season. Abandoning previously held conceptions about the shape of his team, the Reds boss overhauled the entire structure of Liverpool to extract the most from his two primary weapons.
That capacity to assess a situation and react is also evident from game to game. Against Wenger and Arsenal, Rodgers followed Sir Alex Ferguson's blueprint for dismantling the Gunners by opting for the pacy Raheem Sterling and industrious Jordan Henderson in prominent midfield roles to harass and intercept the ball at the half-way line. A battering of a stubbornly predictable Wenger ensued.
Contrastingly, against Sunderland on Wednesday, the emerging Liverpool manager elected for Philippe Coutinho and Joe Allen as his central generals, understanding that an opponent more inclined to sit deep required a pair of composed and incisive passers. Again, the specific adjustment paid dividends on the same night a predictable Arsenal dropped points to Swansea.
Rodgers, of course, is a disciple of Mourinho. But more telling than their connection is the results the two men are yielding from their teams. The pair have embraced the times and moved with the sport's evolution to become the pre-eminent managers in the English game.
Yet, it's beyond the realm of the tactics board that typifies the difference between the obstinate Wenger and his surging counterparts. Arsenal's relentless battle with injuries and the regular end-of-season fatigue are the clear fault of the manager's training methods.
Right now, Arsenal sit atop the Premier League injury table, with eight players currently sidelined. Chelsea and Liverpool possess exactly half of that between them. Sadly, it's a problem not limited to this season.
In 2011-12—which was incidentally the first season Arsenal had managed to keep Robin van Persie on the pitch for a full campaign—Arsenal's players missed 1,343 days of activity through injury. In the same season, Chelsea's squad missed just 356. Champions Manchester City saw their players absent for just 186. Strength and conditioning coach Raymond Verheijen has been among those to criticise the Frenchman's approach to training, as relayed by the Mirror's Ed Malyon—and at least privately, he's surely not alone.
Failing to recognise the increase in speed and explosiveness of modern football, Wenger has continued to use the Marine-like training regimen that first propelled Arsenal to the summit of England shortly after his arrival. But being the last of a breed of manager who controls every aspect of a team's preparation, Wenger has failed to recognise the outdated nature of his approach and the physical toll imparted on his players.
Having changed the game once, Wenger has mistakenly refused to let the game do the same to him. Consequently, he's been left to look like a Nokia as Apple, HTC and Samsung—in this case Mourinho, Rodgers and Manuel Pellegrini—go racing by.
Patently, there is something admirable to Wenger's affinity for his principles. Indeed, there's an aura of charming idealism to the Frenchman. His reluctance to deal with vulture-like player managers and part with expansive sums for rival talent is at odds with the time of his managerial existence. And had those principles delivered a degree of recent success, there'd be a pleasantly refreshing feel to Wenger's presence in football.
Yet, for ground to be made, compromise must be as well. The Arsenal boss reaped early rewards from an unparalleled footballing philosophy, but a misguided stubbornness in his beliefs has halted both Arsenal's triumphs and his own refreshing appeal.
For a philosopher to remain relevant, he must remain in touch with the situation around him. That would suggest the end is near for Arsene.
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