Arsene Wenger waves to the crowd

It’s time to honor Wenger with a Lap of Appreciation

Recently, the frustration with Arsène Wenger at Arsenal has started to boil over. I’ve even seen people publicly wishing death upon the man. But aside from the lunatic fringe asking for him to be taken out of the club “in a body bag” even the calmer heads are starting to wonder if it isn’t time to wind up the old man’s career. But how do you do that with a man who has served for 18 years?

First, let’s deal with the “body bag” people. In my research on Arsène’s career and philosophy I’ve noted that he never really was accepted by a certain population of fans. The moment he walked in the door at Arsenal, Wenger announced himself as an aesthete and an iconoclast and to a certain segment of Arsenal fans this was yet another sign that the world was taking “their Arsenal” away.

The world did take their Arsenal away and in many ways Arsène Wenger was on the front line of the massive change in the Premier League. A change from a mostly English endeavor into what it is now: a sport, owned by foreigners, played on English soil by foreign superstars, and streamed on the laptops of billions of people on every corner of the globe.

Every foreign manager plying his trade in England right now owes Arsene Wenger a debt of gratitude. When Wenger came to England, English fans were skeptical that a foreign manager could prove successful. Thus, Wenger’s success, his instant and repeated success, paved the way for all of these Jose come lately’s in the Premier League. English fans now no longer distrust a manager because he’s foreign. In fact, they want foreign managers.

The same with the players. When Wenger came on as Arsenal manager there were few foreign players in the Premier League.¹ The instant and repeated success of Dennis Bergkamp², Patrick Vieira, and Theirry Henry opened the doors for the foreign players in England — they settled questions over whether foreigner’s “could do it on a cold night in Stoke.” Who is the best player in the history of the Premier League? Ryan Giggs or Thierry Henry? I’m biased toward Henry myself but regardless of whether he is number one or number two, now days, fans don’t just accept foreign players, they demand that their teams buy these players for obscene sums.

And Wenger didn’t just give England successful superstars, he transformed the Premier League into a global spectacle. If I can be a bit personal for a moment, I have admitted many times in the past that it was Arsène Wenger’s beautiful football which attracted me to the sport. I hardly think I’m alone in that. I suspect that the popularity of the Premier League in many parts of the globe is at least partly Wenger’s fault.

Thus, Wenger carries the honor of being the first truly great foreign manager in the Premier League, of bringing the League their first truly great foreign stars, and of ushering in the global era of football in England. That man deserves the respect of every player who draws a massive salary, of every foreign manager who plies his trade in England, and of every fan who enjoys the sport for what it is today. That man does not deserve to be taken out of Arsenal “in a body bag.”

Body bag

“Get him a body bag! LOL!” is what the pimply faced kid from Kobra Kai dojo screams in the final fight scene between Johnny and Tommy Larusso in Karate Kid. The line is so preposterous that Robot Chicken was able to easily make the perfect parody and I’m not sure if art is imitating life but Body Bags are on sale at Amazon (watch the clip to get the reference).

The problem – I find it incredible that people don’t see that there is a problem at Arsenal. I love Arsène Wenger, I think he’s a genius, I respect what he has done for the Premier League and for Arsenal but I can also see that Wenger is no longer able to make the impact on the game that he once was. I can see that players like Luis Gustavo no longer immediately jump at the chance to play for Arsène Wenger. I can see that his own players look to be abandoning him at times on the pitch. I can see that there are injury problems at Arsenal but that Arsenal have been saddled with injuries for years — this cannot simply be bad luck. I can look at the team sheet at the start of the season and see that Arsenal’s balance between attacking players and defenders was tilting at windmills. I can see that Arsenal have all the money they need to buy players and yet players are not purchased when they are badly needed. And worst of all, I can see that Arsène’s tactics are not just naive but have been badly exposed for years now and that glaring problem has not been addressed — they may be perpetually in the Champions League but they are never going to win it, not when a team just needs a single corner to beat them.

I supported Wenger through the good times (that was easy), I supported Wenger through the youth revolution (what’s the frequency, Denilson?), and I supported Wenger in the aimless thrashing around of the post-Cesc era Arsenal. I always said, give him the chance to build the team he wanted when the money ship came in. He’s had that chance and what we’ve gotten are a summer where Arsenal bid on multiple players that they needed and looked like they didn’t know what they were doing. That was followed by a £42m deadline day deal for Özil which looked a lot like they lucked into it. This summer, again, Arsenal looked to lack a clear plan in the transfer market, once again failing to address the crucial need for a center mid who can provide some backbone to this otherwise limp team, and once again landing a lucky deal on the final day of the transfer market — another forward. These are not well planned out summers of spending. These have been bumbling around summers of spending. That the manager told the world he needed a center half and then didn’t buy one is as clear an indication that they didn’t have a plan as I can imagine: it strikes me that perhaps he was saying that publicly as a recruitment tool. “We need to buy a center half” in retrospect looks a lot like “if you’re a center half and you’re unhappy with your situation, send a fax to Arsène Wenger c/o Higbury House, top top top quality inquiries only.”

Most managers run out of ideas after six months: David Moyes ran out of ideas after a few weeks, Luis van Gaal said to give him three months and it’s clear that he is out of ideas, it’s starting to look like Jurgen Klopp is out of ideas at Borussia Dortmund after a few years, and so on. Eventually, all managers even the very best managers, run out of ideas. It looks to me like it’s taken 18 years but finally Arsène Wenger has run out of ideas.

This is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact he should be celebrated for all of the ideas he gave us. All of the players in the Premier League should get a chance to thank him, every fan in the League should give him a standing ovation, and every manager should be given the chance to kiss his ring.

You simply can’t fire a manager who has given so much to the game. It’s too disrespectful because he hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s just run out of ideas. Worse, you can’t just throw the club and the team into that much turmoil by firing a legend. You need to give the fans and the players time to get used to the idea that a new manager is coming on board. And you also need to give this board time to find a real replacement: look what happened with Moyes at United, the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales.

That’s why I think Wenger should call time on his own career. Announce his retirement at the end of the season and give us all a Fergie-style Lap of Appreciation around the Premier League and Europe. I think he will get the most out of the players he has by doing that and I think he will give the board the time they need to hire Frank de Boer (and Dennis Bergkamp as assistant) or Pep Guardiola³. For me, Wenger has to do this himself or risk becoming one of those old coaches clinging to the past, trying the same things over and over, and dragging the club and players down with him. Only to be fired one day after total humiliation.

It’s time we let Wenger bow out with honor and give Wenger the respect he is due, not a body bag.

Qq

¹I don’t have the exact numbers and would appreciate anyone helping to gather this data for me.
²I am aware that Bruce Rioch purchased Bergkamp. However, Wenger made Bergkamp successful.
³Why is it always met with derision whenever someone mentions one of the world’s great managers as Wenger’s successor? People always say “he’d never come to Arsenal”. Shouldn’t we aspire to a Pep Guardiola? When did we lower our expectations?

Over-proofed bread

Arsène bakes up another crust-fallen failure loaf

Every few days I go into my kitchen and pull out a little decomposition notebook, open the book to the same page, and read my notes. Then I grab some bread flour, whole wheat flour, wheat germ, honey, butter, yeast, and salt and place them next to my scale and my bowl on my baking table.

This morning I carefully measured 250g of bread flour, 240g of whole wheat, 10g of wheat germ, and 8g of Kosher salt into my bowl. Then I melted a stick of butter, put 50g of honey into the pot and poured that into a bowl. I filled the bowl with water until the total came to 450g. I poured the liquid into the flour, added a teaspoon of yeast (5g or so) and mixed with my hands.

The dough is warm and sticky at first but as you mix, you stretch the gluten strands and it starts to become more cohesive. I splat the ball of dough on the counter, slide my fingers gently under one side, lift, turn, and flick the dough onto the counter, holding one end and letting the other end go oblong — like Gene Simmons flicking out his tongue. I then stretch the dough in my hands over the top of the part on the counter and wrap it neatly, like swaddling a baby. Repeat this until the dough starts to firm up and become elastic. It will still be oddly wet, but not sticky. Then you know the gluten has worked hard enough and needs a rest.

Home bread baking is often mistaken for a science but it is actually more art than science. Don’t get me wrong, there is a science to it and at the highest level, such as in a professional baker’s kitchen where every aspect like temperature and humidity is rigidly controlled, bread baking is almost pure science. But for us amateurs, we have a set list of ingredients and after that we have to be able to adapt to the conditions. Not all flour is exactly the same, for example. Even two bags labeled “bread flour” might contain different levels of protein (gluten) and require different levels of hydration to open the gluten up.   

Kneading the dough as well is not something I can tell you to do a certain number of times or for some definite period of time. You knead the dough until the gluten tells you it’s ready.

And for me there’s an art to making your own signature loaf. That is what I’m doing with this loaf of bread above. I am perfecting the ingredients, the taste, the texture, the baking time, and all of the aspects of the bread to make my daily bread.

Football is a lot like bread baking. As a manager, you’re trying to make your version of the perfect loaf of bread, except you have a lot of factors that are out of your control. To make a basic football team you have to take 500g of fowards, 700g worth of midfielders, and 1000g of defenders and mix them all up. Sprinkle in a few of your own touches like a dash of Sanchez or a slice of Welbeck and as long as you bought top quality ingredients throughout you have the recipe for a pretty delicious bread.

But whatever you do, don’t forget to add an ingredient or use an ingredient that has gone stale. For example, the one guy on a football team who is crucial to the success of that team is probably your defensive midfielder. He’s the guy who starts your attacks, he takes care of the ball, he wins the ball back, and he covers for the other defenders when they go forward looking for a goal. People used to see this position as the water, pretty much any water will do. But it’s not like that any more. Now days this central midfielder is one of the most important players on the field.

If football is like making yeast bread, I think the defensive midfielder is the yeast. He eats all your sugars, creates the gases that in turn give your bread lightness and texture. Your loaf rises and falls on the strength of that yeast.

And if you go into the season stating that you want to make a recipe for yeast bread then you better damn well have some yeast. Fresh yeast. Good yeast. Yeast that’s ready to take on the challenge of a rather tough loaf. What you don’t do is try to make a loaf of bread with some tired old yeast. You throw that out and get some new yeast.

Right now we all know that Flamini’s old yeast makes for a rather dense, flat, and tasteless loaf. The bottle of Arteta yeast is better but it’s also old and there isn’t much left. You need enough yeast to make 60 loaves. Arteta isn’t going to make more than 25 and probably only 20 good ones.

It’s inconceivable that a baker of Wenger’s stature, a guy who worked with Parlor and Vieira, would think “I guess I’ll just make do with Flamini.” And don’t give me this line about how you can’t just buy yeast. Yes you can. You can buy anything. Arsenal have money in the bank and a surplus of attacking players. If you want yeast, you can buy some yeast. If you have to sell one of the dozen attacking midfielders who are making up squad numbers then do it. Also, sell Podolski, or let him go on a free, he makes £90k a week, money that could be used for a cake of fresh live yeast. Or maybe Stan Kroenke doesn’t need a £3m dividend?

No, this club has the money. They have more money than they have ever had in the history of the club. If they can’t find players who are better than Flamini it’s not because they don’t have the money. Instead what Arsenal have is a baker who wants to gamble with the old yeast. And so far the product is coming out flat.

The other thing you cannot do with bread is make a number of changes to the wheat and expect the same results. If your recipe calls for an 80kg sack of Per and a 70kg sack of Laurent along side a 50kg sack of Gibbs and a 50kg sack of Chambers you cannot just sub in a handful of Nachos, some Bellerin, and sell it to your customers as if it’s the same loaf as before. Yet, that’s exactly what Wenger said after the game, this is the same flour he was using last year:

Last year we had 17 clean sheets with the same defenders but we have not started to do that yet. Our defensive efficiency is not there and we cannot survive at the top level by always conceding two goals.

This response was really worrying. Does Wenger not notice that he has used eight different types of flour to make his first 12 loaves of bread? I don’t even know if Wenger is using flour in his loaves any more. Nacho and Gibbs have been so hit and miss all season that I’m thinking they might be some of that gluten free crap.

For example, in the Hull game Nacho was filling in for Koscielny as Arsenal’s bread flour. On the first Hull goal he is facing up with Diame and makes what could be generously described as a limp challenge. He dangles a leg out, then decides better of it and winces away as Diame strides past him. Bread flour’s gluten provides the structure to your loaf. Limp and lifeless, Nacho isn’t bread flour, he’s gluten free almond flour and you cannot make bread without bread flour, folks. I don’t care what those Glutenfreegan charlatans say, that’s not bread.

And finally, yet another mistake that amateur bread bakers make is that they think they can “switch off” during the rise, the proof, and the baking. Nothing could be worse. It may take time to rise your dough but you cannot simply let a dough rise on the counter and go shopping. If you switch off at this final stage before baking and let the loaf over-proof you get a crust-fallen loaf of bread. I see a loaf like this and I hear the Price is Right loser’s horn. The same horn I hear when an Arsenal midfielder holds his hands up and says “who was supposed to cover that guy? ME? No, I’m an attacking player.”

Over-proofed bread

Unfortunately, Arsenal seem to be switching off so much that I’m not even sure they know where the on button is any more. As I detailed in my post about Arsenal’s set play woes, time and again Arsenal simply relax on set plays. But really, it’s not just set plays, this happens all the time at Arsenal.

Against Hull it happened again, Wilshere was supposed to cover for Gibbs on Hull’s second goal. Tom Hundredstone isn’t the lightest bun in the basket and I doubt he is capable of speeding past anyone down the sideline. Wilshere’s job, as a midfielder, is to cover his midfield runners. He should have been there to challenge Huddlestone on the cross. He wasn’t, they scored.

I could go on with this analogy for another 1000 words, that’s how many problems there are. But what I find most disturbing is that playing football “like Arsenal” used to be something teams aspired to. After today’s 2-2 draw against West Brom, Robbie Earle said that Manchester United are playing football “a little bit like Arsenal.” It was a harsh burn on our loaves.

But it’s no less than Arsenal deserve. Arsenal have been the whipping boys of the top clubs for years and now even the little clubs have figured out how to play against Arsenal. It’s so obvious now how to beat Arsenal that Pep Guardiola authorized the Telegraph to publish an exclusive breakdown on how he prepared his team to beat Arsenal.

Arsenal look like a team which has run out of ideas, lack discipline, are broken with injury, have a crazily cobbled together recipe for making a team, and ultimately already look like we are running out of steam. And it’s only October.

As Arsenal fans we’ve blamed the players (Denilson, Podolski, Arshavin, etc), we’ve blamed the board (no money), we’ve blamed the physios (how did they miss that injury?), we even blame each other (no wonder Gervinho has no confidence what with you slagging him off on that forum). But we change those parts and yet the same problems remain.

Could the problem be with the guy writing the recipe? The guy buying the ingredients? The guy baking the bread?

Could the problem be Arsène Wenger?

Qq

P.S. I baked a nice loaf of bread today. No, I don’t want to be Arsenal’s baker.

bread

P1030963

Seager and Spurling, two book signings with the Gooner Family

By Les Crang

Having meet Dave Seager previously at the Piebury Corner : Art Event in June this year, I had talked to him about his book he was releasing, Geordie Armstrong on the Wing. He had told me he was releasing the book in conjunction with the the Hull City game at The Tollington from 11am to 2pm. Dave would also be there with George Armstrong’s daughter Jill Armstrong and Geordie’s double-winning team mates John Radford, Frank McLintock and Eddie Kelly. All would be there to sign the book.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town (well, Holloway Road) at the Piebury Corner, Jon Spurling was signing copies of his new Arsenal book Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club (reviewed here), between 12 and 2pm. I wanted to get to both events and meet as many people I knew on twitter as possible with a photo diary of the event. Plus meet and talk to the authors (if they had time). Then I had the game to go to afterwards.

Dave Seager signing copies of his Geordie Armstrong book.

Armed with a Digital camera, a kindle to tweet on and pen and paper I made my way from Bow down to Highbury Corner via the 277 bus, leaving at 9am. I had spoken to Dave Seager previously and said it was ok to come around 10am to get some photo’s and have a chat with him if he had time. If not Dave, at least speak to Jill. Getting there by 10.15, I’d half expected just locked doors and a frantic Dave and Jill setting up. Half was true on that front. Already a dozen people had arrived for the book signing.

Jill Armstrong signing more copies

Dave and Jill were signing some copies of the book and I got to quickly have a chat with Jill. She told me it was her first game at the Emirates, though Peter Hill-Wood had offered her the opportunity previously to come. She said it would be weird going there, because Highbury was were she would watch her dad, but also a little easier. She also spoke about as a kid having Liam Brady and Wilf Rostron as her babysitters for her and brother. A word and that often arose at the event was ‘the family’ both of her father and within the Arsenal team. But more of that later.

I waited around, drinking soft drinks as I had gone sober in October. Anyhow with any of these events its about meeting real people as well and getting a face to people you talk to on the web. It was good to meet people I follow on blogs, podcasts or tweeting, so speaking (however briefly) to Peter Nelson (who interestingly told me The Tollington was an old boxing club pub), Darren Berry, Amanda (from the gooner girl podcast), Andy Kelly, Herbert Chapman’s bust, Sean Attwood and Lorraine amongst others (and plenty others I would miss out on unfortunately). This is always a great part of the events in a way, meeting people and discussing Arsenal.

As the event started Frank McLintock came first, then John Radford and finally Eddie Kelly. I was a bit overawed and even when I wanted to go to the loo I waited until Frank McLintock had come out as he had just gone in (yes, stupid on my part).

They then obviously sat there for two hours and had photographs taken and signed copies of the book (including mine) and answered questions and had photos taken. Whatever anyone wanted. But more than that, what was nice was as I watched all three went up and saw how Jill, her mum and brother were had a few words. I felt you could see they wanted to do this book opening for Geordie Armstrong and family. That was really the most touching part of a great event.

Frank McLintock, Eddie Kelly & John Radford signing the book.

Not just the ex players were like that though, It was also Dave Seager as well. He kept a totally professional head (refusing a drink before the event, not stopping from signing copies of the book, answering queries anyone asked, sorting coffee for the players). Many might say, well he is the author? Thats his job? But it wasn’t about Dave, it was that Jill and her family saw that Geordie was still fondly remembered. To Dave, as most likely with the players, it was also that the ‘Gooner family’ enjoyed the event, which I think everyone did.

Who is the famous Writer? Dave Seager. No idea who the other guy is?

Prior to leaving I asked Dave Seager and Jill Armstrong how they felt the event had gone. Jill said ‘I’m overwhelmed with the response. Its left me speechless.’ Dave said ‘despite the pre-match nerves it went swimmingly.’

Look who I meet on the way to the Piebury?

I then proceeded to Piebury Corner on the Holloway Road at about 12.45. I had spoken to the owner Paul in The Tollington and he had offered to give me a lift, but I was still taking some photos. If you ever get chance, go to the Piebury on matchday to listen to him on the decks as well as getting a pie and mash. Lovely guy as well.  On arriving Jon Spurling was signing his new book Red Letter Days: Fourteen Dramatic Events That Shook Arsenal Football Club (review here).

Paul, Owner of the Piebury corner on the decks

A very different event for a very different book, but a very good book none the less. I got there with a brief moment of respite for Jon from selling copies of the book. He said he had opened up on time and sold 10 straight off the bat. He had a steady stream of customers coming through and asked about Dave’s event, as he was hoping (but doubting) he would get down to get a copy. As is ever the case, we discussed where it was going wrong at Arsenal. The usual complaints was our answer. The defender and defensive midfielder everyone is asking for. We also discussed a few other subjects from the book, but Jon had more people lining up for the book so I asked how sales had been going, which Jon said:-

I think it’s good. I have Three positive reviews on Amazon after just two weeks. With more word of mouth and some future podcasts [Footballistically Arsenal this week] I think it will help sales.

Jon Spurling signing copies of his new book

I had also forgot to say thanks to Jon on departing, as I only started writing about Arsenal after I’d read his stuff on Paul Vaessen in one of his books. On that note, I made my way to the match. Perhaps it wasn’t smart to give up drinking then after that match?

Twiglets not included