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The Uncomfortable Question

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Arsene keeps running out a system that clearly isn't working. Why?

The best thing
The best thing
Friedemann Vogel

If you know me at all, or even if you just internet-know me, you'll know I have very little patience for talking about formations.  They largely don't matter; unlike in, say, the NFL, where man-to-man matchups are very important and plays start and stop regularly, allowing for setting up in a way that might make a difference, soccer formations really only matter before the game starts, as a guide to where someone will probably be. Once the game gets moving, the "formation" adjusts infinitely and constantly depending on what's happening in the game, so it's kinda pointless to obsess over whether something's a 4-4-2, a 4-3-2-1, a 3-5-1, or whatever.

That said, though, it's evident to even the most hardened of STOP TALKING ABOUT FORMATIONS people that the  4-1-4-1 that Arsene Wenger has insisted on playing with recently flat out doesn't work. Yesterday, Aidan did a great job of explaining why, and how it can be fixed, so I won't rehash all that here; go read his piece again, it's excellent. In brief, this formation was created to bring the best out of Jack Wilshere, which is excellent except...does one really want to build an entire attack around Jack Wilshere?

My focus today is not on the what, but the why.  If we can take as read a few basic assumptions, namely:

1. Arsene Wenger is the best manager in Arsenal's modern era by a long shot
2. Arsene Wenger forgot more about soccer, soccer players, and how to best evaluate and deploy them yesterday than I will ever know in my lifetime, even if I live to be 546 years old
3. Arsene Wenger got to where he is and became who he is by being very, very smart and understanding how to maximize available resources

Then the question remains, why does he insist on doing something that clearly, even to our unsophisticated layperson's eyes, does not work?

As with seemingly all things in modern analysis, the answer to that requires that I take a Gladwellian left turn into something random. NO WAIT DON'T STOP READING PLEASE STICK AROUND

I promise this has a point, it'll be brief.

I grew up in a family of educators. My dad had a Ph.D in education, three of his brothers were either teachers or school district administrators, and my dad in fact retired as an administrator after teaching both HS and college. So, I grew up around quite a bit of intellectual rigor (which most likely skipped a generation in my case, but hey, at least I got charm!).  One of the things my dad loved to do was watch the news (he died pre-Internet) - he would watch the 5PM local news, then the national, then the 6.30 local again just because he was a voracious consumer of news.

What this gave my dad was a couple things: An almost encyclopedic knowledge of the events of the day, and a platform on which he built his opinions of said events.  As I got older, and started to take an interest in things like "the world", we'd discuss things - he liked sharing his opinions with me, but mostly he liked trying to assert how right he was.  He had a fallback phrase whenever we would differ on something, be it news, parenting, movies, whatever:

"I may not always be right, but I'm never wrong".

So yeah, my dad was one of the most stubborn people I've ever known.

That phrase of my dad's goes through my head every time I see Arsene throw out a formation that obviously doesn't work, or persist in playing a clearly out of form player, because he has an unshakable belief that his decisions and tactics are right. Early in Arsene's Arsenal career, he was infamous for rushing players back from injury to play in big games - he did it with Bergkamp, with Ian Wright, a lot with Emmanuel Petit, and even with Thierry Henry a few times.

Why does he do these things? Because he's convinced his approach is the right one. Wenger has long been known for not doing a whole lot of traditional coaching - he gets talented players and tries to give them space and freedom to express that talent on the pitch. Which is phenomenal, except when his preferred players aren't available or when other teams have the temerity to break up Arsenal's style of play.

When either of those things happen, the obvious response is "change what you're doing to adapt to what's happening", right? Not if you're Wenger, apparently. His other trait is that he's never been known to have a plan B; if his plan A doesn't work, he just keeps at it until it does. This used to work great when the gap between Arsenal's athletic and footballing talents and those of other teams was fairly large; now, at least at the elite, CL-winning level, that gap is gone and Arsenal are not able to out-talent teams like they used to.

As is natural in all discussions of a manager as tenured as Wenger, comparisons are inevitably made to that other long-tenured manager, Sir Alex Ferguson.  As a manager, he was every bit as, if not more, bloody-minded than Wenger, by all accounts; if SAF didn't want to do it, he didn't do it. So what's the difference between the two? SAF was far more ruthless about identifying his own team's weaknesses and adapting his roster/formations to account for them than Wenger seems to be.

So after 900 words, we come to the Uncomfortable Question. Given that Wenger is who he is, what is to be done?  It should be clear to everyone that Wenger will not change - he does what he does, and he's got a track record that supports that approach - but what is less clear is, what happens if it all goes Derek Jeter, and this season does turn out to be the complete shitshow that the last couple games have foreshadowed? Or what if this season turns out to be a carbon copy of last, with Arsenal treading water in fourth place and with another FA Cup to show for all the new investment in players?

Does the Arsenal board let it get to that point, or does it pull Wenger aside and intimate that he has the season to sort it out - and that if he can't, maybe it's time to shake hands and part friends in May? I don't want Arsene Wenger to leave any earlier than he wants to, but the thought "maybe he needs to want to" keeps creeping into my head.

I will never join the WENGEROUT brigade; I have far too much respect for what he's done to demand he be Moyesed out of a job after two bad games.  After all, a little perspective is needed - that was only the first Champions League game of the season, and I have every confidence Arsenal will progress to the group stages even after what I saw yesterday.  I do recognize that nothing lasts forever; I just don't feel the need to actively force a midseason change as a result of anger/disappointment over a single bad result and a couple rough outings. Wenger deserves more of a leash than that, and it kills me that people are calling for his head after yesterday.

I feel like I must, however, start entertaining the Uncomfortable Question this season for the first time, and that makes me immeasurably sad.