I am probably one of the bigger defenders of Arsene Wenger you'll ever encounter. I am, however, not a blind apologist - I fully recognize he has...problems? Issues? Things he could improve on? Blind spots? I'm not sure what to call them, but "blind spots" is my current favorite. Whatever you call them, I have never shied away from talking about them. In that light, something he said after last Saturday's loss caught my attention:
It was put to Arsène Wenger after Saturday's defeat at The Hawthorns that this stumble was typical of his team. "Yes, I don't deny that," conceded the Frenchman before elaborating without really explaining. "That is where we have to mature. I feel we took it a bit too easy at 1-0 despite the experience we have in the squad. I could feel it from the outside. Instead of pushing on we became vulnerable."
Does that sound familiar to you? It should.
Arsene Wenger Calls Players "Naive" - November 2014
Arsene Wenger Says Defense Was Naive - October 2013
So, as we can see, Arsene Wenger is not shy about criticizing his players - "naive" and "immature" are words he's used quite a bit through the years to describe losses. And that, in a nutshell, is my problem. This particular team has been together, for the most part, for three-ish years, under the same coaching staff. So why are they still "naive"? How can they be "immature"? Shouldn't they be less prone to naivete and more grown up after being together that long as a team? Wouldn't there be some advantage to having a fairly consistent group of players training with each other every day, learning each other's nuances and preferences, and generally growing stronger as a unit?
Naivete, to me, implies a lack of sophistication, a lack of experience, and/or a lack of learning from one's mistakes - or even a lack of awareness that one is making mistakes. In a team sports setting, it generally falls to the coach and his/her staff to, well, coach their players past that naive stage and into being a cohesive unit. "Immature" is another word that implies inexperience, youth, and a lack of tactical awareness, all of which should be able to be coached out of players.
It's entirely possible that Wenger is using those particular words as a catch-all for "they screwed some shit up today". Which is OK, I guess, because teams screw up regularly, but it also makes me wonder - what if he's not? What if they are perpetually naive and immature? Who gets to carry the blame for that?
There's a big difference in my mind between the occasional mistake and a persistent naivete - things like getting careless yellows or giving up the occasional derpy goal are gonna happen, no matter what. As long as those occasional mistakes are isolated, they're usually not too damaging. Persistent naivete, though, like not really knowing when or how to adapt your play to a specific game situation, and for instance getting caught on the counter because you're pressing for another goal late in a game that you're leading, is a bigger problem.
If it's true that Arsenal are, as those quotes show, consistently naive, why is that? Does Arsenal just attract a breed of player who never develops or gets better? Or is there something in the coaching of Wenger and his staff that makes his teams consistently, in his words, naive and immature? It clearly isn't the former, to me, because Arsenal do seem to have players get better over time. So is it the latter?
I understand that the stability in the team I mention above has been hit with injuries, and that particular issue has meant inconsistent starting lineups for a good long while. But! Everyone's always in training, and even if players have differing ability/readiness levels given a particular injury situation, they're still the same group of players who train together every day, right?
One of the things I've loved about Wenger in his time at Arsenal is his complete and unrelenting faith in his players. He's famous for not doing a whole lot of actual tactical coaching - he gets what he believes to be smart players, instills his system into them, and turns them loose, confident that his players will be smart enough to work through any problems on the pitch more or less on their own.
When that works, it's a thing of beauty, but when it doesn't? We get West Ham, we get September's Champions League results, and we get West Brom. And again, I know the occasional bad result happens; what bugs me is that the bad results, in Arsenal's case, are all written off with the exact same explanation, and the more it happens, the more I'm not sure I buy that explanation.
I get that most of what's bothering me here is just about words, and that I maybe shouldn't read all that much into them. But the words he uses carry very specific connotations, and Wenger doesn't say things indiscriminately or by accident. This latest statement of immaturity, following similar statements in the last few years, raised questions in my mind, mostly: how long are we supposed to accept that a team with Mesut Özil, Alexis Sanchez, Per Mertesacker, and Laurent Koscielny, players in their prime with tons of league and European experience, is naive or immature?
I'm not WENGEROUT. I don't want his head on a platter, and I want him to remain coach as long as he wishes to. But I also want him to realize, whether this realization comes publicly or not, that at the end of the day, he is the one who needs to ensure his players aren't naive, aren't immature, and are ready for anything the game can possibly throw at them, whenever and however it gets thrown.