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Manner of defeat suggests problems at Arsenal run deep

Thursday, 13 December 2012 - 6:00pm IST | Agency: Daily Telegraph
Player sales, poor defending and problems with coaches all point to a dysfunctional and unsatisfactory set-up, writes Alan Smith.

The most worrying aspect of Arsenal's wretched Capital One Cup defeat at Bradford was that it came as no great surprise - or not to me, at least. Freak results are one thing - every club has those - but the manner in which Arsene Wenger's side were beaten at Valley Parade was symptomatic of deep-rooted problems at the club.

Having already been cast adrift in the league and stripped of their most prized assets, the suggestion now is that Steve Bould has been marginalised at the training ground. If that really is the case, that is unforgivable.

Steve and Neil Banfield are both very capable coaches, people with Arsenal in their blood. Their brains are finely tuned to the art of defending so it would be crazy for their knowledge not to be harnessed. Arsene certainly cannot leave it to the players to sort it out themselves: that might have worked when he was working with exceptional talents such as Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell and Thierry Henry, who were all blessed with enough skill and personality to identify issues and solve them on the field. But this group is not like that. They need help from their coaches but they do not appear to be receiving it.

This is having a serious impact, and not just on the field. I heard a few months ago that Bacary Sagna's reluctance to sign a new contract was less to do with the club's ability to challenge for silverware, and more because he was fed up at not developing as a player. As a manager, you just can't allow that situation to occur: it's inexcusable.

As a player, all you want is to go out on a match day and feel that you know what your job is: it gives you security, confidence and helps you deliver your best performance. For defenders, that is even more pertinent, because they are the ones that have to work as a unit. The fact that Sagna is apparently so disenchanted is a brutal condemnation of what is happening.

Arsene has never been a good delegator. He has always liked to make the decisions, to be the man in control: he was even consulted on the design of the buildings at Arsenal's training ground. Virtually everything at the club runs through him.

That, in itself, is not so unusual at a big club. Sir Alex Ferguson is unequivocally the man in charge at Manchester United but he has realised that it is pointless to prevent your coaches doing their jobs. Just look at the assistants Sir Alex has had during his time at Old Trafford: Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz, Mike Phelan, Rene Meulensteen - all hands-on coaches who can make a difference on the training ground. And because Sir Alex is able to delegate, they were allowed to organise, improve and motivate their players.

That is not in Arsene's nature but he should have learned to adapt and compromise. Instead, he has stuck with the methods that were so successful in the first half of his tenure. Training at Arsenal revolves around short, explosive sessions designed to help players improve their ball-work.

I don't think he has ever been the kind to subject a defence to the kind of repeated, monotonous drills which were so beloved by George Graham when I was a player at Arsenal. Back then, George would grab myself, another striker and maybe a couple of midfielders and get us to try to work patterns around our back four. George would be on the pitch, whistle in hand, barking instructions: making them stand in line, tightening their shape, closing gaps.

These would be staged four or five times a week, and wouldn't stop until the defenders had it absolutely nailed. As a striker it was dispiriting, because the defenders were so polished by the end of it all, there seemed to be no way round them. But it was the bedrock of our success as a squad, so it wasn't as if we were complaining.

As someone who spent so many hours on the receiving end of George's drills, Steve Bould is perfectly placed to instill some of that discipline into the current Arsenal squad but the rumours now suggest he has been frozen out.

Maybe Arsene's nose was put out of joint by the fact Steve was getting so much praise at the start of the season, when Arsenal were keeping clean sheets. Whatever the reason, it is a major problem.

This is not a demand for Arsene to be sacked: the man has achieved too much for that. But it wouldn't surprise me if he was to look seriously at his position in the summer, especially if they were to finish sixth or seventh.

He has always said that if he could not see great potential in his side - the potential to win trophies and challenge the best England and Europe have to offer - then it would be time to go. But the question now extends beyond whether this side has potential. Even if it does, there is no guarantee that Arsene Wenger is capable of realising that potential.

 


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