Heart Of Football

EPL suits Wenger better?

Arsene Wenger says his style is to facilitate a way for his players to express themselves.
Arsene Wenger says his style is to facilitate a way for his players to express themselves.PHOTO: REUTERS

Arsenal can entertain fans with stylish pursuit of league crown if they give up on Euro glory

It is often said that clothes make the man. In Arsene Wenger's case, we might make an exception.

Right now, the morning of the North London derby with Spurs, might not be the best of times for the Arsenal manager to be on the cover of the L'Equipe Sport and Style magazine in France.

You could clothe Monsieur Wenger in a space suit, and still not disguise his pique, at times his utter disbelief, as his team went down so meekly to a 5-1 defeat in Munich on Wednesday.

If there is a silver lining, it is that fading so badly in Europe might free up the Gunners to take what many observers are describing as the best chance they will get in what is left of the Wenger era to lift the Premier League trophy.

Have the players, in their own minds, already given up on the Champions League and decided to go for the EPL?

If there is a silver lining, it is that fading so badly in Europe might free up the Gunners to take what many observers are describing as the best chance they will get in what is left of the Wenger era to lift the Premier League trophy.

Today might begin to answer some of the awkward questions about Arsenal. Tottenham, who had a tough but victorious home win over Anderlecht in the Europa League on Thursday - 24 hours later than Arsenal's game - are young, fit, bursting with energy and with a well-drilled pressing style under Mauricio Pochettino.

The records have favoured Arsenal ever since Wenger walked into the old Highbury Stadium in October 1996. His side have beaten Spurs 13 times, drawn five and lost just once at either Highbury or the new house, The Emirates.

And the last defeat, the only home loss under Wenger, came five years ago when Gareth Bale inspired a Tottenham comeback from two down to win 3-2.

No Bale this time, and a heck of a turnover in playing staff and management to get the Spurs fit for a tilt at the Gunners today.

There is, of course, Harry Kane. Everybody knows that he was an Arsenal fan as a lad, and that from nine to 11 years of age, he trained as a tiny Gunner. Wenger regrets, now, that Arsenal let Kane go.

But this is the last thing Arsenal's manager needs to reproach himself with because Kane didn't convince the coaches at Spurs for an awful long time either.

He's now 22, and it took until last season for Spurs to stop loaning him out to anybody who would give him games. Perseverance and remarkable self-belief have made Kane what he is today - England's most reliable, and industrious, centre-forward.

Is Kane better than Theo Walcott or better than Olivier Giroud?

The comparisons hold no water. Walcott (who is injured at the moment) is faster than Kane could ever be. Giroud is more of a match-up, and I would suggest that the Frenchman has a few more tricks to his armoury, but Kane makes things happen more often through sheer determination.

Either one of them could be decisive today. Pochettino will, one imagines, make it tactical and technical, and on their day the Spurs team have the capability to have thrashed Manchester City, the main opponents to Arsenal's title aspiration, 4-1.

Against that, the best of Arsenal is much, much higher than Spurs' ceiling.

But how do you explain Arsenal's high-powered run to the top of the league, interrupted by defeats to Dinamo Zagreb and Olympiakos, then a superb home win against Bayern Munich, followed by that collapse in Germany last week?

How does anyone square the beauty and movement with which Arsenal destroyed Man United 3-0 last month with the apathetic surrender in Munich?

Forget the Wenger photo shoot for L'Equipe, which looks suspiciously like someone having a laugh by dressing up a 66-year-old football obsessive in young man's fashion.

I would rather go with a French proverb, The Style is the Man, than the observation that Shakespeare made about detecting a man's personality from his clothing.

Style is Wenger's passion, and sometimes his downfall. He describes himself in the L'Equipe magazine as "creating nothing".

He says he is a facilitator of the beauty in man, and I bet he never dreamed that these words would appear in print just after his team's embarrassingly ugly performance in Munich.

Per Mertesacker, the captain, admitted Arsenal "lacked courage" that night.

They lacked many things: Fitness, commitment, belief, stamina and, yes, the courage to engage with one of the world's finest teams.

What we will not know until Wenger announces his line-up today is whether the fact, the excuse, of turning out in Munich without nine first-team squad players is really down to a worrying injury epidemic, or whether the Monsieur, like some of his players, had given up on the tournament before the Champions League anthem was aired.

Some of the injured - Walcott, Ramsey, Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Bellerin - have no chance of playing today.

But Laurent Koscielny?

Let's wait and see if he makes kick-off in the derby.

Koscielny is the key to Arsenal's defence, especially down the middle.

I am not generally a fan of using statistics to assess everything that moves in sport these days.

But the mathematicians have a good stat for what happens when the French defender plays or misses Arsenal games.

With him in the line-up, Arsenal have won 67 per cent of their games.

Without him, the win ratio falls to 46 per cent.

Those are telling numbers. It was also telling that Koscielny travelled to Munich, was then ruled unfit to take part, yet named on the bench.

Wenger said something airily about a hip /thigh injury. Koscielny is rated 80 per cent likely to start against Spurs.

That looks suspiciously like prioritising the Premier League over the Champions League.

Some of us think that the sooner Arsenal are out of Europe, the better their chances of winning the Premiership - particularly if City are fully engaged abroad.

With Wenger back in his match suit and his padded Arsenal overcoat, we're better off judging the style of his team in action.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 08, 2015, with the headline 'EPL suits Wenger better?'. Print Edition | Subscribe