Arsene Wenger – Naive
Oh, Arsenal. Oh, Arsene Wenger. Even in this most unpredictable of Premier League seasons, one club and one manager provide the welcoming warmth of familiar frustration. For every Community Shield victory over Chelsea, one which finally ends the hoodoo their London rivals hold over them, West Ham beat them in their next game. They brought Leicester’s unbeaten start to the season to an abrupt halt with a 5-2 victory, but suffered defeat to Dinamo Zagreb in the following match. Five straight wins in October sandwiched a 3-0 defeat to Sheffield Wednesday, and a 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich came in the first game of November. A hard-fought draw with Spurs was followed by defeat to West Brom. Beat Manchester City, then lose 4-0 to Southampton five days later. Nobody does Arsenal quite like Arsenal.
There was a common theme to those victories: each would be met with Wenger praising his side’s mental strength. “You question our mentality but I don’t,” said the Frenchman as 2015 drew to a close, with Arsenal again crowned the Calendar Year Trophy winners. “I will remind you that only one team won the league without losing a game. That is Arsenal Football Club,” Wenger continued. Therein lies the problem. That was a different Arsenal. A very different Arsenal, one which resides in history from over a decade ago. Yet this is the same Wenger, and with the numerous Wenger benefits come the Wenger deficiencies.
Nothing typifies Arsenal’s season quite like their meetings with Chelsea. The aforementioned season-opening victory over the Blues in the Community Shield saw Wenger finally score a win over arch-nemesis Jose Mourinho, regardless of the competition’s value. Wenger described the win as overcoming a “psychological hurdle” for his players; Chelsea had finally been beaten. This was Arsenal’s first win over the Blues, the reigning Premier League champions, in nine games. This was the season which finally heralded a prolonged title push.
Not quite. Chelsea have won seven games this season in their faltering title defence; two of them have come against Arsenal. Of the other sides they have beaten – Crystal Palace (11th), West Brom (13th), Norwich (17th), Sunderland (19th) and Aston Villa (20th) – none reside in the top half. Except Arsenal. Always Arsenal.
Roberto Martinez – Defending
When Everton fans are calling for the return of David Moyes, it is not difficult to deduce that there is something wrong at Goodison Park. Something gravely wrong. In two-and-a-half short years since being appointed manager, Roberto Martinez has made the successful transition from being perceived as one of the most promising young coaches in the country to his own fans asking for his departure.
The numbers make for difficult reading. After boasting the third-best defensive record in his first season as Everton finished fifth in 2013/14, it was thought that Martinez had taken the positives of his predecessor Moyes’s solid defensive style, allied that with his own attacking verve, and created one of the most balanced, exciting sides in the Premier League. Only Chelsea and Manchester City conceded fewer goals that season. How times change. Everton have conceded 84 league goals since the start of the 2014/15 season, fewer than only the current bottom three – Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland. Add Norwich to that trio, and you have a list of the only clubs to have kept fewer clean sheets this season. Despite a regular back four boasting one of the league’s best right-backs, two England international centre-halves – one valued at around £40million – and the country’s most consistent left-back of the last decade, Everton and their manager struggle with the basics of defending.
“My philosophy and my way of working is not to keep clean sheets, my philosophy is to win games,” said Martinez before Everton’s Capital One Cup semi-final second leg with Manchester City earlier this week. They went on to lose 3-1 and exit the competition – the seventh game in which they have conceded three times or more this season. Martinez’s philosophy may be to win, but they have 18 victories in their last 62 games. Perhaps it’s time to look at his side’s defence before his own expires.
Louis van Gaal – Attacking
Eleven consecutive home games without scoring a first-half goal, more league goals this season than just eight teams, more shots per game than just six clubs, more efforts on target per game than just three, and a top league goalscorer with just six in 19 appearances. It’s safe to say attacking isn’t the modus operandi of Louis van Gaal’s Manchester United.
Put simply, the Dutchman is struggling to find the right balance at Old Trafford. Only Tottenham have conceded fewer goals this season, with no side keeping more clean sheets. But with the defence prioritised, the attack suffers. In the 78 games since Van Gaal’s summer 2014 appointment, United have won just nine by a margin of three goals or more. By contrast, Arsenal have won 18 by three or more in that timeframe, and Manchester City have won ten this season alone. Captain Wayne Rooney is the top scorer of Van Gaal’s tenure, with 28 goals in 65 games. Juan Mata (15), Ander Herrera (11) and Robin van Persie (ten) are the only others to reach double figures. Marouane Fellaini is the fifth-highest scorer of the Van Gaal era; he has scored nine times under the Dutchman.
Is ‘roll the dice’ football the problem?
Sam Allardyce – Glass ceiling
The self-imposed glass ceiling, of course. “I won’t ever be going to a top-four club because I’m not called Allardicii, just Allardyce,” were the famous words uttered by the one they call ‘Big Sam’ back in 2012. His surname, not his style of football and his general record as a manager, was holding him back. Poor thing.
In 2015, Allardyce managed 30 Premier League games across his spells at West Ham and Sunderland. His sides accrued 25 points in that time. Only Aston Villa, with 21 in 30 games, ‘boast’ a worse record. Having been appointed at the Stadium of Light in October, Allardyce’s reputation as a top-flight safety net is at risk. Sunderland were five points from safety after eight games at the time of his arrival; they are four from safety fifteen games later.
“It’s nice to be loved,” Allardyce said back in October when he joined Sunderland, “but at West Ham and Newcastle I was faced by passionate fans that made themselves heard if they weren’t happy. It wasn’t just me at West Ham, it was every manager that was there.” Except Slaven Bilic, of course. If only Allardyce’s recent calls for a ‘Rooney Rule’ to be implemented had been heeded. Bloody foreigns, coming over here and doing our jobs considerably better than we did.
Steve McClaren – Uninspiring
There have been a number of inspirational quotes given in history. From “I have a dream” to “we shall fight them on the beaches”, talented orators have used their words for maximum effect, hoping to inspire groups to follow them as a leader. But Steve McClaren is no Winston Churchill.
“We have what we have,” was the Newcastle manager’s assessment of his squad in late July, just weeks before the season began. It’s one way to welcome Georginio Wijnaldum, who had become the club’s third-most expensive signing ever a fortnight previous. Few other managers would lament a “tough Christmas” after a defeat on January 23; fewer still would issue the following call to arms: “We are where we are, but we want to have a better second half to the season than we did the first.” Such a stirring Boxing Day speech has seen Newcastle win one of their following six games, falling into the relegation zone as a result.