Tuesday

The Blame Game

By Matt Gatward  |  13 Jan 2015

It might have passed you by, but at the end of 2014 Arsène Wenger did something he doesn’t often do. He admitted he made a mistake. Well, he almost admitted he made a mistake.

In a book celebrating Arsenal’s unbeaten season of 2003-04, Invincible, by Amy Lawrence, the manager allowed that Arsenal had made an error in letting Ashley Cole leave the Gunners to join Chelsea in 2006. “[It is] a regret of my career,” he said. “He left on a misunderstanding between his agent and the club. A fantastic fighter as well. The rest of his career has shown how big a player he is. It should have been here.”

It’s the closest you’ll get to Wenger issuing a mea culpa, given that Cole would not have been allowed to leave had the Frenchman not eventually, however reluctantly, signed it off.

Cole, as we know, went on to win the lot at club level: Premier Leagues, a Champions League, a Uefa Cup and more FA Cups than admirers won by Andre Santos, one of many left-backs Arsenal tried (with mixed success) during the barren, trophyless years following Cole’s departure.

Wenger may want to consider offering another hands-up soon. Cesc Fàbregas is fast making a case to be named Player of the Season. True, we are only halfway through this Premier League campaign, but the Spaniard already has 13 assists to his name and is a key reason Chelsea have been able to put last season’s erratic form behind them to lead the table.

Of course, Wenger had the opportunity to re-sign Fàbregas from Barcelona in the summer but opted not to take the chance, instead standing by while José Mourinho snapped him up. Fàbregas admitted Arsenal would have been his first choice, but Wenger preferred the (admittedly impressive) array of midfielders already at his disposal.

“When he left we bought Mesut Özil,” Wenger said before Chelsea beat Arsenal back in October (Fàbregas, inevitably, setting up one of the goals). “We have Santi Cazorla, Jack Wilshere and we were not in the need to buy offensive players.”

It’s an assertion that doesn’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny, however; because while Fàbregas is the league’s leading assist-provider – and took just 20 games to match Steven Gerrard’s 2013-14 season-end total of 13, which topped the table last time around – Arsenal’s shining light, Alexis Sánchez, has only six to his name. Santi Cazorla, in second place for The Gunners, has managed three.

So it would seem the Arsenal manager may have messed up by not buying the player he coached as a youngster, a player with a World Cup winner’s medal, a player he knew would settle quickly on his return to the Premier League and who, at the age of 27, is at the height of his powers. Wenger himself has often cited 27 as a footballer’s peak age.

But to err is human, to forgive is divine. And forgiveness would be easy in this instance, if only Wenger would admit the folly of his ways. He has, after all, signed many brilliant footballers, honed many more and is a wonderful manager whose teams can play spell-binding football.

But – and this is the point – admitting errors of judgement doesn’t sit well with leading managers. whether apologising for their own mistakes or those of their players. It is not something Alex Ferguson was often heard doing. In his recent book, Alex Ferguson: My Autobiography, the Scot’s admission that it had been an error to sell centre-back Jaap Stam to Lazio in 2001 was startling because of its rarity.

Nor is José Mourinho fond of accepting blame on the odd occasion he may have got his tactics wrong. It’s the Stamford Bridge crowd’s fault if Chelsea play poorly – as he claimed in November on the back a laboured 2-1 win over Queen’s Park Rangers – or the opposition’s fault for daring to “park the bus”.

Weekend after weekend, Premier League managers point fingers at the officials, the opposition and anything else worth–or not–thrusting a digit at. Mauricio Pochettino blamed the size of the White Hart Lane pitch for Tottenham’s mixed home form; Ferguson, famously, once found fault with the colour of the United away kit.

And maybe that’s the way it has to be. Maybe to succeed at the top level in a ruthless business such as Premier League management you have to be ego-driven, have absolute belief in your powers, think you can do no wrong.

In many ways, top-flight referees are the same. The Premier League has no appetite to make officials face the cameras, post-match, to explain their decisions (read: errors) despite numerous calls for them to do so; the organisation believes, with justification, that the officials would simply say, “I gave it as I saw it.” There would be few referees willing to admit mistakes for fear of jeopardising their chances of taking charge again the following weekend.

But wouldn’t it be nice, if maybe for just one Premier League weekend, when usually the stench of modern blame culture can be overpowering, if managers curbed the accusations and looked inwards for the possibility that the pain of conceding a late equaliser, a crushing defeat, a poorly executed free-kick routine, may have been self-inflicted?

Certainly, if Wenger were to issue a modicum of regret at the season’s end, as Chelsea raise the Premier League trophy, his considerable stock would only rise further in the eyes of many.

Unless, of course, Arsenal are doing the trophy-lifting and he’s proved the Fàbregas-mourning Arsenal fans wrong.

Matt Gatward is the Sports Editor of The Independent and i newspapers.
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