If Brian Clough was displeased with a performance, his players knew about it.
There was an occasion at half-time during a Nottingham Forest match when, unhappy with a couple of failed stepovers and a cross that went behind the goal, he punched the culprit, Nigel Jemson, in the stomach.
Understandably enough, that’s not going to happen in an Arsenal dressing room when Arsène Wenger confronts his players in the middle of another catastrophic display. The trouble is that nothing is going to happen.
During Alex Ferguson’s quarter-century at Old Trafford, Manchester United very seldom crumbled in the way that has become all too familiar to Arsenal’s fans. When United looked as if they might be in danger of a meltdown, Ferguson would do something. Anything.
Like the day in the spring of 1996 when, on the way to their third title under Fergie, they went to Southampton and found themselves 3-0 down at half-time. What the manager did next went down in legend. During the interval, he made them change their kit.
The grey away strip, he said, was making it impossible for them to pick each other out with their passes. So he sent them out for the second half in their alternative away kit, blue and white. That didn’t save the match, but they did win the second half 1-0 with a goal from Ryan Giggs to salvage a scrap of self-respect.
Almost a decade later Lee Sharpe told this newspaper that the grey strip hadn’t made any difference. They had been able to see each other perfectly well. But Ferguson showed that he was not going to accept the first-half performance without doing something to change it. Anything.
All Wenger does in such a situation is lean forward in his padded chair, rub his face and look distraught. The Sky Sports cameras close in on him, waiting for some telltale gesture of distraction, something either embarrassing or potentially symbolic, or both, like the habitual fumbling with the zips on his quilted jackets.
They don’t see him change anything, not even the players’ kit. That’s because he never does, beyond a handful of substitutions late in the game. And so a half-time score of 3-1 will turn inexorably into an 8-2, as it did six years ago this week at Old Trafford. A 2-1 at the Etihad will become a 6-3, as it did in 2013. A 4-0 will become a 6-0, as it did in his 1,000th match in charge of the club at Stamford Bridge in March 2014.
They don’t see him talking to the man sitting next to him – Steve Bould, his assistant – because he never does, at least in public. Bould’s stone face might disguise a desire to initiate a conversation about the way things are going, but Wenger’s own expression does not appear to encourage debate.
After the 4-0 pasting at Anfield on Sunday, it was seemingly left to Petr Cech, the goalkeeper, to raise his voice in the dressing room. Ever since sanctioning Gilberto Silva’s premature departure in the summer of 2008, Wenger has been asked time again why his side has no leaders on the pitch of the kind who, when the going is tough, know how to direct, motivate and inspire their colleagues.
It’s a question to which he has perfected a dead-bat answer, and three FA Cup successes in the past four years have just about provided him with the evidence that, in a one-off match, today’s Arsenal can still get their hands on a trophy. But in terms of achieving competitive consistency, he has no answer at all.
Gilberto Silva was the club’s last central midfield player worthy of the name. Wenger’s best midfielders of the last decade – Tomas Rosicky, Cesc Fàbregas, Santi Cazorla – have been inside forwards or playmakers. The number of failures in the crucial defensive-midfield role since the Brazilian’s departure must now be approaching double figures, with Granit Xhaka the latest.
Abou Diaby was never fit and Mathieu Flamini and Francis Coquelin were not good enough. Lassana Diarra and Alex Song certainly were good enough – good enough, anyway, to play 87 La Liga games for Real Madrid and 39 for Barcelona respectively in that position after Wenger had let them go.
He had two chances to sign N’Golo Kanté and missed both of them. In other positions there have been a string of disasters. Who knows what he saw in Sébastien Squillaci, Yaya Sanogo or Shkodran Mustafi?
In the last decade he has failed to help so many of his young British players realise their potential that the departure of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for Liverpool now looks like a test case. If, under Jürgen Klopp, the player succeeds in fulfilling the huge promise he showed as a teenager, the verdict will be obvious.
Then there are the Frenchmen. Right from the beginning, when Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry swept all before them, Wenger has tended to favour signing his compatriots. He is still at it, except that now he tends to sign the wrong ones. He acquired Alexandre Lacazette in July for what could turn out to be £53m but put him among the substitutes on Sunday because, apparently, he is still trying to adapt to the Premier League.
Perhaps Lacazette will turn out to be the real thing – although if he is, shouldn’t it have been a case of the Liverpool defence trying to adapt to him?
But it’s the heart of the team, in the hole that Kanté would have filled, where Arsenal’s problems loom largest. The day before their collapse at Anfield, Sam Clucas made his debut for Swansea City, following a £16.5m transfer from Hull City, and won universal applause for his role as the team’s defensive midfield player in the win at Selhurst Park.
Clucas is 27. Released by Leicester City’s academy at 16, he played a season for Nettleham in the Central Midlands league while studying for a sports degree before moving on via Lincoln City. He played for Jerez Industrial while spending a fruitful 18 months with Glenn Hoddle’s academy for rejected young pros in Spain, then Hereford United, Mansfield Town and Chesterfield.
Not a CV, one imagines, that would attract Wenger’s interest. Afterwards Clucas spoke on Match of the Day of how he had been attracted to the idea of working not just with Paul Clement, Swansea’s head coach, but also Claude Makelele, Clement’s assistant.
“He played in my position,” Clucas said – a bit of an understatement, since some would say Makelele invented it – “so you’re working with the best.”
Which member of the current Arsenal squad could put his hand on his heart and say that?