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Jun 10, 2011

Dixon: Wenger knows changes needed

Arsenal are moving slowly and painfully towards their longest trophy drought in more than two decades. For eight years, between their FA Cup victory over Manchester United in 1979 and the defeat of Liverpool in the 1987 League Cup final, Gunners fans were starved of silverware. Now, in 2011, six years after their last major title, supporters are hungrier and more frustrated than they have ever been.

Arsene Wenger's inability to shed a monkey off his back that has become more King Kong than Bubbles has led to growing disgruntlement among the Emirates faithful, who are wearily preparing themselves for another summer of high-profile transfer rumours which fail to become the sort of revolutionary reality that is needed in North London.

However, it is perhaps to Wenger's credit that patience among Gunners supporters is running out. Such is the level he took Arsenal to, beginning with the Double in 1998 and reaching its peak with the Invincibles of 2004, expectations rose to levels never before experienced at the club. The Frenchman also set the transfer bar high with early signings - the likes of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars thrilling the Highbury crowds, before further astute acquisitions - Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and Gilberto Silva - really took his side onto the next level.

Whether his transfer nous is waning or the belief in his philosophy of blooding youngsters has grown stronger, one thing is clear: changes are needed at Arsenal. Wenger has proven himself adept at blending youth and experience in the past but recent efforts - Mikael Silvestre, Sol Campbell and Sebastien Squillaci - have left much to be desired.

The successful combination of old and new at Arsenal was never more evident than in the 1998 Double winners. A back five with an average age of 33 - David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould/Martin Keown and Nigel Winterburn - provided Wenger with the sort of defensive stability that he can only dream of now. Dixon, with a new career as a TV pundit, played under Wenger for six of his 14 years as an Arsenal player and believes his former boss will realise that it is time to make some important additions.

"I've seen a frustration in Arsene this season that I've not seen before and that's borne out of the fact they've gone six years without winning a trophy," Dixon told ESPNsoccernet. "I'm sure the pressure gets to him as well. I think he thought that two, three, four years was the cycle that this team would have to go through before they got to a winning stage. It does take time.

''What Alan Hansen said - 'You never win anything with kids' - in general that tends to work because they haven't got the experience necessary when things are going badly to know how to get themselves out of it. It does take a period of time but having said that there are now a number of quite experienced players (from an 'amount of games' point of view) in that team.

"But it goes beyond that, it's about having an older head. The defenders I played with, including midfielders Patrick Vieira and Manu Petit, those players came alive when we didn't have the ball - which is just as important as what you do with it. Unfortunately they don't have the balance. That is not right and that's the main reason they haven't been successful.

Lee Dixon speaks to ESPNsoccernet

"It's very difficult for me to be critical of him [Wenger]. But having played under him and watched his development as Arsenal manager from the media side too, I think he will be the first to admit that maybe he's got the balance of the team slightly wrong in its attacking ideas and also what they do when they don't have the ball defensively - not just the back four, the whole team.

"I'm not really big on 'which player is playing at Bayern Munich at left-back, we should sign him', that's for other people to say but I'd say the main thing is that the superb youthful players Arsenal have got in the team at the moment need to be blended with some experience. I think that mix is slightly wrong and the answer may be signing a new centre-back and a central midfield player."

With Samir Nasri and Cesc Fabregas both heavily linked with moves away from the Emirates - to Manchester United and Barcelona respectively - Arsenal could be left with a significant midfield vacuum next season. Dixon, who made 619 appearances for the Gunners after moving to Highbury from Stoke in 1988, believes the need for an experienced presence in the Arsenal team is the most pressing issue. One player who he feels could have made a difference in a 2010-11 season punctuated by a lack of leadership when the going got tough, is AC Milan midfielder and friend Clarence Seedorf.

"I said at the start of last year that someone who has been there, done it - in the Patrick Vieira-type mould, but someone who is playing more at the peak of his powers. I'm quite friendly with Clarence Seedorf and I talked to him and said 'you'd be perfect for us because younger players like Jack Wilshere would look at you when things are going wrong'. At the moment Jack's looking round and even [captain Cesc] Fabregas to a certain extent when things aren't going quite right. There are no obvious leaders to say 'right, this is what we need to do'. It might not work of course but at the moment there doesn't seem to be a plan when their great football is not paying dividends; if it's 0-0 or they go behind, there's no real Plan B.

"That was the start of last season [when the Seedorf suggestion was made], I think he's too old now! No, he had a great season for Milan and we saw that some of his performances in the Champions League were brilliant. He can still get round the pitch, he plays in more of an advanced role but he said to me he can play in any role in midfield. I don't think it's necessarily about where he plays, though, it's just having him in the dressing room. I'm not saying to Arsene: 'Go out and sign Clarence Seedorf now', I just thought that sort of player was something they needed in addition to what we've got in midfield.

"We've got some excellent players in midfield - Jack Wilshere, [Aaron] Ramsey, [Samir] Nasri and obviously Fabregas, all the same type of player in that they like to play football. So does Seedorf but he's got a little bit more about him upstairs as to his positional play and his attitude towards the game and certain difficult periods of the game that's invaluable really. But it's not just one, I think they need two or three players."

It would certainly seem that Wenger, the man nicknamed 'Le Professor', could learn something by studying Seedorf and AC Milan's recent Serie A title triumph, achieved with a philosophy that is in sharp contrast to his own. At the Rossoneri, unlike Arsenal, players continuing well into their 30s - aided by the impressive medical advances of the renowned Milan Lab - is the norm not the exception. For Milan, age is an asset not an encumbrance and the presence of wise old heads like Gennaro Gattuso, Gianluca Zambrotta and Massimo Ambrosini helped complement the youthful exuberance of the likes of Alexandre Pato and Kevin-Prince Boateng.

Exactly who will be the players to make the difference at Arsenal remains to be seen. Seasoned Premier League performers Scott Parker and Chris Samba have been among those tipped to add a calming influence, though they do not possess the sort of 'wow' factor that will convince Gunners fans that the cobwebs will be blown off the trophy cabinet in 2012. There has been talk that Wenger may even call it a day, feeling disillusioned that what was once critical acclaim has now morphed into plain old criticism. But Dixon feels that while Wenger unquestionably seems set in his ways, the much-maligned Frenchman will be able to deliver the goods and transform Arsenal's fortunes next season.

"I don't know if he would ever walk away," Dixon says. "I think he's more frustrated now than he's ever been and that might be the thing that changes his philosophy. I don't think he's going to go out and sign three or four players for £30-£40 million each. That's not in his mentality and whether he lives or dies by that philosophy, he's willing to take that chance. I think there will be changes and there have to be.

"I'm putting my faith in Arsene and say he will turn it around. Something will happen, i don't believe he will go through the summer and keep it the same because as much as it's his team, he must be able to see the problems that lie there. He is hugely more intelligent and knowledgeable about the game than I am and so I think he will make changes and they will put them in a position in which they can challenge near the top again."

•  Follow me on Twitter: @marklomasESPN


Lee Dixon is a brand ambassador and an investor in the first-ever point of view (POV) football game I AM PLAYR (www.iamplayr.com) from games developers We R Interactive

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