On Sunday, Arsenal finally returned to winning ways in the League, leapfrogging the oil billions of Man City in the process.
Yet the merest glimpse at social media and online forum’s suggest many Gooners were not impressed.
It seems that at present a small-ish percentage of the Arsenal squad are at the level of popularity and consistency to escape weekly scrutiny. Sanchez has been in this position for a while, as to a certain degree has Koscielny, and this year they have been joined by Cech, Ozil, Coquelin and to a lesser degree Monreal and Bellerin. Everyone else appears to be a lightning rod for differing fan opinions.
Gabriel was highly criticised in some quarters despite a clean sheet, I saw several examples of Ramsey rated 5/10 despite a hand in both goals and man of the match award, and there were plenty laying into Oxlade-Chamberlain despite his first league goal in well over a year (an excellently taken one at that). Even players who didn’t play seem to be on the receiving end of fans ire at the moment.
And then of course the manager, who received widespread condemnation for not starting with Coquelin ahead of Flamini. Sure, we all know that all things being equal, he is the better option, but the cameo against Southampton showed a player who was still off the pace a little not having reached match fitness. Every year Wenger is lambasted for rushing players back from injury too soon, and this year in an attempt to avoid this, he is still taking pelters.
It was the same with the outrage at the absence of Elneny, with people taking to the internet to alternately claim Wenger was a fool not to start him or a fool to buy a player that he didn’t think was good enough. It took me about 15 seconds sans wifi to discover that his wife had given birth that morning, and thus he was unavailable.
What was confusing about the criticism this weekend was that it came off the back of a very comfortable and professional victory in what was billed as a potential banana skin. Yes, we’ll have to play better if we want to get a result at Old Trafford, the Etihad or White Hart Lane, but Cech only made one save that might be described as even challenging, and we scored two excellent goals.
The build up of frustration amongst much of the fan base after a decade of under-achievement and bizarre repetition of certain mistakes, means that many seem so focused on disappointments that any victory against anyone outside the group of Super-Clubs (and Spurs) is taken for granted or discounted as ‘flat-track-bullying’. And yet we are still well placed and with our fate in our own hands.
The ongoing narrative of repeated disappointment has taken on its own power and is starting to feel like a self-fulfilling prophecy, with some of those in the stands frequently more comfortable with expressing dissatisfaction than pleasure. The speed with which the home support can descend into groans at every error is, rather ironically, reminiscent of the Stade De France.
I’m not writing this to criticise the match-day regulars. When you pay well over £1000 a season to watch what feels like different versions of the same movie, it’s entirely understandable that you’ll start to feel disgruntled sooner and sooner into each showing. And there is undoubtedly a large element of truth in Alan Davies’ oft mentioned observation that a large section of the core support who will back the team through thick and thin have been priced out of the ground. When you treat fans as customers, they will start to act like them.
When I first went to Highbury it was £4 to stand behind the goal. When the price of admission is only twice that of a pint of cheap lager, not only does it allow those most likely to form a tribal identity with the club to become regular attendees, but also one’s expectation levels are lowered due to sheer value for money. And of course, when standing in the wind and rain, we all feel more inclined to sing and shout and jump around, if only to keep warm.
The reality is though, there is as much point harking back to the 70s or 80s or whenever as there is harking back to the youth we experienced at the time. If we want to see Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez as big summer signings rather than the likes of Lee Chapman and Jimmy Carter, we have to accept the current reality, particularly with Oil Barons and oligarchs funding half of our rivals. And with our absentee landlord too busy fighting off televised insults from the people of St Louis (who conveniently ignore the fact the team was in California for 50 years before another rich man moved them), one can’t expect much leadership from the top.
So ultimately, for the atmosphere to change, it is going to fall on the players’ shoulders. And I suppose they are reimbursed well enough to bear that pressure. My hope for them to do so successfully is greater than just the usual desires of a fan of a big club, year on year. It is because the Emirates stadium NEEDS it. Because until the duck is broken, the unspoken voice (unless it is Alan Davies!) will always be saying ‘We gave up Highbury for this?’
As a fan base, we collectively feel like disappointed lovers, hopes raised then dashed often enough to leave us frequently looking for the advance signs of the next broken promise. Our faith is shaken, but like sexual persuasions, our club loyalty is invariably pretty constant, and we are always waiting for the one (squad) to restore our belief.
So starting on Valentine’s Day against the wistfully romantic Leicester City, come on Arsenal, help us feel the love again.