Sunday’s FA Cup tie was not only hard to endure in isolation but was a painful microcosm of Arsenal in 2016, despite Arsene’s best attempts to not see the wood for the trees in post match interviews.
Having amassed more points than all domestic rivals and strolled the FA Cup Final in 2015, the current calendar year has to date been almost cataclysmic. In the nine league games this year, a two-point lead has turned to an eight-point deficit, with the club amassing 10 points of a possible 27. That’s not quite relegation form, but certainly apt for the bottom half of the table.
Because of this incredible downturn in league results, the club and its fans have found themselves increasingly looking towards the FA Cup for succour, but not even a succession of favourable draws has helped the team to convince. Sadly Sunday was just more of the same, with a limp, disjointed and rudderless performance meaning that even losing to an absolute wonder-strike still felt like a meek capitulation. And one that means that barring a miracle in the league, an Arsenal season has all but ended even earlier than usual.
The club’s current run of results is about as bad as any I can remember under Wenger, and to be honest the football has been as uninspired as we have seen with him in charge.
What perhaps makes this even worse is the fact that bar the odd game here and there, our star man, Mesut, has maintained his form. Even on Sunday he could have finished the game with four or five assists, were his team-mates as adept at taking chances as he is at creating them.
I’ve read dull journalists following their scripts today, lining up to make special mention of Ozil not fighting to win back possession before Watford’s second. Needless to say, they choose not to mention him twice sprinting back 50 yards to win tackles by his own corner flag. Regardless of the nonsense written, here is a truly brilliant player, at the peak of his powers, working his arse off for the team.
Which makes it even more frustrating that so many of the rest of the team are playing so far below the requisite level at the moment. I know it is repetitive to say, but I don’t think Arsenal have played well for 90 minutes more than once or twice since October. What is even more worrying is it no longer seems clear what our intended pattern of play is. We have seen teams in recent years lacking in quality, application or organisation, but I can’t recall an Arsene Wenger team so frequently looking lost as a collective.
It’s common knowledge that Arsene Wenger is, in musical terms, less of an orchestral conductor and more of the leader of an improvised jazz band. He gathers together individuals, defines a group style, and expects people to be able to adjust on the fly to the situation and needs of their colleagues. Which when applied to prior collections of brilliant individuals worked to create something both formidable and beautiful. As the group changed, beauty overtook effectiveness. But now? Now the beauty is all moments, seemingly born of individual inspiration rather than a genuine shared approach… or dare I even say it, a plan. Brilliant passages of play at present seem ephemeral or transient, rather than something to be expected or relied upon.
The transformation has been extraordinary. After last season ended, the club seemed in great shape after a brilliant run, boasting a seemingly deep squad and well placed to kick on. Now the entire set-up seems a shambles, with defensive fragility matched by terrible recent chance conversion rates, and the team drifting from one fixture to the next seemingly devoid of confidence.
On one hand, Wenger is right when he highlights the pressure the crowd transmit to the players, and there is no doubt that the Emirates crowd are not the most supportive. But ultimately, that negativity from the stands is just a function of the fans’ frustration at the club’s stasis over the last decade.
Sure, much of that has been out of the manager’s control, such as fluctuating property and building costs regarding the new stadium in an era where every other big club has received some state assistance for their relocations or major renovations. Likewise, no one could have foreseen the arrival of Abramovich and the oil barons, accentuated by the refusal of almost every person with an ownership stake in the club to invest any of their own money, preferring instead to milk the cash cow some of them helped grow. Or the series of freak injuries that hit the Arsenal squad between 2007 and 2012.
But ultimately, most fans are intelligent enough to make allowances for all these factors. But there is only so many times that we can say, “we’re only two or three players short of a brilliant team” before fingers have to get pointed at the manager. Particularly as it is public knowledge that we have £100m+ in cash reserves. It was entirely understandable when we had to sell players annually to balance the books. But it’s hard to see where responsibility can rest now except squarely at the manager’s door.
Wenger’s case really isn’t being helped by his owner or chairman. I think most evidence suggests that Ivan Gazidis is doing his job pretty well within certain constraints, but Chips Keswick offers the same brand of old school tie toff bluster as the Hill-Woods without any of the family history to offset the offence. And Kroenke’s only communication to the world about his intentions for the club, published only last week, made it pretty clear that as long as the brand grows, he doesn’t give a monkey’s about success. That interview couldn’t have helped the manager when the final whistle went against Watford.
It’s entirely understandable that Wenger feels frustrated at the constant questioning of his position. But unless he shows a greater willingness to leave his wounded pride at the door and recognise the wider reasons why fans are so disgruntled, then he could very quickly reach the point of no return.
Allowing himself to be used as the mouthpiece for justifying some of the highest ticket prices in world football, in a period where the club has had a net transfer spend lower than every one of its traditional competitors, is really not smart. It only strengthens the narrative of him being the company man willing to take the paycheque in order to run things as cheaply as possible, who will only buy big as a reluctant last resort. While it is clear to even the most basic student of human behaviour that the guy is absolutely desperate to win, it is very easy to paint the stubbornness that sees him operate with one hand behind his back for much of the time as something more self-serving and sinister. “Why else would such an evidently intelligent man refuse to address obvious problems year after year?” Particularly at a time when fans are feeling increasingly disenfranchised and alienated from the corporate machine that their club is attempting to become.
Wenger’s loyalty has always been legendary, right back from turning down Bayern Munich only to be sacked months later by Monaco. As such, it’s no surprise to see him playing by the rules of the club, and ultimately its owner. But when the owner wants stability and financial growth more than success, there is no way that any manager can afford to be so clearly aligned to that model, particularly after what is starting to feel increasingly like a wasted decade. The club’s lack of short term ambition (and the short term greed of its former board) has resulted in a lot of wasted opportunities. Even from a purely commercial aspect, we have seen the brands of Chelsea and Man City grow at far faster rates than ours, primarily due to on-field success. A braver response to the challenges of the new stadium, particularly between 2006 and 2012 would have seen this club become a significantly larger ‘brand’ than it is now.
The manager needs to recognise that, much like in my line of work, in football, it’s always going to be ‘what have you done for me lately’. We are all replaceable, and for all the corporate goals of the club hierarchy, in an entertainment industry (and now we’re all positioned as customers rather than fans, that’s exactly what it is), everyone has a limited shelf life unless they can evolve and keep being successful. So Wenger can call questions about his future ‘a farce’, or make pointed comments about ‘supporters standing behind the club’ as much as he wants, but he has allowed himself to be seen as complicit in the enforced transition from loyal fans to paying customers, and has to deal with those altered expectations accordingly.
Throwing his toys out of the pram when the criticism bites just makes things worse. Painting the Arsenal fans as particularly difficult is the real farce, given that no other manager of an underachieving big club has received so much support for so long in the modern era. And the fact that some of the expectations held by the fan base have been shaped by his prior success doesn’t make them any less real. Particularly given the aforementioned ticket prices.
The most frustrating thing is, despite the increasing breakdown of the relationship between Arsene and the fans, the overwhelming majority really want him to be successful. Even those demanding his departure want him to go out on a high. He remains an Arsenal hero, but there aren’t many left who genuinely believe his heroism isn’t now consigned to the past. And as I wrote before, when the hope goes, so does all patience.
If the team don’t somehow turn things around in the league, I can see the situation getting sufficiently ugly that he might walk away, particularly given the degree to which he has been stung by recent criticism. The unpleasant questions aren’t going to stop anytime soon with the FA Cup now gone, and unless the team can answer them for him, I don’t see how his position can remain tenable.
Let’s hope he can prove me wrong.