At the moment it’s quite hard to write about Arsenal without writing about Arsene Wenger, but although an ongoing story, the subject is getting old.
By now we’re all familiar with the arguments that make it difficult to justify his continued stay beyond May if any other credible candidates are available. We also all know that publicly the board want him to stay, and that his instinct is to stay. We also know there will be no announcement for at least another month, at the very earliest, unless the club’s league form totally implodes.
Ultimately, regardless of the manager, the club still has the same priorities in the short term. To finish in the top four and to attempt to win the FA Cup. Whoever is leading the team next year will find the recruitment and retention of players a lot easier with Champions League football. And while it’s importance has been undermined, the opportunity to re-claim our place as outright leaders in all time FA Cup wins is still a big one for the club, in both historical and current contexts, particularly with the main body of the squad aiming for an FA Cup hat-trick.
At present, and on current form, both seem outside bets. But, they needn’t be seen as such with a longer term view. Catching Chelsea in the league isn’t going to happen at this stage, but none of our other competitors are out of reach. While only one point ahead of Man United, Arsenal are within 6 points of Spurs, Man City and Liverpool with at least one game in hand on each. And none of them have looked that much more convincing over the season as a whole.
United are incredibly reliant on the currently suspended Zlatan and struggle as much as us against massed defences. Liverpool’s midfield remains impressive, but they are vulnerable at the back against anyone and inconsistent going forward. Man City can look utterly irresistible at times, but their defensive line remains a disaster waiting to happen. Spurs have given a far greater impression of consistent strength (in domestic football at least), but Harry Kane’s ankle injury totally changes the dynamic of their attack.
The FA Cup is a different proposition. With a super heavyweight semi-final line-up, it will take more than consistency against lesser clubs to prevail, and Arsenal’s recent record against the top-six is far from impressive. That said, not only is it possible that any semi-final or final may be re-framed by an announcement on Wenger’s future, but also some of the squad may well be playing for their Arsenal futures, and thus may put in a better showing come April or May.
For all the disappointment at performances and results, and the club’s recent trajectory, both the top three and another cup final should be viewed as eminently achievable in the players’ minds.
In practical terms, it will only take few, good, well-timed performances to transform this season from impending disaster to comparative success.
The question is whether this knowledge can be effectively transmitted to a slightly fractured squad with fragile confidence and, crucially, the fans within the stadium.
Without wishing to return to the elephant in the room, it is the furore over the manager that is currently overshadowing everything and smothering the club in negativity. The multiple years of repetition of performance, mistakes and frustrations, have created a fan-base who, for the most part, want change as much for its own sake as for anything specific. This is no longer a question as to whether the manager is performing badly enough to be sacked, but rather a question of whether there is any point to more of the same ad Infinitum.
As such, the atmosphere at the ground is in danger of going beyond permanent tension and occasional toxicity to something far more damning: depressed apathy.
And I understand it.
When any success initially seems likely to prop-up to a management that not many still want, and the personnel on the pitch appear worryingly lacking in commitment under duress, passionate support seems almost a waste of time. Particularly when it seems only very public negativity can encourage any hint of change to the status quo.
My concern, however, is that the indifference many feel towards the current team will undermine the already fragile confidence that has been so evident of late, as well as hastening the departure of those squad members whose contracts have less than 18 months to run. Ultimately, whoever runs the team next year, the majority of the playing staff need to remain the same. Partly to provide some continuity and partly because I believe that another manager could achieve more with the same group.
As long as they remain respectful, I’ve no problem with protest in the current context, where the board’s apparent level of disinterest seems extraordinary. In many ways the Bayern game, prior to the intervention of the incompetent officials, was a good model of the way forward. A fairly tightly run and predominantly polite pre-match protest (despite some idiotic chants and banners about ‘killing our club’ -please!), was followed by the fans (or at least those who turned up) thoroughly getting behind the team, who in turn attempted to play for some pride until the ref ‘killed the game’ as Wenger put it.
I could have lived without the AFTV influence encouraging fans to out-do each other with outrage rather than making the kind of salient points that would hit home rather more strongly, but that is what it is.
With some feeling that anything other than failure will allow Wenger to convince himself of his footballing immortality, there is a sense that missing out on the top four and the cup may be the better outcome. Personally I believe that keeping the pressure on in a public but intelligent fashion is likely to carry more weight than whether we finish in the top four or not.
As such, we need to keep supporting the team as passionately as we can, to help the club get through this season with minimal damage. If this sits alongside protest and criticism, that’s fine, as it is more likely to help unite a divided fan-base, which in turn will make it harder for the powers that be, particularly the man himself, to dismiss dissent.
This great club is at a pivotal moment. The tipping point has beer reached regarding the manager’s standing, and it would take an extraordinary level of self delusion for Arsene to stay on without a massive change in approach. Either way, we need to stay at the top table of European competition to avoid a change turning into a lengthy rebuild, and as fans we have a part to play.
Our support DOES make a difference. Turning on the team may reflect frustration at the failings of the current set-up, but ultimately it is only likely to damage those players in the short term and the club’s capacity to make the changes it needs to in the medium term.
Wenger may be the hot topic, but short of a continued calm assertion of the need for change, making every fixture about him damages the team, brings down the fan base, and in all honesty does none of us any good.
We are Arsenal. The fans. The club. Let’s not inflate the manager’s relative importance any more than has already happened.