Earlier in the season I wrote a piece here heavily critical of a large and disproportionately vocal proportion of the fanbase, entitled ‘Spoilt, whining crybabies’, born out of a sense of extreme frustration with the incessant negativity of those who rant loudest. It seemed to me that to cavil and moan, to call for the manager’s head in advance of any failure, was premature in the extreme: after all here again was a real opportunity.
We might not have made any new outfield signings, but we had won two FA Cups in a row, the second rather convincingly, despite ultimately frustrating in the league – even then to the financial juggernauts of Chelsea and City; there were at least signs of progress, and for the third season in a row we had made a statement by signing a player of genuine world class, this time Petr Čech. I had been incredulous at laughably over-dramatic title pages in this publication such as ‘Enough is enough’ in a 2014/15 season where, for those with perspective, it was always likely that we would endure a few struggles following the World Cup. Here, at last, an improving team was in a fit state to genuinely challenge for the Premier League title at last.
So, not to row back on the boldness of my criticisms last September, but a lot of them were made in a spirit of ‘let’s wait and see; the jury’s still out’, as well as a real belief that true supporters should get behind their team, vocally if not unconditionally. Counter-productive, reflexive whingeing is never the way to go; besides, it makes the fans look like spoilt brats and, what’s more, invites the even more fundamental question of why they bother.
Yet this is all before we get to the team’s performances – or, one might almost say, non-performances – in this calendar year. Results had been mixed before the new year, with four differently peculiar league defeats culminating in the grotesque capitulation at Southampton after Christmas, yet we had taken Manchester United apart in a devastating 20-minute spell at home, with Theo Walcott as well as Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez to the fore; we’d just deservedly beaten favourites Manchester City and Özil was even by his own standards lighting up the league with his prodigious playmaking and assists. After the pitiful complacency of our first two games in the Champions League, we had at least rescued another knockout tie with Barcelona after a comprehensive display at Olympiakos, spearheaded by a titanic effort from Olivier Giroud.
Still, there was a feeling even after steadying the ship with a couple of workmanlike victories against Bournemouth and Newcastle that we were rather fortunate to be top. The triple hammerblow of injuries to Coquelin, Cazorla and Sánchez was always likely to require delicate handling, granted; but even having weathered the initial storm, it seemed clear that despite being in a commanding position two points clear on 2 January, we’d need to kick on and improve to be confident of making a real challenge over the coming months. Our midfield, the foundation of any well-functioning team, had been sputtering rather than flowing, and we seemed over-reliant on Özil and Čech.
It seems superfluous to enumerate in detail what happened next. As we all know, instead of improving and kicking on, we went backwards while Leicester and Tottenham reached new heights of consistency. We went from frustrating if creditable draws, to another red-card defeat against Chelsea and an apparently incurable rut in front of goal, to defensive chaos and limp, humiliating, inexcusable surrenders against United and Swansea (whom we haven’t beaten at home since their promotion).
A feeling crystallized of fundamental flaws in the team’s makeup and mindset that still haven’t changed. It’s not even that we invariably buckle under pressure; that’s too general, because we can do ‘backs to the wall’ when we have our pride and minimum objectives to think about – consider Olympiakos, or our runs to recapture a Champions League spot from Spurs in 2012 and 2013. What we can’t do, it seems, is take opportunities – to grasp the nettle and seize the day when we have a real chance to do something special and take charge of the league.
Failing to muster a more impressive points total from that tricky series of games at Anfield, Stoke and then at home to Chelsea is one thing; shrivelling up (twice) against Southampton is quite another (‘only you guys do this – why?!?’ exclaimed a United-supporting cousin of mine watching the Boxing Day debacle). Never mind capitulating to the least intimidating team at Old Trafford most of us can remember, and the same goes for our other performances up to and including the cup exit to Watford.
As ever, we had our injury woes to contend with, even if it now seems fanciful to ever count on Rosický or Wilshere as reliable squad members. But if the manager’s conservatism in sticking with the dysfunctional ‘Flamsey’ combination in midfield was annoying, neglecting the increasingly dynamic-seeming Elneny for too long, even so by the end of January our only really notable absentee was Santi. A real loss, for sure; a critical player, whose ability to effect transitions, rotate possession and relieve pressure on the team has been increasingly important in our fragile midfield, to say nothing of the wizardry he’s capable of – but that his absence should not only rip the heart out of our midfield, but the creativity, all the football, out of our team, is too much: and that’s on the manager.
What has been most dispiriting of all in recent games is something new, that we’ve rarely if ever seen before; a Wenger team that doesn’t seem to know how it wants to play. We’ve had our effective plan Bs in recent seasons, be it a series of well-worked but grinding counterattack victories in 2013, or the often effective defensive template against City or Bayern; but it’s not normal that we forget how to play football at home to supposedly lesser sides. Even our flawed sides of c.2009–12, albeit tactically and defensively deficient, didn’t fizzle like this.
It leaves the most fanatical of supporters numb – almost as a self-preservation mechanism, to avoid ending up like the uncultivated individuals alluded to below.
The bottom line is, of course, that the failures likewise of both Manchester clubs and Chelsea to do anything worthwhile this season are no excuse. Spurs and – above all, and gloriously – Leicester City have resources respectively inferior and vastly inferior to ours. It is Arsène’s job to take advantage in a season like this, and the notion that just at the point when we are supposed to – and indeed do, for goodness’ sake – finally enjoy the requisite star quality to reach for the top, at least domestically, we should be outgunned in terms of togetherness, cohesion and sheer footballing performance by these two sides is something that can’t be shrugged off. It’s not acceptable.
The timing of initially sketching these thoughts followed a halfway creditable performance against Barcelona’s shooting stars and a belatedly comfortable and classy away win at (an admittedly woeful) Everton. The dream of a cup treble was already gone, and since then Leicester and Spurs (!!) have galloped further away leaving us scrabbling for fourth place, yet again.
The 4-0 cruise against a woeful Watford in the league is utterly negated by the two season-encapsulating draws against West Ham and Palace; what genuine quality there has been to admire pales against the frankly contemptible ability to squander a 2-0 lead in the space of two minutes against Andy ‘head like a foot’ [Barney Ronay] Carroll, or the limp-wristed surrender of a comfortable three points in a moment of slack goalkeeping. This year, the mitigating circumstances of being ultimately outgunned by richer clubs emphatically do not apply. So, with great reluctance, I find myself not quite able to comply with the editor’s appeal for some countervailing views in support of the manager. I can no longer disagree that the problem is fundamentally systemic – not only the failure of mentality but of the belief in one’s own philosophy, the courage and conviction to play one’s football and rise to the occasion when it really counts, is one for which Wenger must ultimately be held to account.
Except, tragically, ‘would that it were so simple’: we all know that the problem goes beyond Wenger, a man who we should all acknowledge is profoundly self-motivated and sets the highest standards for himself and his team. Beyond him is a complacent board and a greedy, indifferent owner for whom results and glory are not fundamentally of great importance. As long as the mindset and values at the top of the club do not change, as long as we cannot envisage a cogently planned alternative or transition, anything we might wish for is academic, potentially worthless if not actually negative in outcome.
It’s hard to say at any given moment who the brightest stars in the global coaching firmament are, with the successes of not only Pochettino and Ranieri but also Simeone, Conte, Allegri and Thomas Tuchel among many others all deserving of high praise. But with Guardiola soon to be and Klopp already at our domestic rivals, we would be naive to simply pick our favourite from the above list and hope for the best. Aside from the fact that Wenger’s all-powerful, micromanaged, workaholic approach would scare almost anyone off before a fundamental rethink has effect.
This last aspect is, I think, the crux. People are wedded to the notion that no man is bigger than the club’; but I think in Wenger’s case, we now have to question this received wisdom – even, and especially with matters now even worse than when I first forced myself to wrestle with this issue. The job he has done so heroically for so long seems too much for him. He has bitten off more than he can now chew. His interviews are not just defensive and evasive, but increasingly strange, erratic, provoking feelings of sadness more than anything. He needs help – not just support, but he needs to be ordered not to try to do it all on his own any more. And yet we can’t simply fire him and imagine that that in itself will be a load off the team’s back and a breath of fresh air – because it would be nothing of the sort, not so much ejecting the baby with the bathwater as lancing the heart with the boil.
So the last thing I want to do is retreat into platitudes such as ‘be careful what you wish for’ and ‘better the [angel] you know’. A reaction from the club, not only financial, is demanded in any event in the summer, given the unlikely miracle required in the league; and it seems unlikely at this stage that Wenger would extend his contract beyond 2017 after another season of failure, assuming he doesn’t fall on his sword first. Without a miraculous change in circumstances next year, surely his contract will, this time, not be renewed. And yet of course I feel torn, even as I recognize that we must now face the fact that another candidate could, in the right circumstances, by definition do a better job – of reaching the players, of results, of performances. Those structural circumstances seem hard to achieve right now or without long planning through next year. Arsène’s departure isn’t enough.
Of course it has annoyed and at times shocked me, the ludicrous, as the man himself has said, ‘farcical’ way Wenger is subjected to crisis questioning after every defeat. This is the man who has nurtured the club from top to bottom for nigh-on 20 years, who represents the best of it, the man to whom we owe our continued status at the European top table, our financial stability and our small improvements of recent years. He is our alpha and omega, the reason apart from anything else that some of our finest players – Mesut most notably, as he’s just reiterated – are at the club, and barring the best-thought-out plan of restructuring and succession his departure would send a seismic shock through Arsenal, almost certainly (see Old Trafford) a negative one. So for all that I have said, these circumstances and the ultimate fact that Arsène Wenger is so vastly better than his detractors – the braying horde of ranting, self-entitled nobodies who will never be fit to lick his boots and who give us all such a bad name – make me in practice disinclined to call for his head until not only the summer but probably the year beyond.
The infantile caricatured ranters of Arsenal Fan TV revelling in their 15 seconds of fame for complaining that we haven’t won the league might deserve Timmy Sherwood or Steve Claridge as their manager, and will be calling for walkouts as I write. But the rest of us can be, and do, better than that. We owe that not only to him and the club he rebuilt in his own image, but ourselves.