“We’re a laughing-stock”. This, to listen to the typical irate Gooner on Radio 5’s 6-0-6 phone-in after the first weekend of Premier League action this season, was the considered view of the double FA-Cup-winning Arsenal team after the false start against West Ham. Since that setback, the team has picked up a little, having recovered an appalling start to its Champions League group and done enough to cling onto Leicester’s coat-tails at the summit of the Premier League.
Not that this will indefinitely postpone more self flagellation from Arsenal fans, judging from the phone-ins and complaints across the media three weeks after the season opener when the transfer window closed. Arsène Wenger, in a move that doubtless shocked the world, had once again let down all the fans by failing to make any further additions to the squad beyond the early acquisition of Petr Cech. The problem areas of centre-forward and central midfield remained unaddressed. A striker to combine the complementary yet individually frustrating virtues of Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott remained elusive. Nor did we see the addition of a complete midfielder – one with defensive qualities who blended the combative and creative qualities of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla.
I’ll be honest and confess that I had initially intended this to be a piece about how complete this Arsenal team is: where it still needs improvement, and whether this is more pressing, and more achievable, up front or in midfield. (My personal view could be summarized by saying that the genuine world-class upgrades on our current strikers were simply not practically or financially feasible; and that regardless of the injury to Danny Welbeck it made little sense to make another squad signing that did not improve on the options already available to us – the more so with Sánchez and Walcott as alternatives. In midfield, it was a slightly different story, with neither Santi nor “le Coq” a natural option to sit in the middle of the pitch and dictate play; perhaps, indeed, we are one genuine midfield heavyweight away from being true title contenders. However, it is a little early to say whether Arsène erred in refusing to pay the £25 million required for Morgan Schneiderlin (would he have been an automatic starter, after Coquelin’s revelatory performances in 2015?), and whether Manchester United’s long overdue acquisition of a midfield, with the signings of Schneiderlin and Schweinsteiger, will be sufficient to propel them to the status of title contenders[i].)
But the resurgence after the passing of another transfer window of the habitual – and by now boring – moaning and groaning, nay outrage, provoked a change of tack. Let’s be clear that to compete at the top level a major club does need to invest in elite players; making the Champions League on the cheap is even less of an option than it was when we tried to, c.2005–10, and the £75 million signings of Özil and Sánchez are testament to this. Yet modern British football culture might lead one to believe that (expensive) signings are the only way to improve a team. One might link this to the money-obsessed financial juggernaut that is the Premier League and the TV jamboree that now sees former giants of European football – be it Werder Bremen, Internazionale or Deportivo – unable to compete with the likes of Stoke or Crystal Palace for names of acknowledged international class; but my focus here is on whether investment is the only way.
“Buy players, buy players, buy players… spend some fucking money”. Raphael Honigstein tried on the Guardian football podcast to object to this perennial English panacea to one’s footballing problems, and seemingly worked himself up into such a temper on the matter that he didn’t reappear for weeks. Team-building, working together until playing with your colleagues is second nature and you develop the “Automatismen” alluded to by Per Mertesacker, constantly working on your own weaknesses, different formations, attacking combinations, tactics and strategies… this is what managing a successful team is about.
How else did a team like Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid not only beat apparently all-powerful Real and Barcelona teams to the Spanish league title, but come within an ace of winning the Champions League? Critics of the team and the manager might point out that this is something Wenger has never achieved over the past ten years, but it seems to me that the failure so far to pull off the “Simeone miracle” in the teeth of overwhelming investment from the artificially pumped behemoths of Chelsea and Manchester City is no reason to rant and rave when the manager takes the view that the players who would perceptibly and decisively strengthen us were simply not there to be had; or to grumble and offer token support, if anything, in the stadium when the team falters, as even the mightiest do (at the time of writing, champions Chelsea have lost three of their opening five games[ii]).
We know how much a season ticket costs at Arsenal. I get that. I also appreciate that the gentrification of the stadium and consequently of the club’s support is the result not only of the new culture of the Premier League since the Taylor report of 1990 into the Hillsborough disaster, but of the path consciously and deliberately taken by the club. Those “working-class” fans that remain may sacrifice other luxuries such as holidays or meals out altogether. But the outlay required to support the team in person doesn’t mean a consequent entitlement to see all the other, even richer clubs quelled, or to a “return on investment” that wins you every game. It doesn’t work like that. Criticism and constant self-questioning is a good thing, and the only way to constantly get better and achieve the highest rewards is through perpetual striving for improvement; but I don’t see moaning and negativity, or, frankly, the sadly predictable failure nine times out of ten to make our stadium the “12th man” it ought to be, as constructive criticism.
Sitting next to the Stoke fans at our last game, it was so very difficult to come up with any answer to the standard refrains of “Is there a fire drill?”, “Is this a library?”, or the blunt “Your support is fucking shit”. Even more so when, as in most areas of the stadium, there are no more than one or two (!) supporters regularly raising their voices in support. People can do what they want, once they’ve paid their money, no doubt; but if you don’t enjoy it, what’s the point? Does it not make more sense to take your well-earned free time and disposable cash elsewhere? Literally, take a holiday? It is football, for goodness’ sake, which might, as Shankly aptly put it, be far more important than life and death, but as a German expression has it, is “the most wonderful irrelevance in the world”. Can there be anything more stultifying and fundamentally crass than to waste one’s emotional energy on something you don’t enjoy?
We have a lot to enjoy and cherish at Arsenal. The football is, more often than not, pretty good to watch (a decent prerequisite for elite entertainment), and without yet scaling the pinnacles of the Champions League or even retaking our place at the top of the Premier League for eleven years, we now have a team, indeed a squad, filled almost to a man with players of proven international class, and in three or four cases unquestionably of the top-grade quality required to claim the biggest prizes. The mere consolation prize (oh really?) of the FA Cup two years in a row, and Alexis’s and Mesut’s triumphs in the Copa América and World Cup respectively are testament to that. And only a fool fails to recognize our own financial restrictions and the financial doping of others as huge extenuating factors in the attempt to win trophies between 2005 and 2014.
Actually, a quiet stadium I can live with. I wish it were different, but it’s scarcely inexcusable; after all, it is nice to be able to take friends and especially families in the virtual certainty that nothing unpleasant will happen. What I won’t take is the way my club is represented by a self-appointed, self-righteous horde of bleaters who seem to take a perverse pleasure in their own flagellation of the team they purport to support. Some might say I’m attacking a minority, the lowest common denominator of dumb fans in the pub or pathetic losers on social media. But be honest: we all know Arsenal fans have a reputation for being like this. And it’s deserved. The day our valuable and relevant criticisms cross the line and become mere whingeing devoid of perspective, we deserve all the opprobrium we get for being a bunch of tedious, self-entitled whiners. The guys at half-time in extra time of one of our recent FA Cup semi-finals complaining “we’re the fucking mugs”… Yes, mate, you are a mug. It truly is pathetic to be in an FA Cup semi for the second time in a row on the way to winning the thing again. Really, well done. Those infantilized snivellers describing Arsenal as a “laughing-stock”, castigating the manager with the most cringeworthy, shaming abuse after one defeat – they’ve got a point. To all too many, we are a laughing-stock, as many a (disproportionately West Ham-supporting) black cab driver will tell you, because despite the position we’re in and the football we get to enjoy, we are principally known for ceaseless moaning.
Enough. We’re better than this. We’re the Arsenal.
[i] Their chastening 3-0 defeat at Arsenal might suggest not! http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/football/premier-league/arsenal-3-manchester-united-0-how-louis-van-gaal-might-have-avoided-humiliating-defeat-a6683316.html
[ii] And at the later time of submission have further failed to convince, failing to beat Newcastle, and losing to Porto in the Champions League and crumbling at home to Southampton in the Premier League.