Is this the real life, is this just fantasy; caught in a landslide, no escape from reality….
Spot on, Freddie. The reality is Arsenal find themselves caught in a landslide of footballing mediocrity, of which there currently seems no escape.
This feels like a break-up letter. This feels like when you’ve been in a long-term relationship which everyone knows is finished, but you’re staying together for the sake of the kids. Sure, you’ve had many beautiful highs together, as well as some miserable lows. And perhaps you’ve known it’s been over for a while but you’ve been kidding yourself you might recapture that early spark. But now, the pennies dropped. I’m at the realisation stage. The stage where I’ve woken up and decided I want better than I’m getting. The stage where I’ll always cherish the man for the memories he’s given me, but he’s got slack, he’s got complacent, he’s been neglectful, and worst of all, it feels as though his love has gone too.
Yes, that may read like an excerpt from a Jackie Collins novel, but it’s perfectly applicable to my feelings towards Arsène Wenger, a man I’ve been in (footballing) love with since October 1996. As Arsenal’s season coughs and splutters towards another underwhelming finish, it marks the end of Wenger’s 20th season in charge at the Arsenal. His time can at the club can almost perfectly be split into two halves. Firstly, 1996 – 2006, the glory years, perhaps the most glorious decade in this club’s rich history. Wenger’s Arsenal managed to fight with, and at times overcome the power of the Mancunian army from the North. An era of beautiful free-flowing football which delivered 3 Premier League titles, 4 FA Cups, the magnificent and never-to-be-repeated 49 game unbeaten run, 2 European finals, culminating in a move to the glorious 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium. Oh yes, these truly were glorious days indeed. These are the good memories, the great memories, the memories on which I will always be grateful to one man for.
Gooners were sold the dream by Arsène that moving into our new home would enable us to eat at the top table of Europe. No longer would we be hamstrung by wage structure ceilings, but we’d be able to compete for the very best talent around. There was one small snag to this dream, we’d have to stomach a few years of selling our best players to balance the books. Overall, most fans were willing to accept this if it delivered the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. Charging the highest ticket prices in Europe backed this theory. Yet here we are, approaching the end of our 10th season at the Emirates, and that golden pot is looking further away than ever.
The 2016 Arsenal squad look like their minds are permanently elsewhere, and it’s not hard to see why. How motivated would you be to work under the same management day in, day out, for 20 years? The message gets old, you’ve heard every team-talk a thousand times. Ultimately, you get complacent and in-turn, performance decreases. There is the argument that Sir Alex Ferguson didn’t suffer from this issue at Manchester United, which is true, there are always exceptions to the rule. However, old red-nose left United with an aging squad whose best years were behind them. I fail to believe that this Arsenal team is performing anywhere near its full potential, is it inconceivable that a motivated, younger coach with fresh ideas could not get this instrument playing a much, much sweeter tune?
Footballers are human, they need direction and motivation as much as the rest of us do. They need a coach who can evolve with the times, with a clear vision to believe in. They need a coach with the tactical nous to prepare gameplans accordingly to match different opposition, a coach who can make proactive in-game tactical decisions and not wait until the 70th minute to make predictable subs. They need a coach who’ll make the relevant acquisitions in the transfer window to fix gaping squad holes, and a type of coach that can motivate his team to deliver results when it truly matters. What type of coach would make a player want to get into the gym early before training, return from injury sooner, or stay late for extra shooting practice. Guardiola would. Klopp would. Simeone would.
Modern day football is very, very different to when Wenger arrived at the club in the mid-nineties. He sets his team out the same way week in, week out, no matter of the opponent as if we’re still in 1998. The very best managers of today have multiple strategies and tactics they can switch to as a game unravels, the result of analysing data and past performance. If Plan A isn’t working, then we’ll give Plans B, C or D a go. With Arsenal it’s one way, and when we come up against stubborn opposition or the players are having an off day, then usually the result becomes inevitable. Arsène is beginning to look like an analogue manager in a digital age.
20 years in charge has allowed Wenger unparalleled power. He’s not ‘just’ the manager, he has the casting vote on many key decisions within the club, including his own expiration date. He probably even designs the kit with Photoshop on his laptop. Under Wenger’s rule, there’s a comfort blanket over the entire club, where mediocrity is tolerated without consequence. That stems from the top down, so long as we keep securing fourth place, then the carousel continues. At what other major club would the likes of Walcott, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain – I could go on – be allowed to deliver such consistently tepid performances over the best part of a decade. Why were the likes of Bendtner, Denilson, Diaby, Rosicky, Almunia allowed to stay at the club for an eternity on top-end wages, despite being injured and/or useless for the majority of their Arsenal careers. How is it Theo, Aaron and Alex don’t have their best playing positions identified yet, despite being at the club for 10, 8 and 5 years respectively? These guys undoubtedly have talent, they’re just not being nurtured correctly by the management. If the players aren’t willing to bust a gut each week, then who’s to blame, the fans? the opposition? the tea lady? Gunnersaurus? Or the manager himself, the king of the castle, the Emperor, who everyone can see no longer has his clothes on?
But who else is there?
Wenger is the embodiment of his Arsenal team, they have both become so painfully predictable. Arsène is nothing if not consistent, you can set your watch by it every February to there being talk of summer transfer targets who eventually will fail to materialise, often because Wenger “doesn’t believe there is anyone available better than he already has”. You can bet your mortgage that when the traditional March/April slump in form sets in, that the fans will be asked to “judge him in May”. Post-game press conferences are the ones that really are a safe bet however. No matter how horrifically we have played, how lacklustre a performance, we will undoubtedly be told about our “fantastic character”, “great belief” and “strong mentality”. Now, if you can find me one other person who would describe this Arsenal team of containing any of those traits, then I’ll eat my Glenn Helder 1994/95 shirt.
My fear is that we’ve waited too long to make our move for a replacement, out of loyalty to a declining manager. All the pretty girls have been snapped up by rich blokes spraying Bollinger around the club, whilst we’re slouched in the corner with a warm lager and a kebab.
Pep Guardiola, was available. The Arsenal set-up would have been perfect for Mr G – big new stadium, big name players, big bank balance, the London lifestyle… yet we twiddled our thumbs, Manchester City didn’t, and now years of success at The Etihad lay ahead. There are several talented young coaches already achieving great things in the Premier League. Pochettino, Klopp, Koeman, Bilic, Howe, along with Guardiola, Conte and potentially Mourinho to come. Ask yourself, honestly, if you were to rank those managers in order of ambition, ability, motivation, dynamism, where would Arsène Wenger rank? If he’s not in your top two or three, then surely that can’t be good enough for a club the size of Arsenal. The gulf in quality between the top and bottom of the league is narrowing year by year, this season will crown the fourth different league champion in a row. We simply cannot afford to stand still whilst everyone else strengthen around us, because at some point we’ll get left behind.
Of course, not all Arsenal’s problems can fall solely at Wenger’s door. We have an owner – ‘silent’ Stan Kroenke – who prefers to let his actions do the talking. Well, his actions thus far equate to a widening chasm between the supporters and club, a man who withdraws cash from the accounts as if were an ATM machine, a man who will allow the manager to decide himself when it’s time to walk away, a man who considers fourth place a trophy and is on record as saying he “didn’t buy Arsenal to win league titles”.
We’ve spent years planning, building and subsequently paying for a state-of-the-art stadium, at massive expense to our team’s progress. Yet, now we have West Ham, being able to essentially ‘squat’ at a brand new luxury stadium, without having to endure any of the financial hardship. The Hammers are reportedly having to pay £2.5 million per season in rent, an amount they will have generated by the time they reach half time of their 2nd home game of the season. Seems a little unfair, but there we go. Tottenham, Liverpool and Chelsea also have grand stadium designs in the pipeline. It feels that in Arsenal’s haste to move to the brand-spanking new ground, we had to endure years of abjectness when perhaps we needn’t have. We are the marathon runner who set off at full pace too early, and now approaching the home straight risk getting over taken by our plodding rivals who took things slower.
Eye of the tiger?
During the glory years, you were confident going into most games that the Gunners were going to come away with a win, or at the very least a high performance. With current-day Arsenal nothing is certain, we’re as likely to lose 3-0 to Sheffield Wednesday as we are to beat Man United 3-0. We’ve lost the win at all costs mentality needed to succeed at the very highest level. In past years we’ve been given the backhanded compliment of although we weren’t winning trophies, we were at least playing attractive football. The ambling, bereft style of play we’ve served up regularly this season goes to show the boys have even stopped trying to look good.
Arsène Wenger has won six out of his eleven cup finals for Arsenal, a winning ratio of 55%. By comparison, his great rival Jose Mourinho has coincidentally also managed in eleven cup finals, and won ten of them (91%). Ruthlessness and killer instinct is needed at the highest level of any sport. Ronaldo, Ibrahimović, Schumacher, Murray, McCaw, Tiger Woods. All characters who would win first at all costs, ask questions later. It’s become apparent that there’s little to-no leadership inside the Arsenal changing room, as afterall, Arsène doesn’t believe in appointing an able and fit captain. Despite containing seasoned international players and World Cup winners, you suspect pre-game the Arsenal team are too busy taking selfies and #Mega-LOLING at the Ox’s latest Snapchat vid, to get pumped up for the battle.
Cup Finals under Wenger:
|FA Cup 1998||Uefa Cup 2000||FA Cup 2001||FA Cup 2002||FA Cup 2003||FA Cup 2005||European Cup 2006||League Cup 2007||League Cup 2011||FA Cup 2014||FA Cup 2015|
Won 6 / 11 = 55% success
The beginning of the end
I first began to doubt whether Wenger was still the right man to take us forward after he was caught, in footballing terms, doing the equivalent of sleeping with your best mate and reversing the Rangerover over your beloved pet dog. I am of course, referring to the ludicrous sale of club Captain Robin van Persie to rivals Manchester United in the summer of 2012. The previous season RvP had scored 30 league goals and been voted PFA Player of the Year, he was well on course for legendary status at the club. Yet “the little boy in Robin’s head” told him that the club didn’t match his ambitions. If only the “competitive professional football manager” inside Wenger’s head had thought differently about this and either:
A) convinced the player to stay by making a statement in the transfer market
B) flat out refused and let him play in the reserves until he came to his senses (see Mancini / Tevez)
or C) sell him to the highest bidder from abroad
But no, Arsène caved in to the demands of the player, a player who regarded Wenger as a ‘father’ and sold him to Old Trafford for a paltry £22.5 million. Of course, we all know what happened the following season.
Arsenal fans had endured several summers of selling our best players to the likes of Barcelona and Manchester City of course – Adebayor, Nasri, Clichy, Fabregas to name a few, but this felt different. This came at a time when the stadium was almost paid for, the money was not the deciding factor here for a change, and yet still the player was sold.
Speaking of Senor Fabregas, after three years back at Barca, he found himself surplus to requirements and was offered back to Arsenal, who had a first refusal clause written into his transfer contract. The noises coming from the player himself were that he would jump at the chance to return to his spiritual home in North London. However, Wenger opted to turn down this chance at a reunion with his former fan-favourite captain, and instead allowed arch-rivals Chelsea to snap him up, who of course, would go on to win the league the following season with Cesc playing a major role. Wenger’s reasoning behind this was simple, we had Ozil, we had Cazorla, we had Wilshere, we had Ramsey; we did not need another central midfielder who would stunt their growth in the team. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. However, this didn’t require hindsight at all, this just required common sense. If you have the opportunity to sign one of the world’s best players in his prime for a reasonable fee, who in the process would give the whole club a lift and improve your injury-prone squad, and in doing so would not strengthen one of your closest rivals, then there must be some pretty strong logic in place to refuse that humdinger. Well, either that or a very stubborn manager.
Be careful what you wish for…
TV pundits, the media and fans alike are quick to proclaim “BE CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR…….LOOK WHAT HAPPENED AT UNITED…THE GRASS ISN’T ALWAYS GREENER”.
I’m not for one moment suggesting we get any old bum off the street in to replace Arsène. It needs to be right, I just hope that the club is already doing its ground work with a plan in place, but I wouldn’t swear by it. And who says that change doesn’t work?
Chelsea change manager more regularly than I change my underwear. We mock them for it, but it brings them trophies. (I also realise I need to address my own personal hygiene).
City are replacing Pellegrini, a man who won three trophies in three years and guided them to the Champions League semis, with the greatest club manager of the last decade.
Liverpool replaced Rodgers, a man who guided them to within an inch of their first Premier League title, now their future looks brighter under the increasingly impressive Jurgen Klopp.
Leicester replaced Pearson, a man who kept them up last season against all odds. They’re now writing one of the greatest stories in English football history.
Over the years I’ve always been pro-Wenger, though I’m no AKB (Arsène Knows Best). I remember the Rioch/Houston days before the great man’s arrival. The 1994-95 season particularly sticks in my mind, having dispensed with George Graham due to well-documented discrepancies, the Gunners finished 12th, only 6 points above relegation and a whopping 38 points behind champions Blackburn Rovers. With the likes of Hillier, Schwarz, Jensen and Kiwomya on board, things looked bleak. But then the dawn came, the sun rose, and that glorious summer of 1995 heralded the arrival of HRH Dennis Bergkamp, along with England veteran David Platt. The 1995/96 season saw a Uefa Cup place secured on the last day of the season, paving the way for Arsène Wenger to arrive in the autumn and provide Champions League football ever since. Wenger will without doubt go down as Arsenal’s greatest ever manager, and one of the finest in English football history. Which makes this inevitable, gloomy-looking ending even more painful to witness. He should be carried aloft, with fans chanting his name and patting him on the back on his way out the door, not getting jeered and abused from the terraces with banners as he currently endures.
My point is, change doesn’t necessarily need to be feared. Because, what’s so great about what we’re doing at the moment? Supporting a team is supposed to be enjoyable, isn’t it? Personally speaking, I don’t get too much enjoyment out of repeating the same mistakes every year, not addressing flaws within the squad when you have the means, and not challenging for top honours despite having all the right ingredients to do so. It gets boring. Supporters of other clubs can jeer “Arsenal fans are moaners, they don’t know what they’ve got, try supporting Halifax Town, we haven’t won the league since 1908, etc etc.”. Well, I’m talking about Arsenal, a club with a glorious 130 year history, the club who haven’t been relegated since the 1912-13 season, a club who sit third on the list of all-time league titles, and have won the highest number of FA Cups in history. A club which generates £100 million a season from matchday revenue alone. Arsenal should never settle for being grateful for finishing fourth.
I’ve been spoilt by Wenger. He’s shown me how good things can be, he’s given me a taste of the high life at the Ritz. However the last few years he takes me to the same old Wetherspoons. Which is fine if that’s all he can afford. But I want what I know we’re capable of if only we helped ourselves. I’m not naïve enough to think we have a divine right to success, far from it, only one team can win the league each season. I just want us to give ourselves the best opportunities to be successful with the tremendous resources we have. And ultimately the buck needs to stop with one man.