For manager Arsene Wenger? For this bitterly disappointing season? For some Gunners and even more Gooners? Something needs to end, but what?
We still have three matches to go and, mathematically at least, there is still plenty for which to play.
Arsenal can finish anywhere from 2nd to 6th and Norwich anywhere from 11th to 19th. For both teams, however, it’s probably about those pesky lines in the table: The one drawn under 4th place and representing Champions League football for us and the one beneath 17th place and signifying another year in the Premiership for Norwich. These are big fights and both teams should come into the match well motivated.
Instead, larger narratives, as usual at Arsenal, dominate, inflamed even more by pre-match comments from the manager many Gooners blame and would like to see gone. In them, Wenger said:
“We wanted to go a step higher up and win the league. It was possible, that’s why we’re frustrated. As well you know, I can understand the frustration. Nobody is more frustrated than we are. But competitionally as well, to fight, no matter what happens, master all kinds of situations and protect and go for what we can achieve…our disappointment has not to go too far. I believe that the team…some people question their character. I tell you something, this team has character and attitude. Some people who question them, I know them well, have less character than this team has. Because I saw them play and know them closely. They should not question the character of these players because they are exceptional characters. We are disappointed but we have to fight. On the other hand, when a club cannot enjoy anything anymore it is in trouble. We need not to forget that in football you can go down very quickly and come up very slowly. We have to stick together, the team played as well this season sometimes at home…we lost the championship at home against the lower teams, but we played sometimes at home in a very difficult climate. We have to realize that away from home we are championship winners. At home, against the smaller teams, we dropped the points. We are top of the league in the top teams. We want to add what is needed. This club has special values and one of the values I’ve experienced over the years is to stick together and to support the team. There is no success otherwise.
“I can understand the frustration of our fans, but as well, despite that, we want to support our team. The best chance you can give to the team is to be behind the team.” and, “There are some group of people who try to manipulate our fans and do that well. I believe apart from an agenda, a personal agenda and big ego, there’s not a lot behind it. That’s what I think, basically.”
Already, Wenger’s assertions are being challenged (Arsenal were third not first in terms of away record) and used to suggest that Wenger is blaming the home support. To me it’s a more general commentary on the importance of support amidst the frustration and a thought that it could be different and maybe should be. As this Norwich supporter famously–and more succinctly–suggested, all teams need a 12th man.
Alas, at Arsenal, in our own stadium, the manager, after his words–or at least the headlines drawn from them–have been digested, will probably need an extra security detail.
In my view, Wenger is actually quite an artist at drawing this attention towards himself and away from his players whom he hopes can play freely and not in fear of mistakes and the wrath of the crowd. If such support has to start with the manager, then so be it. If other elements of the fan-base can also offer a bit, all the better. Even the protesters might warm to the lads if they perform to their capabilities and run up a nice tally. In fact, I’d look back (in hope) to a far happier home match against Norwich from a couple of seasons ago.
Unfortunately, if the team cannot offer something similar, the protests, I suspect, will only get uglier.
It was ugly enough, in my view, after the reverse fixture back in November, a day many believed represented the end of our season. We drew 1-1 but also lost Alexis Sanchez to a hamstring injury and Santi Cazorla, although he hobbled on for most of the 2nd half, to knee damage. The former returned in January but didn’t stem our collapse in the new year. The latter might make his return in this one. Santi’s absence, however, has been keenly felt as Wenger struggled to find a rear of midfield pairing to work together with the kinship and cohesion he and Francis Coquelin had found for much of calendar year 2016. Coquelin, injured the week before the Norwich match (at West Brom), also returned to action earlier in the new year but seems a guaranteed starter only when Wenger sets out to defend as our first priority. In this one, I think, the more attacking duo of Mohamed Elneny and Aaron Ramsey most likely get another run out.
It’s all very thick with irony as so many Gooners believed Wenger needed to buy cover for Coquelin last summer, but, in the final reckoning, it was more about cover for Cazorla, particularly when Ramsey couldn’t stay fit and Elneny (another well-rounded, run all day box-to-box type of midfielder) and our only January purchase, was eased into the squad. The delay in his introduction, followed on by his making the position his own, adds a strong tinge of regret to the mid-field manipulations.
So too do the fitness struggles of other would-be fillips. Jack Wilshere–another who might have filled Santi’s boots–just made his season debut last weekend at Sunderland while veterans Tomas Rosicky and Mikel Arteta could not surmount their own injury issues for more than very brief cameos. Mathieu Flamini filled in for Coquelin (mostly alongside Ramsey) and got us through the darkest days of winter but couldn’t sustain his best performances and has probably played his last match in an Arsenal shirt. The biggest irony of them all is that everybody is finally fit and at least in training (even Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, another who has played some in central midfield). Who will play, who will make the bench–perhaps to be saluted by the fans or to give them a measure of hope about the squad for next season–and who will slink off into their post Arsenal careers?
Unfortunately the questions surrounding this Arsenal team go on and on. We do have a match to play, however, and here’s the group I believe Wenger will set out–to try and get the full points in the match and as a public relations statement to the support:
Subs: Ospina, Gabriel, Wilshere, Cazorla, Coquelin, Giroud, Campbell
That line-up which represents only one change from our last two–Welbeck in for Giroud (who looked awfully good in that earlier match vs Norwich) and the list of subs is just a guess. It leaves out a LOT of players. Those guys will take their seats in their suits and ties and would include Theo Walcott, Kieran Gibbs, Rosicky, Arteta, the Ox, Flamini and Callum Chambers. Are all of those guys gone in the summer or seen only as emergency cover or ones for the future? The fan protests are all about remaking the club–from owner to manager to players–into a more competitive unit. For what, exactly, are they asking and how will the line-up (and subs) Wenger puts out attempt to address their demands? Who would you play in your first eleven and who among the rest would get to wear the shirt (and be available as subs) as opposed to the suit and (all to tight) neck-tie? Are there some you don’t even want to see–even in their street clothes?
To me, it’s all a very sad state of affairs. Like everybody else I’m disappointed (in the extreme) that we were unable to maintain our title challenge along with our runs in the cup competitions. That said, I don’t believe that tearing it all down (or otherwise withholding our support) is the best way forward. Instead, I’d ask everybody–Gooner and Gunner alike–to take a realistic and coherent approach to their disappointment and ask what they can do for the cause. I look at our squad–all healthy for the moment–and I’m not completely satisfied but I also feel it’s awfully strong and–with the right spirit and support–only a few tweaks from being able to compete on multiple fronts next season. But that’s just one view. What do you think?
Like Delia says, “lets be having you.”
For the match at hand–against a Norwich team sure to be desperate for a result and buoyed by the fact that they got one earlier in the season–I’m hopeful that Arsene and his players can tune out the protests and give it their very best to secure the three points and engender some hopes for the future. If they can do their part–and other results go our way (including one which would make Leicester City the most unlikely of league champions up at Old Trafford) we could secure our Champions League spot and then dream of a result at Manchester City next weekend and 3rd place while also giving ourselves a shot at celebrating a very (very) late St. Totteringham’s day.
In other words, in my opinion and despite all the angst of being an Arsenal supporter, it’s still all to play for…
Go on then…