Sorry, Wenger Haters, he’s not going anywhere. And, if anyone can turn this Arsenal ship around, it must be the manager.
Two losses out of three, no new signings, and everybody (who can) wanting to jump ship. Can it go any lower? Hopefully not. If this is Rock Bottom we can only go upwards. Or sideways. Or we can fish around for even lower ground. Has the ship already sunk or can it be steadied and the shore be reached?
Due to a self-imposed media blackout I watched the two most recent Arsenal matches without commentary. Stoke away was the usual situation of a tough home crowd, compounded by (perhaps) an even more demanding traveling support (perhaps) influencing the officiating crew into blowing two critical calls. It could be argued that Arsenal should be sufficiently technically superior to any Stoke side and overcome such issues. Games are decided by small margins–and sometimes by a bit of luck–but we came out on the wrong side of the margin and failed to make our own luck. Conclusion, at least among the haters: Arsenal have sunk to the level of Stoke.
A week on and this Arsenal team–at this moment–showed that it is massively inferior to Liverpool. 4-nil is a lopsided scoreline, but it probably flattered Arsenal on the day. Playing want-away players (Alexis Sanchez, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain)–who played as badly as I’ve ever seen either of them play–seemed a misguided move by Wenger. New signings Alexandre Lacazette and Sead Kolasinac were rested. Twenty one year-old Rob Holding was preferred over another want-away, Shkodran Mustafi. No rhyme, no reason. Some Gooners have gone so far as to say that Wenger was actually tanking the match in order to create a crisis. Would such a “plan” spur those (supposedly) above him, CEO Ivan Gazidis and principal shareholder, Stan Kroenke (and his board of directors), into loosening the purse-strings as the transfer window came to a close or would it serve to lower supporters’ expectations so that any decent finish in the league (top half? top six? top four?) would seem adequate?
If losing was supposed to put the crowbar in Kroenke’s wallet, it was an abject failure. Nobody in at the deadline and only cut-rate deals of (beyond the) fringe players. Those monies plus forty million pounds for Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain might help offset the lost transfer fee we might have gotten for Alexis. But now we’ve got a problem. Will Alexis, a selfish player by nature, give his all for the collective or be a toxic element in the dressing room? Are we weakened by losing the Ox? Would Thomas Lemar (in place of Alexis) have strengthened the team? It appears a last ditch huge money offer was made for Lemar but, having it fail, we kept Alexis instead. Could Lemar have lived up to the pressure of his price tag? We’ll never know.
So many others were “linked” to the team. Riyadh Marez? Jean-Michael Seri? Raheem Sterling (as part of an Alexis deal), Adrian Rabiot? Who else? If I ate a sausage (links, we call them here in the States) every time I saw a name thrown out, my love handles would morph into a spare tire (or is it tyre?)…
Speaking of love handles… Where is the love? And who handles our business? Are Arsenal’s (current) players not deserving of our love? What about our “handlers,” our management team, who, we must remember, serves at the pleasure of ownership? Do they not deserve a little love. Is blame the only game?
Alexis, of course, like Mesut Ozil (and the departed Ox) are in the final year of their contracts. Is there a chance they might re-sign, even if it’s only a short term “insurance” contract? A short term deal for two of our key players would give them a pay-rise and protect their (longer term) earnings against the specter (spectre?) of injury. Is it too late for them and are they just waiting for a life raft to get them out of North London?
So many questions. Who knows the answers?
The press–including blogs–in endless search of hits–lead supporters around by the nose. I’ve seen (and heard) so many stories put forth as truths and then twisted to suit the needs (usually to assign blame) of the writer. Can Gooners distinguish fact from fiction?
Probably not. That’s why my plan is to try and watch Arsenal as I hope they can observe (and improve) themselves–in a vacuum. I no longer listen to commentary when I watch the matches. And the pundits? Not for me, thank you very much. I’m sure I’ll still scan the NewsNow headlines to see how the latest “news” and “statements” are being spun into (almost relentlessly negative) click-bait, and, now and again, I may even take a look at some of the better Arsenal writers out there, ones who have been reasonably balanced in the past. I have to say, however, that the more I read about Arsenal the less time I have for it. Not only the missives about our club from the so-called neutrals and our “support,” but also stories from elsewhere in the sport. I know I watch a whole lot less football as a neutral. Is it because Arsenal will never buy any of the players I might be scouting? Maybe.
Or maybe it’s because I cannot fathom the direction that the game and the culture surrounding it has gone. Can an emirate (Qatar with Paris St. Germain; Abu Dhaby with Manchester City) really buy their way to the top? Why not? Qatar bought themselves a world cup. So did Russia (who might have also bought themselves a US presidential election).
When I first landed upon the Arsenal (in 2006, while living at my screen-name) I fell hard for Arsene Wenger’s vision of a team of (mostly) foreign players changing the game in England–for the better, of course–and being able to compete at the highest level domestically and in Europe. The notion that operating within the financial means of the club and rewarding promising players with higher salaries seemed the right way forward. Mostly, I believed that the best technical and team oriented football would win out over selfish play and shows of individual passion. I also thought that the wise people of Islington (and their brethren world-wide) had a measure of understanding this bigger picture, not to mention the patience (and pride) to support their club through thick and thin. I guess I was wrong on all counts. And, of course, I didn’t foresee the great turn inwards towards a celebration of selfishness combined with excessive and irrational blame on outside sources (individuals and whole classes of peoples) for all perceived ills. For me, when I was in London and falling in love with Arsenal, I didn’t feel so much like a foreigner even though (obviously) I was different (and oh so naive). With the new nationalism I wonder. (Did I say racism and/or fascism? If I did, I hope I’ve overstepped.) Did I underestimate the tribal (anti-intellectual) element of being a football supporter? Probably.
Like a fool, I still cling to my ideas–despite the “facts” saying I’m so very, very misguided. As bad as the situation at Arsenal may seem, I’m not quite ready to throw in the towel. I’m guided by my own truths, including the following.
Fact #1 (for me)–Our team is comprised of good to very good to outstanding players, many of whom I’m excited to watch in action. Alexis could be the best player in the league but also one who could bring down the team. I fear he’s a player whose natural abilities–including that incredible burst of pace (most recently shown in his running after giveaways at Anfield)–have kept him from developing a real football intelligence and learning how to make his teammates better. I would have been happy to move him on, but, now that we haven’t, let’s see what he can do. Ozil, for me, offers more than any other player on the team by way of creating space for others and moving the ball into those areas. Of course, he needs his teammates to use those spaces and extend or finish the intelligence he puts on the ball. Lacazette seems one who might be able to use Ozil’s genius the most. To my eye, he has plenty of goals in him, as do Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott. Danny Welbeck will happily run his arse off, exchange spaces with teammates and will probably even scuff a few balls into the net.
So many have singled out our midfield as an area where we were desperate for new signings. We shall see. I’m happy enough watching Granit Xhaka and Aaron Ramsey who can create plenty of assists and goals. Others are routinely slated, maybe because they didn’t cost enough. Francis Coquelin earned a spot in the squad as an organizer and tackler but is more than competent as a fully rounded midfielder while Mohamed Elneny is improving his jack-of-all-trades game at a rate that truly inspires me. Alex Iwobi, who will have to fill in if Alexis decides to sulk, is a work in progress but the potential seems all there and he knows more about where to play a final ball than the Ox knows about haircuts. Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, if they can surmount their injuries and play anywhere near their best, will be nothing but value added. Reiss Nelson could be the latest youth sensation in our squad.
Youth will also need to serve at the back. Callum Chambers and Holding will have to learn on the job but have shown enough to suggest they can do it. At the other end of the age spectrum, we’ll need the experience of cool heads Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny who will likely share the Captain’s armband. Mustafi, who, in the end we kept, seems a top-notch bridge between the younger and older center backs. Nacho Monreal, I believe, brings cultured quality no matter where he plays while Sead Kolasinac and Hector Bellerin represent, respectively, power and pace, and, I think, will flourish as our wide up and down men. Petr Cech was man of the match at Liverpool and rightfully slated his teammates in the aftermath, showing a taste of the leadership needed in the squad. David Ospina will anchor our (hopefully) long and winding road in the Europa League.
Who have I missed?
Fact #2 (for me)–If anybody can turn this situation around it’s Arsene Wenger. With many jumping ship–so many supporters and certainly some players–we need a man at the helm who has dedicated his life to our club. If anybody can steer us to dry land, it will be AW.
He’s done it before. Speaking frankly, I thought his position became untenable a couple of times last spring–after the first Bayern leg, and again after defeats at West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. With the “support” in full revolt, he instead took us within a point of Champions League football and to a(nother) FA Cup triumph, winning matches over two teams who (financially at least) lord over us: Manchester City in the semi-final and Chelsea in the final. From the depths–and with fans wishing him gone (only a small group wished him actually dead), he got the squad re-grouped to finish as successfully as they could.
Fact #3 (for me)–As noted, in terms of financial strength, we are no better than 4th in the league AND we have an owner who seems to prefer not to speculate excessively in that arena. If your anger persists over the transfer window and other players look better than ours, you probably enjoy Youtube highlights and fantasy football over the real game, one where routine failure is punctuated by rare successes. If only results matter, it must be realized that Arsenal have actually overachieved in almost all recent seasons, and perhaps even more in these “drought” years since Roman Abramovic bought Chelsea and Prince Mansour did likewise at Manchester City. More speculative American owners at Manchester United and Liverpool–along with both teams playing in the CL this season–also puts us at a disadvantage.
Fact #4 (for me)–Unfortunately, that single point which placed us 5th, is a big one, especially for recruiting via the transfer market or holding onto our best players. Getting back into the CL places is a big ask, but would mean a lot for a final season under Wenger.
Fact #5 (for me)–Even discussing a final season for Wenger also hurts the team. His willingness to act as lightning rod for criticism and only take on a two year contract extension is another reason our recruiting has been weakened. Arsenal are no longer the “biggest club in France.” The best French (and francophone) players now dream of playing for the Qataris (PSG), while Monaco AC is the place to be if you’re a younger player seeking a few years of development. Given the levels of abuse aimed at Wenger, players cannot possibly expect to enjoy the former positives associated with signing on for him. The excessive pressure for instant results means there’s no longer room for players to develop under Wenger’s tutelage.
Fact #6 (for me)–A new manager–even if he was as perfect as those would-be managers (on the internet) who spout their logical fallacies with such extreme confidence–would have one giant advantage over Wenger: the goodwill of the fans, which might justify results that I’m pretty sure would be worse than Wenger’s. Of course, my hypothesis–just like those of the manager’s critics–is not testable. In other words, it’s easy to talk about what a new guy would do (whom he might have bought, for example) and how they would vault us forward from the safety of Fantasyland. In the real world, a new manager might be our ticket to the top. Or maybe not. I guess we’ll see when that time comes.
Fact #7 (for me)–Wenger’s dedication to Arsenal, to being willing to go down with the ship just when so many seem willing to jump, seems a rare and special quality these days. So many Gooners believe Wenger has ruined his legacy, but this quality plus a career of consistent over-achievement, I think, will only become clearer over time. If he can do it again–at this hyper-extreme nadir of Gooner misery–it might just be his greatest accomplishment to date. If he can get his team to shut out the toxic atmosphere surrounding the club and simply play their best football, I believe we’ll get to our proper level and there will be some satisfying Arsenal football on offer. Will we win the quadruple? Probably not. If that’s all that matters, then no football team will satisfy you.
OK, enough said and apologies for the rambling nature of the post. Those are (some of) my facts. Yours most likely differ. Don’t be shy, lay ’em out there.
Go on then…