Pathetic fallacy is the use, by a writer, of words that give human feelings or qualities to objects or in nature. It reached, perhaps, the zenith of its usage in the gothic novels of the late eighteenth century, and one cannot help but wonder whether the likes of Bram Stoker or Mary Shelley might have been looking down approvingly on Saturday lunchtime as the heavens opened, both literally and metaphorically, upon Arsenal’s season. As London was washed by an unseasonable shower of rain, so were Arsenal swept aside by Liverpool, and in doing so, a trickle of criticism has become a torrent, to the extent that it is possible that the club’s season may evencome sliding to a halt before it has had the chance to build any momentum.
Sometimes, simple imagery speaks more loudly than words and if there was a higher being of some description looking down upon The Emirates Stadium on Saturday, it was a being intent on loading Arsenal’s weekend with such symbolism. The front rows of seats there are exposed to the elements, meaning that those that sit there who are caught in the rain may shuffle back under the cover that it provided by the back of the stand. This is all very reasonable behaviour, but on Saturday it left some viewers idly wondering aloud whether swathes of the support had given up and gone home with fifteen minutes still to play. More startling than this – startling to the point of being chilling – was the sight of a bedraggled, gaunt looking Arsene Wenger standing on the touching, looking impotent as Liverpool passed the ball through his team for the second goal of the match as if he had quietly replaced his players with eleven scarecrows wearing red and white shirts without anybody noticing.
The signs of discontent had been rumbling along in the background at Arsenal for some time. The team was booed from the pitch when held to a draw by Red Bull New York in a pre-season friendly, for example. On the pitch, the team has had a spluttering start to the competitive season, and perhaps the only real satisfaction that Wenger could take from his opening two matches being a brace of clean sheets which indicated that perhaps – but only perhaps, mind – that the fragility at the heart of his team’s defence might have been successfully addressed. Still, though, the Liverpool match was the third underwhelming Arsenal performance in a row out of three competitive matches this season (and it is probably worth pointing out that Liverpool didn’t play particularly well themselves on Saturday), and this is sufficient, in the current, twenty-four hour white noise media environment, to constitute a “crisis”.
The summer transfer wranglings of Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri haven’t, of course, helped matters, but if either player wanted to – or, in the case of Nasri, wants to – leave, quite who might benefit from an unhappy player remaining at the club is anybody’s guess. Neither player has covered themselves in glory in the matter of either their behaviour or their comments to the press, but Fabregas is yesterday’s news and Nasri is likely to be as well, in the next week or so. Perhaps the literal loss of these two players, however, has been out-weighed by the symbolism of their wish to leave the club. The summer is a time during which clubs should be looking to strengthen, and the notion of there being a fixed period during which this can be done has obviously been reinforced by the institution of transfer windows at the behest of FIFA. If the end of last season saw Arsenal in a position in which they needed to strengthen the team in order to progress, it is difficult to argue that they have – at the time of writing, at least – managed this.
It is even more difficult, however, to argue that Arsene Wenger has somehow, over the course of the last couple of seasons, become a “worse” manager than he used to be. It has been a long-held belief of some that he holds some sort of pathological opposition to signing strong defensive players or goalkeepers, for example, but this is an opinion that can only be based on pure supposition. More intriguing, perhaps, is the assertion made by the independent website The Arsenal Times over the course of the weekend that the current inertia at the club is more to do with the club’s take-over by Stan Kroenke last year and the new owner’s policy on player wages. The allegations made within this article point the finger of blame, in terms of the club’s predicament, quite firmly at the directors of the club, and they certainly offer a more rational explanation for the club’s recent behaviour than merely saying, “Arsene has lost it”, ad infinitum. This does, however, point to an institutional clashing of heads which carries its own problems and may only be resolved through the submission of one side of this particular divide. Ultimately, if Arsenal were to go out of the Champions League against Udinese, the money from the Fabregas sale would already effectively have been spent in the form of lost future revenue, and the question to be asked over the next few weeks or months may end even up being whether a clash of personalities and beliefs on wage and/or transfer policy outweighs the importance of maintaining perpetual Champions League qualification.
Ultimately, there can be little question that Arsenal feels as if it is becoming a club riven by factionalism in a way that it has seldom done over the last decade and a half or so. In the same way that Alex Ferguson gives every indication of ruling the entire playing side of Manchester United, Arsene Wenger was a man in unquestioned control of Arsenal at a time during which the club always felt as if it all pulling in the same direction. It is this mask that has slipped over the last year or so, and the signs of this were present and correct last season, from the uncharacteristically weak home performances against Tottenham Hotspur, Newcastle Unied, Aston Villa and West Bromwich Albion to the League Cup final defeat at the hands of Birmingham City. A certain degree of fig leaf was applied this by beating Barcelona at home in the Champions League and by finishing the season in fourth place in the Premier League table, but the overwhelming signs to have come from the club over the course of the summer and over the last couple of weeks have been that little action has been taken to improve the atmosphere hanging over the club of late.
The end of August is one of the worst times of the year that a football club can find itself at a crossroads, and the junction at which Arsenal Football Club finds itself at as the transfer window starts to slide shut in front of it is a tricky place to be, especially if the issues that the club needs to resolve are institutional and cannot merely be papered over by merely pulling the chequebook out and signing a couple of players. The sum total of whatever may be going wrong at Arsenal, however, is still some way from being a “crisis” (Arsenal are, for example, about as far as it could be imagined from anything like a financial crisis and, over the course of time, the idea of them finishing below sixth place in the Premier League for any substantial period of time still feels unimaginable), although the imagery that the harsh glare of the television cameras at The Emirates Stadium on Saturday will have offered little to dissuade those of the opinion that the end of the world is nigh. Arsenal supporters could well be forgiven for hoping that the symbolism of last weekend remains symbolism and that alone.
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