Arsenal: Empty Seats & Echoes

by | Nov 29, 2019

Perhaps the problem turned out to be that the scene wasn’t that unusual any more. The reported attendance at The Emirates Stadium for Arsenal’s Europa League match against Eintracht Frankfurt last night was 49,419, but there could be no masking the truth, on this occasion. Arsenal season tickets include European matches, but not even the most optimistic of observers would have been able to maintain that particular half-truth. There were probably a little more than half that number inside the stadium for the match last night, a combination of echoing and booing that turned out to be a fitting soundtrack to Unai Emery’s last match in charge of the club.

True enough, away supporters were – patchily, as things turned out – banned from attending, and no-one bar cable television companies with schedules to fill actually enjoys these Thursday night slogs, but the heavy scent in the air was of apathy. If you can’t be bothered, the supporters seemed to be telling the entire club, then why should we? In his 1993 book Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby recognised that the new generation of football supporters then flooding into the game may turn out to be more consumerist in their consumption of the game than those they were replacing. Perhaps you have to be an Arsenal fan to have such prescience.

The team, meanwhile, lived down to the low pre-match expectations of those who decided to take their seats, despite everything. Indeed, this couldn’t have been much more of an Arsenal performance. For forty-five minutes, there was cause for guarded optimism. Arsenal were controlling the tempo of the game reasonably effectively, and a goal from Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang twenty seconds into stoppage-time wasn’t undeserved. After the break, however, came the stall. Two nicely taken goals from Daichi Kamada in nine minutes flipped the match on its head and Arsenal’s players reverted to their recent type, a combination of inertia and a lack of imagination which allowed their moderate opposition to run the clock down without exerting themselves too much.

Meanwhile, the supporters of other clubs look on with interest and, it’s likely, not a little trepidation. Everybody knows that Arsenal, with their 60,000 capacity stadium and endless stream of supporters prepared to pay nosebleed-inducing sums of money, have been under-achieving for a decade and a half, but no-one currently knows what the next iteration of the team will look like. Freddie Ljungberg will be in charge for this weekend’s trip to Norwich City, but will he even be in charge by the time of next Thursday night’s improbably-scheduled Premier League match against Brighton. At the moment, he’s in “interim” charge of the club, but whether this lasts for one match, until the end of the season, or even beyond then is not known.

As ever, though, it’s difficult to avoid the feeling that an ill-fitting manager at a big club is a symptom of its failings rather than the cause of them. The feeling of ennui that sits over Arsenal pre-dates Emery, and may stretch back as far as moving to The Emirates Stadium in the first place. Over the next couple of days, there will doubtlessly be acres of coverage given every perceived tactical mis-step or ill-timed substitution made by him. When analysing what happens on the pitch there seems to be no such thing as being “too forensic.”

But do Arsenal’s problems really stem from one man and one man alone? Is this even possible? It’s probably reasonable to say that, in the current climate of professional football, his sacking was inevitable, but the fact that football’s current psychological state is that of a particularly entitled six year old doesn’t alter the fact that the modern football club is too broad an institution to be brought down from within by one person. The manager provides useful cover for the shortcomings of the owner of the club or its players, very few of whom have covered themselves in glory, in recent years.

Indeed, Arsenal resemble any other club at the moment, it’s probably Manchester United. A club that had come to define itself by success under a legendary manager but which lost its way following the arrival of half-interested American owners who seem happy to live off the dividends they can pay themselves thanks to their clubs’ fabulous wealth, and who found appointing a replacement to the aforementioned managerial legend in their own way to be a bigger challenge than they were either expecting or capable of successfully managing.

Arsene Wenger, of course, clung on for longer than Alex Ferguson but, whilst Manchester United dillied and dallied with various managers of varying pedigrees before howling into a void of nostalgia by appointing a hopelessly ill-qualified club “legend” who’s very good at saying what he thinks is the right thing to say in post-match interviews, there’s still plenty of time for Arsenal to catch up by skipping the already-familiar list of names that will be doing the rounds over the coming days and weeks. This is probably unfair on Freddie Ljungberg, who has been diligently learning the coaching trade since retiring as a player, but the idea that just “getting” the club will be enough to chart a successful future for this multi-million pound business in an extremely cut-throat environment sounds as fanciful in North London as it does in Manchester.

But there’s a problem inherent in this culture. To build a football club around a manager requires time and patience, and neither of these commodities are particularly commonplace, these days. It took Alex Ferguson four years to win his first trophy with Manchester United, and seven to win his first league title. Arsene Wenger’s first season in charge of Arsenal only offered a modest improvement on the season that his predecessor Bruce Rioch had managed the year before. Patience doesn’t exist in the modern game, and with club structures having swollen beyond recognition in recent times, the upheaval that comes with replacing a manager is greater than ever. Our desire for instant gratification clashes with our desire to rebuild. Our skittishness makes finding that next club legend all the more difficult. 

Arsenal find themselves at another crossroads of their own creation. With so much privilege that being as low as eighth in the league table can feel like an existential crisis, though, the buzzwords of failure which have already started floating around feel prematurely redundant. Arsenal will find their way back to success in the fullness of time, just as Manchester United will. The money will eventually open its mouth and talk. But in the case of both of these clubs, it feels as though any future success will more likely than not be chanced upon rather than planned for. As Manchester City and Liverpool sail off onto the horizon, these two clubs are symptomatic of the fact that football clubs provide their own eco-system, and that when this eco-system becomes infected by executive paralysis, it can take years for the ill-effects of this to wear off.

Those who stayed away from The Emirates Stadium last night had seen it all before. They didn’t need to see it all again. The likelihood of those who run these clubs ever owning up to their shortcomings, however, remains as thin as ever. But if matters don’t improve for Arsenal, regardless of who the new manager turns out to be, Stan Kroenke might well find that the venom that has been directed at Unai Emery could just as easily be deployed in his direction. Unai Emery was a bad fit for Arsenal, but responsibility for him ending up there in the first place surely has to rest with whose put him there in the first place. Perhaps they’ll make a better job of it next time. 

Or perhaps they won’t, and the whole dismal cycle will start again.