The Inevitable Arsenal Post-Mortem
It comes so regularly that we could almost set our watches by it, but this year’s does feel somehow more significant than in previous years. The flaming car-wreck that Arsenal’s two-legged Champions League Round of Sixteen match against Bayern Munich became was going to be something of a weathervane for Arsene Wenger before a ball was even kicked in anger. The outcome of it, ten goals conceded over the course of the two matches, feels like a significant symptom of something far greater. The end of Wenger’s time at Arsenal is surely now fast approaching, and with that comes the end of an era.
It is, of course, easy to laugh at a certain type of Arsenal supporter. Arsenal Fans TV may well be “giving the fans a voice” and those running it may well be handsomely profiting from their venture, but most rational supporters of the club are likely only able to watch it from between the gaps in the fingers over their eyes. Just as in life, however, art doesn’t always imitate life. The vast majority of Arsenal supporters, the same as at any other club, are fully functioning, rational human beings.
For the rest of us, of course, there is a sense of bemusement at many of these complaints. Two decades of Champions League football? The occasional cup win? The longest unbroken record of playing in the top flight of English football, and not one that is likely to end in the foreseeable future? Oh, for such concerns, some of the rest of us might well think as we dolefully examine the bottom of the league table or survey stories of our clubs’ owners latest escapades.
This, however, isn’t a satisfactory response. Supporting Arsenal must feel like Groundhog Day, with the only question being that of which way the team will find to let a reasonable position slip from their grasp. This season’s sense of circularity has been broken by the fact that Wenger has not yet signed a new contract and, as of last night, because elimination from the Champions League came in such a spectacular manner. There is, after last night, little hiding space for those that would seek to continue to defend the manager. Something, at some point, has to give.
Those whom the gods wish to destroy, however, they first make mad. There could, on another day, have been a kernel of truth to Wenger’s post-match complaints concerning the officiating at last night’s match, but anybody with two functioning eyes could surely see that even the possibly offside nature of Bayern’s fifth goal or the red card penalty double jeopardy that truly killed off even the most fanciful notions of an Arsenal comeback didn’t cover the comprehensive extent to which they were outplayed over the two legs. And yes, it is arguable that the whole timbre of a match can pivot on one refereeing decision, but in this case, on this particular evening, these broadsides sounded like the last gasps of a dying man who is fighting for air.
It might also be considered that the fierce criticism of Wenger lets the owners of the club off the hook a little. After all, Arsenal’s season tickets remain the most expensive in the Premier League and, whilst the club has sporadically spent considerable amounts of money on new players, there remains a sense that the playing side of the club doesn’t receive the attention that it needs whilst its owners splash around in gold coins in the manner of Scrooge McDuck. It’s possible – likely, even – that Stan Kroenke and others get an easy ride because Wenger is basically considered one of them, part of the established order at The Emirates Stadium.
It is commonly assented that Wenger holds a degree of sway over all areas of Arsenal Football Club that few (if any) other managers could even dream of. But thus far the protests against Wenger have not worked, and it would be unsurprising to see future protests stretch their remit to include one or two others above and beyond the manager. Perhaps this will focus the attention of one or two that might possibly have been paying closer attention to the groundswell of opinion amongst the club’s support of late. But then again, of course, maybe they won’t.
So, where exactly do Arsenal go from here? It might not even be stretching things to posit the idea that it wouldn’t do the club any harm to skip out on European football from a year. Financially, Arsenal are better set up than just about anybody, and a combination of that and Premier League money would ensure that wolves were kept from The Emirates Stadium’s doors, and the lack of distraction that Chelsea’s players have enjoyed this season would indicate that there could be tangible advantages to being undistracted from the bread and butter business of the Premier League. Perhaps complete focus on the Premier League, to the exclusion of everything else, is what Arsenal need at the moment.
On the playing front, well, most seem resigned to the probability of Alexis Sanchez departing at the end of this season, but retaining his services would appear to be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the sort of renovation that the club needs in order to be back challenging at or near the very top of the table. Three years ago, the club’s chief executive Ivan Gazidis stated that, “We should be able to compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich. I’m not saying we are there by any means, we have a way to go before we can put ourselves on that level.” There is little that one can say to this other than to look glassy-eyed at the truth, which is that these three seasons appear only to have ended in continuing regression on the pitch.
Plenty will say – and it’s difficult to argue with – that the club needs a wholesale revamp of the playing staff at the club, and this ties in neatly with the last piece of this jigsaw, the future of Arsene Wenger himself. Should he stay, it’s difficult to believe that Wenger will institute any form of revolution in this respect himself. But his position is rapidly becoming untenable, and it becomes difficult to believe that there is no-one at a boardroom level who will face the fact that the club needs wholesale change from top to bottom, and that perhaps the easiest way to start cutting ties from the last few years, which have been proven again and again not to work, would be to start by changing the manager.
If there is a hint of the sombre about all of this, it’s because the departure of Arsenal Wenger from Arsenal would truly be the end of an era. There may never again be a manager who will have the effect upon the entirety of English football as that which Wenger has had over the course of his twenty years at the club, and even if we dismiss the macro-significance of his arrival at Highbury in October 1996, there can be no doubt whatsoever that he changed the face of Arsenal Football Club forever, in a manner only otherwise associated with the long-dead Herbert Chapman.
Should Arsenal supporters be grateful for his contribution? Of course. Might there be an unsavoury edge to some of the goons on social media who talk about Wenger as though he’s just another, hire them one day, sack them another, manager? Probably, yes. But should Arsenal supporters find themselves in a Groundhog Day of that manager’s making because the club’s owners appear to have zero idea of what comes after him…? Well, the answer to that is no, as well. Nothing lasts forever, and the time for a clean broom being run through Arsenal is starting to feel undeniably overdue.
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