I could start this column with a caricature. I could start it with a quip, a bit of sarcasm, a charade or a smash – any half-decent, satirical ‘break-and-enter’ to set the scene. But I can’t. For the first time, I can’t find the words. And it’s obvious – really obvious – why. Because I’m about to lay into my own team.
No prizes for guessing who it is. This team isn’t only under-performing to a level which mocks even their chronic low standards, but is also the one Premier League unit whose fans – with the same chronicity – are ever-ready for moaning and self-deprecation. So ready, in fact, they’ve got a TV channel devoted to it. Yes, ladies and germs, I’m talking about Arsenal FC.
Nearly sixteen years ago I started supporting The Gunners. A holiday in France, 2002. The World Cup might’ve been on Korean soil and an international event, but no-one told the French broadcasters. So I gawped at the crackling old TV, as these French players dazzled and danced their way to, well, the bottom of Group A. At that point, the TV crackled out. The World Cup, apparently, was over. C’est la vie. But the damage was done.
“the damage was done”
The French players might have played atrociously, but something – maybe the occasional flickers of brilliance I saw from Les Bleus, or the blatant French patriotism being broadcast onto my innocent little soul – hit home. These players, for the most part, played for a certain club in England. One of the best clubs in England, no less. A club half my cousins and uncles supported. My young mind was made up. To the resigned deflation of my West Ham-supporting Dad (he’s more of a rugby guy anyway), I was now an official Arsenal Fan. But the real damage, it turned out, was yet to come.
Sure, the first few years were sweet. Arsenal went unbeaten for the whole of ’03-’04, sandwiching that famous season with two FA Cups. The only challenge, the only source of tears, was a Manchester United side led by the genius of Fergie and the archetypal ugly of Roy Keane, a fitting villain to the beautiful football of Arsene Wenger’s side. Fast forward a decade and a half – past the infamous 9-year trophy drought, a home-wrenching move to the Emirates, the demoralising departure of just about every one of the club’s key players, the inevitable drop out of the top-four at the end of last season – and it’s a different story. Arsenal sit in sixth, having lost eight games already in 2018, and closer in points to the bottom than the top of the table.
“a steady and gradual decay”
It’s been a steady and gradual decay. Arsenal drifted from the top-two, to the top-four, to the bottom of the top-six – now separated by a gulf in class and consistency from those above them. On the way, they became a laughing stock of Europe: trounced at the hands of Bayern Munich and Barcelona time and again, Arsenal revealed a painfully obvious inability to mix with Europe’s elite. Now, though, Arsenal are a laughing stock closer to home. Dumped out of the FA Cup (the only upside to a miserable few years and, arguably, Wenger’s saving grace) by Nottingham Forest, thrashed twice 3-0 by City a week ago and slain at the hands of the not-so-mighty Brighton and Hove Albion, The Gunners strike a sorry contrast to the formidable force they once were. (Disclaimer: I know Arsenal got a solid win away to Milan in the Europa League)
Everyone’s favourite neutral (mainly for the good reason that you wouldn’t want to support them), Arsenal’s damaging lack of a core has harmed both reputation and results. Such a blatant shortcoming, unsurprisingly, hasn’t gone unnoticed by critics.
These guys – from the ranting pseudo-fans at Arsenal TV to a plethora of ex-players to Premier League amateurs like Troy Deeney and his cohones – have been quick to pick up on the club’s failings: the defensive failings, the unreliable form of key players and the absence of cohesion between board and manager. Their criticism is vocal, colourful and often heartfelt. But if I hear one more hard-man analogy from Martin Keown – about how tough his Arsenal dressing room was “with the Vieras and the Adams’, back in the day” – I’ll flip.
It might pain me to say it, but the wisdom of the crowd is at work here: something has to change. The squad’s complacency is a joke. How the likes of Hector Bellerin, Grhanit Xhaka and Skodran Mustafi get a first-team berth for regularly non-existent performances is believable only because Wenger has no half-decent replacement (even on a good day, I’ll take the aforementioned goons over Calum Chambers, Mo Elneny and Rob Holding). So half-arsed performances have become the norm, and gaping holes continue to welcome opposing attackers to the Emirates, encouraging them to see if they too can play the Wengerian-Arsenal Tika-Taka. The solution to this costly flaw is simple, but a man of Wenger’s complexity and genius does, of course, have a better idea. Buy more Pierre-Emerik Aubameyangs, more Herikh Mkhitaryans – more flimsy but technically proficient players. And if it doesn’t go to plan, there’s always a ref to blame.
“the golden years are what he should be remembered for”
The problem is, sadly, that I’m not sure whether Wenger has a sense of direction any more. He burst on the scene as an innovator, a man ahead of his time where sports science and tactical attacking football was concerned. Now, though, he’s an old man at an ever-adapting game, trying the tricks of experience to get ahead but always lagging a step behind the frontrunners. Although the man I really want out is Stan Kroenke, the Silent Walrus’s profit-creaming claws have an unclenching grip on the club, so I’ll have to make do with pretending he doesn’t exist. Instead, Wenger should volunteer himself into retirement, roll out with a Europa League win at the end of the season and ensure his golden years, not the years of protest and demise, are what he’s remembered for.