This felt like the end of an era to me, and I said as much straight after the game. The atmosphere had felt strange from the start, and it was obvious what the outcome of anything less than a win would be. I heard the full-time boos, which the BBC described as thunderous, while crossing the bridge on the way back to Arsenal tube. It was only the second time I’ve left before the final whistle in three years of having the season ticket. In the past I’ve joined in with disgruntled chants, but today I couldn’t face it.
I couldn’t face the Black Scarf walk either, despite agreeing with their stated agenda almost in its entirety. Part of the reason is that I’m not hugely keen on the way that the movement’s spokespeople respond to any perceived attacks. I’m sure they get a lot of daft questions, and no doubt plenty of aggression from the more wild-eyed loyalists, but it strikes me that if you’re in the business of winning hearts and minds you need to be a bit less spiky about it.
For instance: I’ve seen a distinction drawn by their leaders between the away fans singing ‘we want our Arsenal back’ and the Black Scarf Movement’s own slogan ‘where has our Arsenal gone?’ You can barely slide a semantic cigarette paper between the two statements, and the former is clearly inspired by the latter, so why so coy? And why so coy on the manager? I would be amazed if you polled those who went on the walk, or visitors to the Black Scarf site, and found less than 75% thought the manager’s position is now up for question. It’s odd to dance around it when so many in the ground are discussing it openly.
I suppose the Black Scarf’s leadership fear being painted purely as Wenger Outists, hence the logical contortions taken to insist the protest was about seating issues, price rises, and all the rest. But they know as well as anyone who goes to the games, or follows debate about Arsenal online, that the fundamental concerns are with the ownership of the club and, yes, whether the manager is capable of mending what appears to be broken with the playing side.
I’m not convinced he can mend it, so I’m not scared to say it’s now legitimate to question Arsene Wenger’s future. In fact I’ve already said so on here and elsewhere. It’s an incredibly sad thing to admit about Arsene Wenger the man, but it’d be ridiculous of me to pretend I don’t have worries about Arsene Wenger the manager. So if you feel that way, I think you should be big enough to say so (politely), and not pretend the mood music is a result of frustrations about safe standing.
A caveat to what I’ve just said: Last season, before the game against Spurs, I’d all but given up on us finishing fourth. In the end we finished 3rd, and I’m not sure there are many managers who could have taken over at the time who would have pulled that recovery off. Right now I probably feel even more sceptical than I did then about the team’s chances of cracking the top four, even with Chelsea struggling again. I know: lol. So, while I concede lightning *could* strike twice, only a madman would suggest building a business plan around it.
My doubts keep coming back to the composition of the squad, and the fact that even at the start of the season it looked unbalanced. This isn’t an injury-ravaged side either – the squad is only Diaby and Sagna short of full strength. Here’s the contradiction, though: On the one hand I feel like we should have spent more, on better players. But on the other it feels hypocritical to say that, and then not admit that a squad that has been assembled at a cost of £75m ought to be able to put up more of a fight at home against a Swansea team that cost just less than £10m. Can’t have it both ways, can I? If buying players is the answer, as I’ve often thought it would be, then why aren’t the ones we’ve bought doing better against Fulham, Norwich, Swansea.
And that’s when it becomes incredibly hard to absolve the manager for what’s happening now. For much of the first half today Swansea looked more like Arsenal than Arsenal did. Or at least how we’ve come to think an Arsenal side should do – tight passing, fast attackers, and a collective work ethic. They deserved to win today, just as they deserved to win at their place last season. Are all their players undiscovered gems we somehow missed? Do they put in more effort because they’re better men? What is happening on the training ground that makes them able to raise their game while ours seems so flat?
On that basis – not that we lost, but that it felt like we were outplayed – you have to ask big questions about how this team has been assembled, trained and motivated. Chance creation remains a huge issue. We had five shots on target today (mostly weak ones) to Swansea’s seven. I had Wojciech Szczesny as our man of the match, and without him they certainly would have scored sooner.
After the Villa game I bemoaned the way too many of our players seem afraid to be the one to make the decisive pass, or to take an opponent on for fear of making a mistake. Today more than half the team looked utterly terrified. Again the player on the ball often elected to abrogate responsibility, by which I mean would choose to slide a pass to the guy next to him, who’d slide it back, each waiting for the other to solve the puzzle somehow. All at treacle slow speed.
Too often, there wasn’t an option on at all. Never was that more clear than when Jenkinson was hustled back towards his own half, stripped of the ball, and Swansea scored their second. Remember when we scored breakaway goals? Now the team doesn’t look like it could counter-attack effectively against a team of snowmen. (Gervinho would probably succumb to frostbite before managing to play a successful cross.)
This flatness, this lack of belief in their own abilities, has to be accounted for by the manager. It’s no good blaming fatigue, or immaturity – what does that mean anyway, when most of the players are plenty experienced? – or whatever vagary of the Mayan calendar means that we implode every November. This is the squad Arsene has built – lopsided, stripped of genuine quality, and with a number of expensive parts left to rust by the wayside.
Earlier this season I argued that although it was impossible to know who was truly to blame for resources at the club going unused without insider information, whoever was stopping that strengthening – let’s call it what it is: spending – was effectively slowly choking the side. To be more specific, I meant that either the majority shareholder – for the board is to all intents and purpose an extension of Stan’s will – or the manager is holding the club back by not adding more/better players with the money we have.
But I can’t hide from the fact that the players Arsene *has* bought are not doing it for him. Maybe they’re simply not good enough. Or maybe it’s the way they’re being prepared. I made the point after Everton away that I couldn’t see the current problems being fixed by coaching or tactics. A commenter – from Tulsa, if I recall correctly – demanded to know why that was. At the time I didn’t reply because, hey, I wasn’t in the mood for running a Reddit Ask Me Anything – but I will now.
Tactics: Since its adoption, you can count on one hand the number of times we haven’t used the 433 formation that suited Cesc so well, even though he is long gone. Talk of switching to 352 has turned out to be the smokescreen most Arsenal watchers immediately recognised it to be. What tactical changes Arsene makes - for example, Ramsey out wide – are tweaks to the established gameplan, rather than major revisions. It feels hugely unlikely that he’s about to try a radically different approach.
Coaching: There was an Opta stat floating around after the loss to Man U that said since the start of last season Arsenal has conceded 18 goals to individual errors - more than any other Premier League team. Let that sink in for a second: *any other Premier League team*. There must have been a fair few conceded since, including Jenkinson’s error today. A number like that must embarrass the coaching staff. To have the players they drill go out and make more mistakes leading to goals than any other team has to be a damning indictment, doesn’t it? Are we buying especially accident-prone players – and if so, what are the scouts doing? – or is there some sort of endemic failure to coach the players we have correctly? In either case, hard to see a miracle cure coming here.
So, what happens now? Almost certainly nothing. So long as there’s still a chance of a golden Champions League egg, the board won’t axe the goose who’s consistently laid it. Nor would I expect Arsene to resign, because he’ll be desperate to fix this somehow. I don’t blame him for that: this would be a horrendous, ignominious end to all that he’s done for the club. And in truth I can’t see much logic in switching mid-season.
Earlier in the week I had a (surprisingly polite) conversation on Twitter about who Arsenal’s next manager might be. The question boiling down to who might come, and might be able to deliver anything like the performance Arsene has, not least in terms of consistent Champions League qualification. Of those we talked about – Moyes, Guardiola, Klopp – only the latter seemed to tick all the right boxes, in terms of playing style, managing with limited resources, and so on. And even if he was interested, which is by no means a certainty, would he move now? Would anyone on our board have have the gumption to even go for him?
I doubt it. We’d likely end up with a Martinez-type appointment. Fine if you only want to play well for a third of the season and get battered for the rest of it. For that reason I think that if change is on the way, and it surely might be, then it may as well wait until the end of this campaign, when succession can at least be approached orderly rather than in the blind panic doing so now would necessitate. In either case I also have deep reservations that the board is set up to conduct that kind of search successfully. Pray to your god that Dick Law isn’t involved.
Whatever happens I hope Arsene does eventually get around to writing that tell-all book he’s threatened to. Because if it does turn out to be that the money simply wasn’t there, and he was sent out year after year to pretend it was, and take the flak accordingly, then those who owned the club, then and now, have done one of its greatest servants an unforgivable disservice. But that’s for another time. Tonight, I can’t shake the feeling that the tide really has turned, and that this is the beginning of the end.