Enough is enough. At any other club which regularly participated in the Champions League, results and performances like these would see the manager lose his job. But not at the Arsenal. After the game I said: “We’re a zombie club, staggering on with no obvious direction. From the Invincibles to the Unwatchables.” A little florid perhaps, but the point stands. Forget the trophy drought, when was the last time we were consistently exciting to watch? 07/08 probably. Since then, although we’ve staggered into the top four each season, the club has been rotting from within – selling its best players, none of whom you can imagine regret escaping, while the football has got steadily worse.
Now we find ourselves here: The worst start to any league season under Arsene Wenger. More culpable than any other team in terms of individual errors. Barely able to create chances, regardless of the opposition. On the subject of watchability, shots on target is a good metric to use. It stands to reason that if you’re peppering the opposition goal with shots then the team is exciting to watch. Last night it took until the 68th minute to register our first shot on target against a team in the fourth division. Against Manchester United away it took until the 94th. Against Schalke at home it took until the 93rd. In seven league games this season we’ve had fewer than five shots on target, and we’ve won none of those. We’re awful to watch.
When commentators talk about the Arsenal style of playing now, I wonder what they’re on about. We haven’t really played slick passing football since Cesc left, and even in his last season the malaise was setting in. It’s even longer since we were a buccaneering counter-attacking side. That left when Henry’s legs did. These days I barely know what we are. It feels like the entire team has been modelled in the image of Denilson – good at retaining the ball, but little else. Lacking heart, pace and effort. Oh, and overpaid. Because where would any Arsenal autopsy be without picking over the wage bill?
Recently the manager said this:
“At the end of last season we finished third. Honestly I don’t think there was much more in the team than finishing third. My pride comes from that as well.”
Ignore for a second the fact that it sends a worrying message to the players about what our real aims are. Focus instead on the fact that the gap between where we are, and the top of the league, is lengthening. In 07/08 we finished four points behind United. Last year that gap was 19 points. And that’s with the Glazers hoovering money out of their cuckolded club. If you agree that the Emirates move was principally designed to make us competitive with them, then you would have to concede it hasn’t achieved its aim. (Which is not to say I think that makes it the wrong decision.)
The complicating factor in the meantime has been the arrival of benefactors with limitless funds, first at Chelsea and then at City. No doubt that has harmed our chances, and we can cry about the unfairness of it all. But ultimately all sorts of things in football are unfair. You might equally muse on whether it was fair that United happened to be on an upswing at the same time as Sky’s riches arrived. Or whether clubs outside the capital find it fair that Arsenal were able to finance its stadium move with property deals thanks to its prime location. But Arsene’s failure to compete with petro-funded clubs is not the problem here.
The ongoing issue is the way we struggle against teams with vastly less resources. Last season saw shambolic losses to QPR, Wigan and Blackburn. This year we’ve we’ve already been beaten by Norwich, Swansea and now Bradford – who deserve all sorts of credit, but there’s no doubt it was a damning indictment of where we are as a club. It’s easy to say the manager has lost the dressing room, but that’s what it looks like. The players don’t look like they believe in the system or in each other. Look how quickly a player as obviously talented and big spirited as Cazorla has been sucked into the mess. The lack of application from the team would be shocking if we hadn’t already seen it so many times. Failing to make runs into space, not closing down, cowardly decision making. The players are at fault for all that, and more, but…
Ultimately this is Arsene’s squad. These are the players he has assembled*, he coaches them, he motivates them. [*Some censure must also go to whoever scouted Park, Chamakh and Squillaci. Our scouting is starting to look negligent.] The £70m question is does Arsene refuse to spend because of some ethical reason we find impossible to parse, or has he been hamstrung by an owner that insists on making a profit on player trading? Whatever the truth of our financial position, though, the fact is that there’s something deeply wrong with how this team is being prepared.
A word on the owner. I have written consistently here that his stewardship will ultimately be seen as a slow motion car crash. From the comfort of his £80m ranch do you suppose he’s even aware of the current depth of feeling among the fans? (You might cynically ask why should he care, until the slack stops being taken up in the season ticket waiting list.) I wonder how often he’s even updated? By whom and how honestly? Is it after every game? Does Ivan call or just send an email? Would you be surprised if it read like this: “Natives a little restless, but we’re not far off fourth. Have to sell Walcott in January, but Arsene has a promising kid lined up… Stick a pound on the price of hot dogs?”
Whatever the truth, much as I dislike him, (as I would any speculative investor), it isn’t Stan Kroenke training the players or sending them out onto the pitch seemingly without an idea in their heads. That’s the case against Arsene: that these players are underperforming significantly, and it’s hard to see what he’s doing about it. We don’t change system, we don’t change tactics and when we do change personnel it tends to be a baffling experiment like playing Ramsey on the wing. An experiment which couldn’t have failed more demonstrably without using a bunsen burner to set fire to the team bus.
Last night my girlfriend and I were discussing how this might play out now for Arsene. “Try not to hate him,” she said. I thought about that for a second. Honestly nothing could be further from the truth. I will always love him. He’s the greatest Arsenal manager I’ve known, second only to Chapman in the club’s history, and he has produced the greatest football team I’ve ever seen, and given me more amazing memories than anyone in football is ever likely to again. I feel desperately sorry for him that his reign should be coming to a close like this, but that is unmistakably what’s happening. “The reason he hasn’t left must be because he still thinks he can fix it,” suggested my other half. That makes sense. I just don’t believe it’s true anymore.
Arsene won’t walk. The board won’t make a change. So our zombie club shuffles on, eyes fixed on the increasingly unlikely prize of the top four, groaning about FFP instead of braaaaainsssss. Can there be any doubt left that qualifying for the Champions League is anything but an exercise in harvesting TV money? I would have more faith in Eboue beating Deep Blue at chess than I would in Arsenal winning Europe’s top club competition right now. We can’t beat Bradford. It’s heartbreaking that a man as warm, erudite and funny as Arsene can be reduced to delivering deadpan nonsense like: “I cannot fault the effort” after seeing his team of bottlers beaten by a League Two side. And with no word of thanks to the poor sods who schlepped up there either.
To pre-empt the question “well, who should be in charge then?” my response is threefold: 1) You only get to ask that if you also knew, for certain, that Arsene Wenger was the definitely right man for the job when Dein brought him in. 2) If you still insist on asking, any one of Moyes, Klopp, Guardiola and several others could conceivably do the job. None would be easy to get, but as the bullet points in this demonstrate, the Arsenal job is still hugely attractive. 3) I accept things may have to get worse under a new manager before they get better. That may mean missing out on the Champions League. So be it. As Goodplaya pointed out on this week’s Arseblog Arsecast, the club will survive. Indeed the most likely reason it’s been hoarding cash is to cover for what now looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Hey, if you play Russian Roulette long enough, against ever-lengthening odds, chances are you’ll blow your head off eventually.
So this should be the end, but it probably won’t be. One way or another, though, the Wenger era is drawing to a depressing close. Comparisons are correctly being drawn with the final days of Rafa at Liverpool. Given that Arsene has been at Arsenal longer, has been more successful, and I would argue is still more loved, the fallout among the fans, and potentially also on the pitch, is likely to be both devastating and lingering. Still, that’s your zombie apocalypse for you – no one said it was going to be all good times.