“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
Someone on the wonderful Steve Gleiber’s Arsenal Supporters Forum (not all that well known and better for it), posted this little nugget from ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ as a very apt comment before yesterday’s FA Cup Fixtures. Certainly Arsenal football club, and specifically the playing staff and management seem trapped in a melancholic Victorian novel of largely their own construction. Arsene Wenger is increasingly resembling the Chekhovian head of the family, struggling to come to terms with the changing of the world around him, sticking with old fashioned and laudable principles, while his brighter shining dependents become ever more aware of their limitations, doubts and need to escape (in this case to Barcelona, Madrid or Manchester rather than Moscow or St. Petersburg).
For the first time in the Wenger regime, there is no longer euphoria, or even the more recent battles between anger and faith, but a general air of despondency among Arsenal fans. Not only has the team reverted to a similar relative level to the Manager’s first season in charge (though with completely different strengths and weaknesses), but there has been a gradual decline since the end of the 2007-08 season (where the team was flying before 2/3 of the front six were wiped out with injury, and three or four others were eyeing their next signing on fee). This sense of ever diminishing returns has been compounded by the fact that some of the necessary changes or potential pitfalls have been obvious to all observers for some time, and the clubs management has been reactionary rather than proactive since the departure of the flawed, arrogant but energetic David Dein.
In normal circumstances, a club’s supporters would expect the board or owners to apply pressure on the Manager to change his methodology, with the ultimate ‘stick’ of unemployment, but the traditional conservatism and endless loyalty of the Arsenal board has been compounded by the purchase of the club by a classic absentee landlord. Given his share purchase, appearance at AGMs and shareholder meetings, Mr E. Stanley Kroenke has had ample opportunity to present some sort of longer term vision for the club, but so far has said nothing other than ‘business as usual’.
Most Arsenal fans I feel would prefer the club to be self-sufficient as opposed to becoming the plaything of a broad barely discriminating middle-eastern policy of profile raising or corrupt Russian legitimacy purchasing. However, the seeming acceptance of a gentle downward spiral towards a Spurs level of mediocrity, nice football and occasional comparative success is not going to wash with a fan base filling a 60,000 seat stadium with allegedly the most expensive ticket prices in world football. Given that the previous board members decided to trade in their famed and for the most part reasonably successful ‘custodianship’ for huge stacks of cash when it became clear Danny Fizman was going to succumb to his cancer, fans feel as though they have been taken for a ride. Increased ticket prices have coincided with a Manager somehow managing to provide top four football every year since the stadium move despite also providing a £10m+ annual transfer surplus, so it is entirely understandable that people are questioning the vast wealth amassed by ex directors through the club. Certainly there has been no evidence if any of the previous or current ownership actually investing any of their own money in generating the vast financial returns. The spectre of the stadium debt repayment garnered a lot of understanding from supporters, but the combination of the internet as a communication tool and the fact that a multi-million fan base will contain one or two financial experts mean the wool can only be pulled over eyes for so long. The club is generating sufficient revenue to pay and service its debts whilst investing significantly in the playing staff. This will only get easier as the unfavourable commercial deals related to the construction of the Emirates Stadium expire or are re-negotiated.
You can’t help wondering how long Kroenke and Hill-Wood can keep ignoring the elephant in the room that is Usmanov’s Red and White Holdings. The man is one of the richest in the world, has grown his wealth at a time when others have struggled and more importantly owns nearly a third of the club. While his morally dubious record, and the clubs history of plurality of ownership mean that most fans would not want him in complete control, to pretend he doesn’t exist seems petty and counter-productive. How long can the current board deny him a directorship? He has long stated his desire to invest if given a voice, and it is clear that his personal wealth and business acumen would greatly strengthen the club’s position with or without EUFA’s much heralded Financial Fair Play rulings. Certainly offering to pay off the Stadium debt or freeze ticket prices would get fans sufficiently onside to make him impossible to resist.
What isn’t clear is whether the lack of adequate investment in the playing staff is due to the parsimony of the Manager or the board. What is clear is that the team has gone backwards, and Wenger is looking increasingly like ‘the boy stood on the burning deck’ – Powerless to stop the blaze but too loyal to jump ship. In this morning’s newspapers there is the ever so optimistic suggestion that the Frenchman will move upstairs be replaced in the main chair by Pep Guardiola, who is reluctant to commit to Barca beyond this year because he is unsure of having the energy required. Firstly, I can’t ever see the Frenchman sitting on the board without wanting a major influence in playing matters, and secondly I can’t think Guardiola would think that turning around an Arsenal that has lost his way would be less exhausting than maintaining the challenge with a Barca side entirely built around his philosophy, with a massive budget and many of the best players in the world. Equally the Mourinho rumours abound, but he is even more philosphically removed from the club, and generally requires a free hand and a budget of £100m +.
Looking at the current situation, the current squad needs major surgery, and a change in motivational methods, as both the technique and work-rate is not where needs to be. The squad has a lack of variety which limits the team’s ability to react successfully to different circumstances, and currently lack either a Spanish or Dutch level of technical excellence or a traditionally English level of desire and grit, when the marriage of both underpinned the teams he constructed between 1997 and 2006. The emergence of Barcelona’s current model, and the near miss of the excellent 2008 side have seemingly left the manager in a loop of trying to replicate a hybrid of the two without the necessary long term commitment or financial might necessary to create the former, and without the variety and quality to re-visit the latter.
Of course what adds to the frustration of supporters is that Wenger still has his ability to recognise great potential in players, but seems to have lost touch with what makes a team successful on match-days. In a number of fixtures this year, the team has looked totally unbalanced, unable to respond to opposition tactical changes, and woefully inefficient in the final thirds at either end. Over the last three years, the team has been performing to a level less than the sum of its parts, and this year it has only been the surprising levels of fitness for Van Persie that have spared the team from mid table mediocrity. Before this year, the excellence of Fabregas masked some of the teams deficiencies, but somewhere, in terms of team spirit and stomach for the fight, this team is broken. It is no surprise that Arsenal have lowest number of blocked shots in the Premier League, and the squad has such a lack of physical presence and stubbornness in the face of adversity, that it no longer feels like an Arsenal team.
At least the dual cup disappointments will allow for the team to ‘concentrate on the league’ in time honoured tradition, and good results in the tough forthcoming fixtures would be a massive boost in the chase for fourth. If the team finishes outside of the top four, it is very likely that Van Persie, Song and perhaps even Walcott will decline signing new contracts, not to mention the increased difficulty of signing quality players when not participating in the Champion’s League. So Wenger is not only fighting for his job, but also the continued development of the team he has created. The worrying thing is that in the last 18 months he has given the impression of being consumed by a stubbornness and arrogance that is sadly lacking in his charges. Repeated dismissal of criticism by ‘people who have never managed’, only serves to strengthen the image of the ivory tower, and also conveniently ignores dissenting voices of those who have significant experience playing, coaching or managing at the highest level. It reminds me of the joke “How many communists does it take to change a lightbulb? None, the lightbulb contains the seeds of its own revolution”. Wenger has previously shown the capacity to adapt to changing circumstances, but one increasingly feels he has no intention of doing so. The board give every impression of sharing that refusal.
Things are sufficiently disappointing that I’m even linking to an autopsy of Wenger’s reign.
An interesting quote from this blog:
I’ve felt since the summer that this season represents a moment of genuine existential crisis for Arsenal. Which sounds poncey, but I mean it in the literal sense: what does Arsenal exist to do? Is it just to harvest cash from the Champions League group stages, thereby ensuring we’re a profitable far-flung outpost in our American owner’s middling sporting empire? If so, how depressing.
There is even talk of boycotting the home fixture against Milan to give the board a wake-up call that fans can be as discerning consumers as any other customers, and that paying top dollar for mediocrity will only result in customers leaving.
That said, it isn’t ALL doom an gloom. A new manager or a significant change in approach from Wenger (and a shaken up coaching staff), will find plenty of tools to work with, and squad and a club with very solid and promising foundations (largely due to Arsene Wenger’s vision in happier times). Apart from the Stadium, training and medical facilities and profitable and improving academy, the playing squad is full of talent young enough to fulfill their potential given the right instruction and encouragement.
Aged 24 or under we have Wilshere, Gibbs, Walcott, Song, Ramsey, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Coquelin, Frimpong, Szczesny, Gervinho and Djourou, as well as those outside the first team who have shown enough to suggest they may be able to contribute in future, such as Jenkinson, Yennaris, Miquel, Ozyakup, Afobe, Toral, Belleren, Jebb and Rees as well as loanees like Lansbury, Aneke, Bartley, Joel Campbell and Ryo Miyaichi (who got his first goal in England yesterday, and very nice it was too – See below)
If we work on the assumption that only one or two of those outside the current First team squad will be Arsenal quality, and some of those in the squad will leave, only Man Utd in England can lay claim to such an array of young talent with plenty of growing room. Van Persie, if he can be convinced to stay, is world class and can lay as a centre-forward or in a deeper role. Sagna is a top full back, and Koscielny, Mertesacker and Vermaelen can all thrive in the right defensive set up. Arteta, though frustrating in recent weeks, and too ‘safe’ a player for my liking is a very good squad player, and the jury is still out on Santos. Arsenal have the nucleus of a very good squad, but as over the last few seasons have too many substitutes in the first team, and too many weak players making up the squad. Even given the 25 man squad rule, our u21 players should augment that squad not be integral parts of it. For every Messi, Fabregas, Rooney or Pele, there are 5 or 6 Denilson’s or Bendtner’s. Most players can’t handle leading roles in major teams until they reach a certain level of maturity.
Even if Van Persie stays, a clear out of Chamakh, Park (if he’s not going to get on the pitch, why bother), Almunia, Squillachi, Arshavin, Rosicky, Bendtner, Denilson, Vela should be good for raising £25m between them, given Bendtner’s recent international record and Vela’s recent form in Spain. That and the existing transfer kitty should give us at least £70m spending money (not to mention savings on wages). If RVP does go, call that £95m. I’m sure many managers would relish the chance of inheriting a young sqaud with a few senior pros and between £70m and £95m to spend, and would back themselves to improve the team’s fortunes.
(I haven’t mentioned Diaby in either column, because at this rate he may never play again or remain injury prone and thus be sold. Equally the multiple specialists he has seen over the last 18 months might resolve the problem, and allow him a long overdue run of being injury free, where he could contribute a lot as a squad player.)
Also at some stage the storm cloud of rotten luck of the last few seasons with freak injuries, conceding wonder goals and suffering endless refereeing errors has to break. Perhaps it requires a change of manager, or approach, but as the team has slowly mouldered in recent seasons, misfortune has followed it around like a contagion. For all of the last 4 seasons, Arsenal have been in the top three in the Premier League for player games lost through injury and incorrect refereeing decisions against. Even in yesterday’s impotent performance at Sunderland, the team lost 3 players injured within and hour, had two good penalty appeals ignored, and conceded from one deflected shot that had been going wide (off the emergency injury replacement), and an own goal following a ricochet of the post. I’m sure every Arsenal fan is familiar with the feeling of dread when an opponent has a direct free kick in a game Arsenal have dominated but not killed off. Instant world class free-kick into the top corner. Anyway, digression over…
Right now, the gooner nation’s state of mourning seems very pronounced, but it is worth remembering that Spurs couldn’t beat Stevenage, and Chelsea are still stuttering, unable to beat Birmingham, and with no-one even able to remember Torres’ last goal. Even Barcelona look vulnerable at the moment in La Liga. This season for Arsenal is a wash out, but let’s try to keep our heads above the rising tide of negativity, especially given the glee in the press at our current decline. If someone can come in, make some statement signings and have an impact like Wenger’s arrival, our great old club could challenge again next season.
We just have to hope the the powers that be at Arsenal can recognise the depth of the malaise and year on year decline and be BOLD.