God knows how many times I have written today’s post. It’s not much of a way to spend a Sunday although I must confess to finding the company of the Wolf Blass grapes to be entirely enjoyable. Still, it could be worse, I might be trying to market an app which is available from today that celebrates Arsène Wenger’s first 1k matches in charge. Hats off to Arsenal for not flinching and genuinely, it looks good but by God, that’s a tough sell today.
No matter how hard you try to avoid the issue, Saturday’s collapse inevitably leads to talk of Arsène’s contract. It’s like a sword of Damocles hanging above every conversation, one false move and it falls directly upon you. It isn’t the elephant in the room, we know it’s there and no-one is avoiding talking about it. The objective is to be, well, objective rather than emotive. When we get emotive, the extremes of WOB or AKB win the day; there is no discussion, simply abuse and that is not how is should be. We should be able to talk of his strengths and weaknesses without spurious arguments – “Who would replace him” – coming into play. If the best argument that you can come up with to keep a man in the manager’s chair is to disparage someone’s idea of who should replace him, then you’ve missed the point.
The problem with this season is that it should have represented progress. To some extent, falling away in the title race in March satisfies that yet an uneasy feeling about next season surfaces. Moyes managerial ability without money matched his sallow complexion; Moyes with money and having survived the first post-Fergie season might well be a different proposition. It is supposition of course but not without foundation. I don’t think the same about Everton or Tottenham. As much as I admire Roberto Martinez, I think Everton as a club have reached their limit. And Tottenham? What do you think of Tottenham? You now how it goes…
So the question mark hangs over Arsenal. Weaknesses in the squad have been exposed by injury this season and the failure to strengthen when they bit before the January transfer window. Salt was rubbed into those wounds with heavy defeats at the hands of rivals. How deeply that has cut is shown by the cancellation of press and media duties beyond the official club channels ahead of the match against Swansea. For a man who fronted the press on all occasions including ones where disgusting insinuations were made, to take this step is surprising but I am not sure it is counter-productive as has been suggested. It takes a second to observe that Saturday’s performance was unacceptable and that his contract is not up for discussion, there is nothing new for him to offer on that. The questions that Arsène won’t want to answer relate to why the team were so poor on Saturday, what has he done to solve the problem with forty-eight hours or so between fixtures. The answer is that there is little he can do to make a tangible difference but that is not what we want to hear; we want answers and I don’t think that the manager can give them because this isn’t the first capitulation of the season; we cannot be certain that it won’t be the last. And more to the point, he cannot answer them because the players have to do that on the pitch. That is the only talking to be done until after the final whistle.
There is a certain irony – in an Alanis Morrisette kind of way – that Swansea City provide the opposition. It was the home defeat last season which brought disgruntlement to the surface. Worryingly, this season stands on the verge of imploding. Obviously that presumes the worst for the next three matches which are crucial to the perception of progress being made. Each opponent has as great a need as Arsenal for points. Swansea sit uncomfortably close to relegation places and City are in the title race. These are followed by a trip to Goodison Park where the fifth-placed team waits (assuming they win their games in hand over Tottenham). By kick-off, they could be just five points behind which is the worst-case scenario. Defeat for Arsenal could reduce the gap to two; smoke and mirrors, if buts and maybes. Of course Arsenal are motivated, it is ludicrous to believe otherwise but is their motivation enough? Would defeat next weekend be the one which sends the remainder of the Premier League season into cruise control, a dangerous mindset for the players, inducing a false sense of security. That said, the way this season has played out, defeat at home to Swansea could quite easily be followed by two wins. You just don’t know the reaction Saturday’s humiliation will bring. I know the one I want but I am not sure I will get it.
The feelgood factor generated by the commemoration of his landmark match dissipated within the first twenty minutes at Stamford Bridge. Mistakes made at Anfield and Eastlands were repeated and an attacking philosophy torn asunder when a cautious and containing start to the match was required. The belief that this squad was mentally tougher than before has been cast to the winds; the capitulations suffered show they have adopted an inferiority complex when it comes to the visiting the homes of the top four. Is it prevalent throughout the club, do the manager and his staff believe they can win these matches or do players pick up on the signals beforehand, the ones which are reinforced by events on the pitch?
Whilst the focus has been on the manager, the players have got off relatively scot-free. Apparently they and the manager held a “crisis meeting” yesterday which is a bit late. The stable door was open and Shergar bolted; that should have been held after Anfield, the second time they had let the club down with a capitulation. Whilst it seemed a bit draconian, the club’s decision to order them off social media ahead of tomorrow was put into perspective when Per Mertesacker’s flippant comments about petitioning the FA over early kick-offs, were taken seriously in some quarters. Humour is in short supply at the moment.
The manager takes ultimate responsibility for performances and the players need to shape up as well. So to the board. The process of identifying the summer’s transfer targets should be well under way and this time someone senior in the club needs to tell Arsène that the purse strings are loosened. The commercial deals struck will enhance the finances to the extent where the club can afford to pay more than they have in the past. A repeat of last year’s debacle over Luis Suarez is not acceptable nor is pulling out of a deal because the manager’s valuation is exceeded. There was an interesting comment attributed to the usual insider over the weekend; this time at Old Trafford where they acknowledged United would have to spend more to sign players than they might normally because of their situation. Arsenal’s position might be better but the outcome is likely to be the same. By trumpeting the deals, the club has held themselves out as hostages to fortune. It is no good taking the plaudits and then bleating about how selling clubs are inflating their asking prices. Of course they are, they are able to do the maths as quickly as you or I. It’s the way of the world, it is the nature of the footballing beast. It needs someone to take control of negotiations, to make sure targets are landed because this squad needs it to make progress.