Being in the back pages surrounded by images of despair and broken cannons is nothing new to Arsenal. Even in times when the title was being challenged for and won, the club was chastised for ill-discipline or diving before the annual speculation about Real Madrid wanting Vieira, Henry and Wenger on a seemingly rotational basis. The current phase is nothing new. Crisis is a subjective term, dependant upon circumstance. Arsenal, along with other clubs, are seemingly in a permanent state of crisis.
Some people respond well to stress and pressure, others buckle. Right now, we are going to find out which category the manager and players fall into. This is new ground for them all, with the intensity of the disappointment and anger a new feeling during his reign. I’ve been detached from Arsenal for a week through a business trip in the USA with little time for anything other than work. It’s been interesting to come back and settle into normality. Not particularly nice either.
This season has seen various ‘iconic’ rungs have been splintered from Arsène’s ladder this season. The first to go was the unbeaten home record against European teams at The Emirates. Bradford inflicted the club’s first defeat by a team in a lower division during Wenger’s reign. The manager, the board are turned upon by supporters and former members alike. Well, for the board that is nothing new. The club is turning in on itself. To rub salt into the wounds, Manchester City are about to ride a coach and horses through the FFP regulations. Everything they believed in is crumbling around them.
Or that’s how it feels. More than anything though, the previous unwavering defence of his team, his players, is not being universally supported. Arsène can do nothing else though. Publicly admitting that the players are not good enough may be counter-productive in a time of low confidence. Publicly naming underperforming stars will lose him the dressing-room, something uninformed gossip already believes has happened. It’s uninformed to believe he hasn’t as well; none of us know what goes on in the inner sanctum. The point is this: we don’t know the state of affairs when the club shuts its doors to get down to business beyond matchday. Some will tell us they do but they are never able to substantiate it, hiding too often behind undisclosed sources.
One this is certain though. To expect Arsène to change his way when dealing with condemnation of players and staff is ludicrous. It isn’t going to happen. He will take the flak, he will be hung out to dry in the media because (a) he is the public face of Arsenal FC, (b) he is willing to do so, and perhaps most importantly, (c) others are willing to let this happen.
The manager should be held to account for results; that’s his job. Most people I know are uncomfortable with the current state of affairs in this sense. Results have been patchy, performances worse but into the last sixteen of the Champions League was expected and they find themselves closer to the top four than they really ought to be in the Premier League. If we are honest, the League Cup was not something to get excited about although let’s be honest, it was rightly perceived as emminently winnable. Breaking with tradition and playing a strong starting XI, Arsène cannot deny that he had placed huge importance on the competition, perhaps complacently believing that Bradford was a quick way of reinforcing confidence gained in the win over West Brom, never countenancing the idea of defeat.
It was bizarre to read the transcript of the Press Conference with the manager goading the media into naming the “big buys” who are failing him at the moment. The usual suspects were named. When the only defence offered by the manager is that the cost of these players is not as expensive as believed, that says it all. He erred when questioning whether or not the players are offering value for money; if he believes that the likes of Gervinho, Squillaci, Park or Chamakh are doing so, this is the root of the problem. The question is another way of putting the view across that they are inconsistent. It’s a benchmark. Wenger is right, we don’t know the wages but certainly they are not earning the average wage. Therefore, it is not wrong to suggest that they are not offering value for money. The problem is that this quartet is not the problem; they are the scapegoats for the collective failure. Yes, Gervinho should have scored against Bradford, the miss was inexcusable. The Ivorian is not a solution on a consistent basis. And this is the problem; we don’t appear to have any consistent solutions at the moment in time which is a never-endingly unanswered question.
And lurking in the background to all of this is Alisher Usmanov, capitalising on the unrest. Populism is an easy path to tread, make the right noises without any substance. Chanting against Kroenke isn’t going to make life uncomfortable for the American sitting in his ranch 5,000 miles away. It might make life hard for the board and in that sense, there is nothing wrong in that. Increasingly they are proving sturdy commercial custodians but inept at providing football guidance. It muddies the water when looking at continued summers of less investment than is widely believed to be available. Don’t tell me that there is £70m in the accounts so that figure was available; it isn’t a consistent figure and cash does not equal transfer budget. It doesn’t; most deals these days are structured with bonuses and payments over the course of the contract. Ivan does not walk around with a suitcase of used fivers in the back of his club Robin Reliant.
Whatever the truth is, it doesn’t alter the fact that right now the club is not functioning as we expect. We’ve been spoiled by success. We don’t have a right to it and whilst some believe it a right, most know it is not. We have a right to expect that those in charge will do their best to ensure that the club challenges for trophies every season and we are not doing that. But more worrying, they appear devoid of answers.
If this is the endgame in Arsène Wenger’s reign, he deserves better than for it to end in a morass of rage and indifference.