“You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain”.
The collapse of Arsenal’s season continued last weekend when they were dumped out of the FA Cup in the quarter final by Watford, losing at home by two goals to one. Arsenal had won the FA Cup for the last two seasons but this latest result did not come as much of a surprise. Arsenal have been in a downward spiral for some time now and the 4-0 defeat of lower division Hull last weekend was a mere blip in the overall trend.
Calls for manager Arsene Wenger to step aside are now widespread among an increasingly divided Arsenal fanbase. Wenger is probably Arsenal’s greatest ever manager and it is sad, if not downright tragic, to see his status brought to this level. The problem is, it is his own fault. Arsene has had plenty of opportunities to leave before now and he chose not to. Moreover, this under-performing band of players were all chosen by him and he must be held accountable for their lack of performance. Who signed Theo Walcott to a contract of £140,000 per week? Who signed players like David Ospina and the two Mathieus, Debuchy and Flamini? Who kept playing Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain week after week when he was costing the side two goals a game? Who kept Kieran Gibbs around for years after he should have been sold off? Who thought Mikel Arteta, Mathieu Flamini, Jack Wilshere and Tomas Rosicky could be relied on to provide cover for our only two competent and fit central midfielders? The buck stops with Wenger and week after week we are seeing Arsenal imploding before our eyes.
The first time I thought Wenger should leave Arsenal was after the 8-2 stuffing by Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011. Having grown up with Arsenal’s rivalry with United during the glory years of Wenger’s reign, and feeling nothing short of hatred for Ferguson’s United, the scale of that humiliation was like nothing else I’ve endured as an Arsenal fan. People point out that Arsenal were undone then by the financial pressures of moving stadium, of losing key players, etc., but the team should have been better prepared for that game and the whole club owes it to the fans not to let that sort of thing happen.It was a disgrace.
I briefly changed my mind when Wenger seemed to turn things round when he dropped Thomas Vermaelen in early 2013, reorganized the team and followed that up with the record signing of Mesut Ozil that summer. Arsenal then went on an Ozil and Ramsey-inspired rampage early in the 2013-14 season. However the wheels came flying off again after a 5-1 mauling by Liverpool, followed by a 6-0 humiliation by Chelsea in Wenger’s 1000th game in charge. The latter was particularly galling due to the symbolism of the occasion. Arsenal’s unbelievable frailty against top-quality opposition was in large part facilitated by the absence of a defensive midfielder. Arsenal were supposed to be on a title charge and in the January transfer window Wenger signed one player on loan, the midfielder Kim Kallstrom who had injured vertebrae in his back. Every single football fan on the planet had been going on for years about Arsenal’s obvious need for a defensive midfielder. At the time Arsenal were playing Mikel Arteta in the role, a player who made his name as a number 10 for Everton. Whatever Arteta’s strengths, as a DM he was massively exposed against the best teams–particularly against Chelsea when Wenger made the staggering decision to partner him with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in central midfield. They say the owl of Minerva flies at desk but even at the time partnering those two in the middle was utter madness.
Once again, Arsenal were disintegrating but somehow clawed their way into the FA Cup Final. Wenger has said winning that game helped persuade him to sign a new contract, when in fact it may well have been best to leave on a high. Having decided to stay, Arsenal were presented with a gilt-edged opportunity to win the league this season. Instead, they’ve played probably the worst football I’ve ever seen from one of Wenger’s Arsenal sides. The team has no discernible style or identity and seems to be characterised by a lack of personal responsibility on the pitch, whether it is in possession or in defense. It’s clear from the abysmal finishing, from the lack of movement from players who don’t seem to want the ball, and from the continuous defensive errors and mix-ups. Moreover, in the absence of people like Tomas Rosicky or Jack Wilshere, it doesn’t really feel like an ‘Arsenal’ team at all. Pretty much every player there I can picture playing for someone else, and I wouldn’t really care if we sold them–so long as we replaced them with someone of comparable or better quality. That includes Ozil and Alexis. I’ve never, ever felt so little emotional investment in an Arsenal side, even in the dog days of George Graham’s reign. At least then we had Ian Wright.
It’s all the more infuriating because there is absolutely no reason why Arsenal shouldn’t be winning the league this year. They already have the players for it. They’re also one of the richest clubs in the world and could sign practically any player they wanted–and if we’re honest, Arsenal are short at least a couple of world-class players if they hope to win the Champions League. The only players in the world who could not be bought for any price are Messi and Neymar, and maybe Thomas Muller. Arsenal could buy pretty much anyone else. I’m not saying they should buy Ronaldo or Ibrahimovich, although they could if they wanted to, but the likes of James Rodriguez, Isco or Mario Gotze would be great signings who would not only raise Arsenal’s chances in the league but actually make them realistic contenders in Europe too.
That won’t happen while Wenger’s in charge, of course, and probably won’t happen while Stan Kroenke is majority shareholder. But one of the things I’ve realized this season is that the Premier League is full of managers who are doing a better job than Wenger. Next season there will be at least five managers who I would take over Wenger, plus Mourinho. People go on about what happened at United after Ferguson retired, but Arsenal at the moment are playing as badly as they did under Moyes, and almost as badly as they’re playing now under Van Gaal. Arsenal and Arsene are not the same thing. It’s time the club rediscovered its identity and started to inspire people again.
Wenger has turned things around before, of course, but the entire aura around the team, around him, and around the club feels different this time. With a trip to Barcelona on the cards tonight followed by a visit to Everton on Saturday, all the evidence suggests things are going to get worse before they get better.