“Same old Arsenal.” A phrase every Arsenal supporter loathes, or at least should. After a jaw droppingly awful run of form; having to come from three goals down to salvage a draw with Bournemouth, losing to Watford a couple weeks later and then right on the heels of that embarrassing loss, suffering another loss, this time a demoralizing defeat to Chelsea. To make matters worse, the Gunners were dropping points at crucial times. Had they managed to take all three point from the aforementioned Bournemouth and Watford games, like they easily should have, they would have been six points behind Chelsea heading into that all important league clash. Instead, they found themselves 12 points adrift afterwards, with their title hopes all but gone.
So the question arises, yet again, who is at fault? On paper this is one of the strongest teams Arsenal has fielded in years. Arsène Wenger has actually spent money, in some of the right areas for once. There should not be any excuses anymore. Does the blame rest on the players, who always appear to take a nonchalant, lackadaisical approach when facing clubs from the bottom of the table? Or does the blame rest squarely on Wenger’s shoulders. Players come and go, but the one constant the last 20 odd years has been Wenger.
This same team beat Chelsea earlier in the season, embarrassing them the same way Chelsea did to them on February 4. There should have been even more motivation to beat them in the return fixture, because it would be a season salvaging win. So Arsenal can’t get up for big games, and they can’t take games against weaker teams serious enough to not fall behind by multiple goals before halftime. Who is in charge of firing up the team? Wenger. Who is in charge of making sure the players’ mentality is in the right place? Wenger. Who is in charge of not letting players become complacent with their spot in the team? Wenger.
Last season everyone saw the first rumblings of the “Wenger Out” campaign. The cries from supporters who want Wenger out as manager, for a multitude of reasons. With the now infamous “Arsenal FC. Not Arsene FC” banner on display at the Emirates summing up the frustration perfectly. This season, after the latest stumblings, you’re starting to see more unrest amongst the fans. In the 2-0 win over Hull City there were a great deal of empty seats, and the atmosphere was dull. It seemed like the crowd was looking to boo more than cheer. I can only imagine how bad the Emirates will be during their next home match after suffering yet another embarrassing defeat at the hands of Bayern, 5-1, which will ironically be against Bayern in the return leg of Champions League Round of 16. Towards the end of last season I was starting to switch camps into the Wenger Out side. But after how this season has been playing out, I’m firmly in the Wenger Out camp.
Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate everything Wenger has done for the club. With the key word there being done. He brought an exciting style of football to the club, helped the club remain successful under financial strictness as the Emirates was ushered in and brought titles, not just trophies. But it’s been far too long since Arsenal have won the title. And if last year was a kick to the groin, following it up with the poor performances this season is stepping on your groin after you’ve fallen from the initial kick.
Wenger has delusions of grandeur. He’s full of excuses without ever actually accepting responsibility for his team’s shortcomings. His refusal to change tactics or adapt to a new style of play that is dictated by the game or opponent is worrisome. The beautiful at all costs approach does not work all the time. Coming out and saying he’d rather play beautiful football than win is an insult to anyone who spent money supporting the club. Bottom line is, this is all getting old. It happens every season, and only worsens as any sort of adversity is faced.
While no one will complain about finishing in the top four year in and year out; it’s sure better than finishing outside it, it’s beginning to foster complacency. It was exemplified in the loss to Watford at the end of January. Where there was no urgency, hardly any effort put in and shell shocked expressions as if the players were thinking “how dare they have the audacity to score on us.”
Another issue is the disagreements amongst supporters. Last year, once the Wenger Out faction starting becoming more vocal and prevalent, you could see fans in the crowd bickering amongst themselves. With the Wenger diehards screaming at the Wenger Outs to sit down and shut up. There needs to be some sort of understanding amongst supporters. There will always be opposing views, but arguing with someone who disagrees with your opinion is simply yelling at a brick wall. If people want to protest let them. And I’m not just saying that because I’m a staunch Wenger Out member. Fighting amongst ourselves won’t accomplish anything. Sending mixed messages to the board won’t bring necessary change. And I think we can all agree that something needs to change.
The sad part is, at this point Arsenal have waited too long to get rid of Wenger even if they don’t retain him past this season. Antonio Conte, José Mourinho, Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancellotti, Massimiliano Allegri , Jorge Sampaoli, Frank de Boer and Jürgen Klopp, just to name a few, all have cushy new jobs at top clubs. The question begs who would want the Arsenal job that will actually take them back to the top? Diego Simeone from Atletico Madrid? Die Mannschaft manager Joachim Löw? Doubt any of them will leave their current jobs. Eddie Howe has been heavily linked with being Wenger’s successor once he departs, but with Bournemouth’s worrisome defensive record this season combined with Howe’s relative inexperience, it seems more and more like a risky venture. Manuel Pellegrini and Roberto Mancini are still available. And don’t anyone dare throw Jürgen Klinsmann name into the hat.
So the question begs; what will it take for Wenger to be out as Arsenal manager? Being embarrassed by Bayern in the Champions League? Tottenham finishing ahead of Arsenal in the league? Finishing outside the top four? Any combination of the above? To weed through this convoluted mess, let’s look at past experiences. Arsenal has never won the Champions League (UCL) in their history, let alone under Wenger, with their highest finish being reaching the UCL final way back in 2006. And In recent years they routinely make a Round of 16 exit. Yet Wenger has kept his job. This year is no different as Bayern already comprehensively demolished them in the opening fixture of the home and away series in the Round of 16. Aside from that, Arsenal’s stats are damning. They’ve allowed 3+ goals in four of the last five Round of 16 games, and Wenger’s record in the UCL knockout round is a dismal at best, standing at 15-10-18.
Last year the only thing Wenger could hang his hat on was finishing above Spurs. Leapfrogging them on the final day of the season to finish in second place, Arsenal’s highest league finish since The Invincibles. Arsenal haven’t finished outside the top four since 1994-95, long before Wenger’s tenure, and I think that will be the likeliest thing that would lead to his sacking/dismissal/non-retainment; however the powers at be want to phrase it.
Putting all that in perspective, yes winning the Champions League is extremely difficult. It’s why it’s called the Champions League and not the Europa League. Winning the Premier League is difficult too, but in reality is closer to Arsenal’s grasp than the Champions League. Beating and finishing ahead of Spurs is a matter of pride, but it’s ultimately out of Arsenal’s hands. The problems arise with, yet again, complacency. Arsenal are too comfortable. You could say they’re stuck in a rut, but to be stuck in a rut means you have some sort of ambition. And right now it seems Arsenal have no ambition. They’re perfectly happy with the status quo; finishing in the top four so you qualify for Champions League. Anything better than that is icing on the cake. There is no cherry on top in Arsenal’s book.
Until that mindset changes, which starts from the top, Arsenal will be stuck in this perpetual cycle of mediocrity. They’ll be a team everyone sets out to beat, but can legitimately embarrass. So here we are, on the eve of Arsenal’s FA Cup 5th Round match against non-league side Sutton United. When another non-league club already eliminated a Premier League club yesterday. Surely the disastrous can’t happen… right?