Changing Expectations lie at the root of Arsenal unrest
By Michael Ronald
It has become a recurring theme to question Arsene Wenger’s (And Arsenal’s) future around the turn of the year as the French Manager now approaches his twenty second year at the helm of the London Club. Repeated failures and fan unrest have now transformed Arsenal’s season into an ongoing Football Soap Opera, aka the ‘Post-Ferguson Manchester United’ syndrome.
Fans were brutally vocal last week as they demanded that Wenger step down at the end of the season prior to the Champions League tie against Bayern Munich. While it was quite startling for neutrals to see fans be so publicly demonstrative before an important fixture, it was mitigated by the abject Arsenal performance in a repeated 5-1 drubbing. A little hope, the familiar collapse and the sight of their talisman laughing in ironic bemusement have emboldened Wenger’s naysayers and critics with many now organising an escalation of the attempts to have him leave. More protests are scheduled and discussed openly on Arsenal Fan TV, (one protester even held up a ‘Wenger Out’ sign at a Trump rally, to the hilarity of many) which has become a major outlet for fan frustration along with the usual channels of Social Media outrage.
The Sun, The Mirror and the Standard ( Admittedly, not the world’s most reliable publications) have even run articles on Arsenal supporters planning a banner protest flown by a plane over their next fixture. The rivalry of the late 90’s and early 2000’s might be over, but the Gunner fans still feel themselves competing with United supporters by the looks of it.
There are noises from within the club emanating once again over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and to most Arsenal fans, this is a dreary sign. They have all, without exception, experienced the scoff, the denial, the fear and finally, the outrage when one of their favourite sons depart. From Cesc Fabregas to Ashley Cole, Samir Nasri to Robin Van Persie, their best tend to leave them, tempted by greener pastures, more money and a greater chance of success. Even worse, these former ‘traitors’ continued to win greater achievements and claim higher accolades once they left Arsenal. Ashley Cole won the Champions League in Chelsea blue, a competition yet to be accomplished by an Arsene Wenger squad. Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Robin Van Persie have captured four Premier League titles between them, surpassing the three Premier League titles won over Arsene’s reign. It has been 13 years since that glorious day in May 2004, when Arsenal, unmatched and indomitable, romped through an entire Premier League season undefeated. The ‘Invincibles’ were a glorious memory, for Gunners and neutrals alike.
Since then however, it is tediously repetitive. Arsenal challenge briefly for the title only to fall away and while Champions League qualification is achieved, no progress is recorded. A team which once reached the final in 2006 has had a record comparable with the Shakhtar Donetsks, the Portos and the over the past decade, progressing to the knockout round, yet flailing meekly before any formidable adversaries. Though Arsenal progress from the group stages more regularly, these teams are as regularly Champions in their own countries. They aren’t expected to compete with the likes or Barcelona or Bayern Munich in Europe as long as they achieve their domestic objectives. Arsenal are.
That expectation isn’t unrealistic, merely progressive. After many years of abstaining from transfer splurges and repaying stadium debts, Wengers lack of advancement was palatable to a point. Arsenal fans were convinced he would eventually come good, once free from the shackles. In the past 4 years, they have loosened the purse strings with Alexis Sanchez, Mesut Ozil, Granit Xhaka and Mustafi arriving for a total spend of 140 Million Pounds. Yet their reward for such an outlay has been restricted to 2 FA Cups. A sustained assault on the Premier League Title or advancement to the latter stages of the Champions League have eluded them. Last season, while both Manchester Clubs languished, Chelsea imploded and Liverpool inconsistent, it was Wenger’s best chance to break the hoodoo. Once again, Arsenal drifted away, leading to a Leicester City victory that was so improbable, bookies offered 5000-1 odds against that event occurring. Nevertheless it did, while Arsenal lost their momentum in February and ultimately finished second. While some Gunners have pointed to their improving Premier League position over the past 3 years, finishing 4th, 3rd and then 2nd in 2016, their point difference from the eventual Champions was on average, 10, implying that it is just brittle paper over the proverbial cracks.
Both Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez are expected to await the news of Arsene’s Contract renewal before pledging their own. Sanchez, in particular, has given all and sundry the impression that he is disillusioned and willing to listen to offers in the Summer. Ozil, meanwhile has regressed this season, with the German disappearing so rapidly during the bigger fixtures that it isn’t even a surprise anymore. Their futures are vital to Arsenal and for the club to be so consumed by their managers future never bodes well for anyone. Hark back to Manchester City in 2016 with the final confirmation that Manuel Pellegrini would only see out the season. City limped to fourth place, ably aided by their equally wretched Manchester rivals. Their beleaguered manager, Louis Van Gaal still won the FA Cup, yet lost his job.
Which brings us to the intriguing relationship between these rivals. Manchester United’s botched succession plan brings home all the reasons for the Gunners in continuing to keep Arsene Wenger at the Emirates. United have spent 2 out of the 4 seasons since Sir Alex’s retirement out of the Champions League and have lurched from one crisis to another. A new manager may mean exclusion from Europe’s top tier tournament, with the immediate loss of income and status. Their squad has been overhauled and tinkered repeatedly, leading to inconsistent playing styles and results. The comic trauma of the David Moyes season comes immediately to mind on the difficulties of replacing a long-time manager.
While Louis Van Gaal’s first year steadied the United ship, his failure to progress in the Premier League the subsequent season was met with a vaguely harsh dismissal from the powers-that-be at Old Trafford. It must be kept in mind that this determination of progress was taken against the backdrop of an FA Cup victory and was deemed irrelevant. Such a demand has never been placed on Arsene Wenger, with Arsenal’s directors perfectly content to let him persist in the job as long as he maintained the minimal requirements i.e. European qualification. Such placidity and satisfaction may work well for balance sheets and P&A statements but isn’t a sustainable alternative for success-hungry fans.
For over 13 years the Arsenal faithful have listened to reason and patience. They clenched their jaws as they were mocked by rivals, dismissed as irrelevant by pundits and spurned by the very best players. Next year will come, when they would be competitive, a new talisman would be bought or their current favourite added another dimension to his game. The purse remained closed, the intended arrivals declined their overtures, their prodigies remained inconsistent and their best players departed. They faithfully loathed their ‘Judases’, from Ashley Cole in 2005 to Van Persie in 2013 and furiously denied any suggestions that these traitors may have been right by the lack of ambition at Arsenal.
There is a curious culpability mixed in all of this. While it is quite certain to presume that such a duration of diminished success would not be tolerated at any other club, Arsenal were not always also-rans. The Gunners were once used to competing at the best, and having brought down Real Madrid and Juventus on their way to the final in 2006, were poised for European Glory. Those were heady days for the Arsenal faithful.
Since then, it has been primarily bleak. The memories of expectant success faded, replaced with stubborn resolve and zealous support. Grudging acceptance of their ambitions became the norm and with contentment came complacency. The expectations of the board and the fans began to concur and Wenger continued, with regular extensions to his lucrative contract.
More Gunners have gradually come to the conclusion, or at least the expectation that a greater level of competition can be achieved. Leicester’s plucky win was due, in no small measure, to that recognisable Arsenal collapse post their defeat of Claudio Ranieri’s men in late February. It rankled with the rank-and-file that their team couldn’t be Winners when the opportunity presented itself. The required determination and performance under pressure had wilted in Arsenal, after seasons of unenviable positions and repeated failures. The pattern had been established and some part of it stemmed from the majority’s acquiescence to it. Numerous humiliations and false beginnings have strengthened the voices calling for his exit and it comes with a hostile, belligerent realisation that perhaps, ‘Wenger didn’t know’ after all.