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Life of Arsene

He's not the messiah he's a very naughty boy

Richard Cann

In March 2014 Manchester United faced back-to-back home Premier League games against their fiercest rivals, the sides that would finish first and second in the competition that season respectively, Manchester City and Liverpool. Under the hapless David Moyes, United had gone from champions ten months earlier to sixth place in the table, in a campaign that had started poorly and slowly and painfully deteriorated further. To have gone from a modern day great in Sir Alex Ferguson to a dreary defeatist, with results to match, had been a painful experience from the off, but by the time those March time home games came around anger had to a degree receded and many fans had come to accept that season’s fate. Defeat was largely expected, but when it came in the form of two humbling and frighteningly one-sided 3-0 losses we knew that the Moyes regime was dead on arrival. At both games there was defiance from the stands and renditions of “We’ll never die”, but this fan felt only resignation and despair at the sheer scale on the quality and knowledge gap. It was clear then that the incumbent Scot had neither the personal or professional abilities to turn the ship around and that the end was surely nigh. Three Premier League games later a defeat at Everton, United’s eleventh of the season, made Champions League mathematically impossible to achieve and Ed Woodward and the Glazer family pulled the plug on a relationship they had naively intended to last at least six years. Moyes’ team had flatlined, the players’ heads had gone and there could be no way back. The team no longer had faith in their manager to turn things around.

Watching Arsenal’s back-to-back defeats to Manchester City, in the Carabao Cup final and Premier League respectively, bookended by further losses at home to Swedish minnows Ostersund and at Wembley against local rivals Tottenham, it was impossible not to recognise that same hopelessness and resignation amongst Gooners. Following the league defeat to City, which had been played in a half empty and remarkably passive Emirates Stadium, Arsene Wenger made his familiar call for unity, but with Arsenal marooned in sixth place, Champions League qualification a mere pipe-dream for the second successive year, his plea was entirely hollow. Jamie Carragher, in the Sky Sports studio, noted that the anger which had rained down from the stands in recent seasons and earlier this campaign as The Gunners have been mired in relative mediocrity was absent against City, replaced by apathy and acceptance.

While Champions League qualification was regularly achieved, a club which appears to have become a business first and a sporting outfit second had little reason to act, the money continuing to roll in. Three FA Cups in four years must also have given them pause for thought, and whilst calamity has stalked them for a decade or more, there was never a total collapse or a collective loss of faith in the manager. Last summer, after the failure to make Europe’s premier competition, the Arsenal board pondered whether to retain their out of contract manager. An FA Cup win seemed like the perfect send off for a coach who changed the Premier League, a visionary who has innovated, won, but failed to reinvent himself as English football continued to evolve. This collapse has deep roots. In the end, much to the surprise of everyone but Arsenal fans, Wenger was given a new two-year contract, a staggering decision from a club in decline but afraid of change.

They felt, no doubt, that the Frenchman could turn it around. Few outside the club shared their optimism and it has proven to be an enormous act of folly.

Since the turn of the year Arsenal have lost eight times in all competitions. To put that in context, it is more than four of the five sides above them in the Premier League have lost all season. Away from home they have lost eight times in fifteen games, scoring only sixteen goals, placing them tenth in the division. They are thirty-three points behind leaders Manchester City and thirteen off a Champions League qualifying spot, marooned in sixth, only five points ahead of a Burnley side that on Saturday won for only the first time in twelve games. The mental frailties that have plagued the club for over a decade remain, a weakness which must radiate down from the manager given how deep-seated and contagious they have become. Alexis Sanchez left for Manchester United in January, a fiercely ambitious and driven footballer unable to accept mediocrity. United fans will remember numerous players from the last twenty-five years or so with a similar outlook. Their greatest sides have been built on them. At United, Ben Foster once expressed surprise that defeat led to a ruined week for his teammates, stating that he could switch off, go home and not think about it again. Unsurprisingly, Foster didn’t last long as first choice under Sir Alex. At Arsenal Sanchez’s single-minded drive created tension with his teammates. Hector Bellerin opined after the Chileans departure that, “He demands from everyone. Sometimes it can be too much.” Arsenal replaced Sanchez with Henrikh Mkhitaryan, a wonderfully gifted but mentally frail footballer. After a promising debut the Armenian has toiled as the pressure has built. It was a swap deal that felt appropriately symbolic.

Perhaps if it were only an issue of mentality and tactical naivety Arsenal would still be bumbling along in the top four, content with qualification for and ignominious defeat in the Champions League every year. But the weight that has dragged them below the surface is one of recruitment. The starting lineup at Brighton on Sunday was testament to Wenger’s loss of focus. Petr Cech, whose decline Chelsea had identified when sidelining him for the young and prodigious Thibault Courtois, was at fault for both goals, failing to clear with a punch for the first and then allowing a Glenn Murray header to squirm under his body. At the back the contribution of Shkodran Mustafi has been embarrassing, while left back Sead Kolasinac has failed to impress. At right back was Callum Chambers, another in a long line of young English talent that Arsenal and Wenger have acquired and failed to develop in recent years. In midfield, Granit Xhaka has struggled to impress, memorable more for mistakes and red cards than for positive contributions, whilst in attack Alex Iwobi was favoured, a player who rarely scores or assists and who is often entirely anonymous. At 2-1 down and chasing the game, the manager swapped the Nigerian international for Danny Welbeck, an exercise in futility. Whilst some were labelling the England player the ‘new Thierry Henry’ upon his£16m signing from Manchester United (Jamie Redknapp labelled him the “Bargain of the century”), fans of the Red Devils were pointing out that he was a gifted technician but a poor finisher, well short at the top level. 22 goals in 96 appearances tells its own story. Wenger replaced Callum Chambers with Hector Bellerin at the Amex Stadium, the Spaniard another who is failing to reach his potential. The other change was Nketiah for Mkhitaryan, demonstrating the lack of squad depth. So woeful has Alexandre Lacazette been since his move from Lyon that having him available would have been unlikely to make a difference. The subs not used were Ospina, Holding, Maitland-Niles and Elneny, a Who’s Who of mediocrity.

It should perhaps be no surprise, therefore, that The Gunners have collapsed in such an alarming manner. In retaining Arsene Wenger year after year, beholden to him for building a decade of great teams, the club have ensured a relatively unhappy ending. The manager should shoulder at least as much blame, unwilling to accept the dying of the light, increasingly unable to identify and develop talented young players or spend money in an effective and efficient way. The Emirates Stadium was built with the express purpose of boosting Arsenal’s revenue streams and buying power, but Wenger has frittered away what was a relatively strong position after its completion. Until now there has always been a ‘maybe’, not least in Wenger, seemingly perpetually sure that he can turn things around. But the last four games have confirmed the belief that the battle is lost. The players are inadequate and broken, drained of belief in the manager and themselves.

There can only be one ending now. It is just a question of how long the Frenchman will be allowed to cling on, for he surely will not resign. The City and Brighton games have confirmed that there is no way back to respectability. Even an unlikely Europa League win should not suffice. The fans have given up on the team and the manager. Four years ago the same loss of identity and self-belief was visible as Man United were slaughtered at home by City and Liverpool. United, to their credit, took action and Arsenal face the dame stark decision. David Moyes, sadly, was not the Messiah, and neither is Arsene Wenger anymore.

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