First things first. Before we delve into the mire of last night’s game, well done to Bradford on their win. The giant they killed might be wounded, punch drunk and not quite as gigantic as it thinks it is, but a League Two side (4th division) knocked out a Premier League one and they deserve to enjoy it and soak up the congratulations. Fair play to them, and good luck in the next round.
From an Arsenal point of view, however, it was a night to forget. Or maybe not. A night which might finally be used to shake the club out of the state of stasis it’s in. A salutary lesson that as a football team we are failing, declining and decomposing before our eyes. New commercial deals are great, and important. Increased focus on maximising revenues from other angles is vital, but when it comes down to brass tacks this is a football club and what’s happening on the pitch simply is not good enough.
We played as strong a team as we could possibly play last night in a game against opposition three divisions below us. Like many Arsenal fans I’m well aware of the possibility that cup football can spring a surprise on you, that the big boys can be shocked, but the thing is, it’s not even that shocking. I was asked for my opinion for a local Bradford paper before this game and said they had no reason to be afraid of us. We’re brittle, capable of the ridiculous far more often than the sublime these days, and so it proved.
A team with highly paid international players failed, miserably, against opposition they should beat. And while I fully accept that this is a squad that has serious flaws in crucial positions and needs strengthening badly, I don’t accept that this group of players was incapable of beating Bradford City. They should be, with all due respect to last night’s opposition, beating them comfortably. Which isn’t to say that we just needed to turn up to win or anything like that – clearly, as last night showed, that’s not the case – but a functioning Arsenal team with those players in it should win that game.
The key word though is functioning. We’re not. We lack consistency of performance and consistency of results. Here’s this season’s record:
From 25 games in all competitions we have won just 10. We haven’t managed more than three consecutive wins all season. We have a squad that is carrying passengers who are happily bumbling along for the ride. If I see Marouane Chamakh in this team again, it will be too soon, but the fact that the Moroccan is needed is not his fault. Whatever Arsene Wenger sees in Gervinho, he’s about the only one. His recent catalogue of cuntery was topped off by an astonishing miss last night and for any player at this level it’s not acceptable, but he doesn’t pick himself. Others who are under-performing, and ought to be capable of better, looked bogged down, incapable of raising their game in any way. And ultimately, when results are bad and performances worse, the buck stops with the manager.
It’s worrying in the extreme that Arsenal lurch from one game to the next and nobody has any idea of how we’re going to play. Some of what we did on Saturday against West Brom was excellent but that game has been book-ended by two displays of such wretchedness that it’s impossible not to be reminded of the end of previous eras. Questions will rightly be asked as to whether the manager is capable of getting what he should from the players he has and, even with the acceptance that the players he has are an issue, results show that he is not.
I don’t excuse the players here, by the way. They’re the ones whose performances have been sub-par and well below what is expected at a football club like Arsenal, but no club sacks all the players when things go wrong like this. It’s the manager who is replaced. After the Swansea game I said:
The question ought to be asked – is the manager getting the best out of the players he’s got and if not is there anybody else out there who will?
If the conclusion is that yes, yes there is, then it’s something that should be considered. But Arsene is so entwined in the fabric of the club, particularly the footballing side of things where he makes all the decisions, it’s like there’s a vacuum. There’s nobody to ask that question, let alone act upon it. It’s all a bit sad and unseemly and it’s hard not to think there’s something fundamentally wrong with the way we’re set up.
So while Arsene will be criticised and the pressure on him will grow, and rightly so, I still have that same worry that nothing will change because there’s more to what’s wrong with us than the fact the manager and his team are falling short. There’s an owner who, probably sensibly in fairness, leaves the running of the club to those who he feels are better and more knowledgeable about football than he is – but he’s an owner who looks like he just doesn’t care that much. He’s content to let things trundle along, with no input, no passion, no desire to make things better or to make Arsenal anything other than a successful investment. He doesn’t have to be hands-on, but couldn’t he at least pretend to care?
And hey, that’s life, that’s modern sport and big business, but that doesn’t make it right and it’s definitely not working for Arsenal Football Club. On last week’s Arsecast Goodplaya made the point that there’s too much accord (at least publicly) between the manager and the board. Like they’re two arms of the same beast, that they lack the necessary friction. And I think that’s the case. Arsene Wenger doesn’t feel the pressure because he’s not under any – not from the owner, not from the Chief Executive, not from anyone but the fans and the fans are a noise that can be easily filtered out and dismissed in soundbites. The manager, the board and, consequently, the players, exist in a comfort zone and the results bear that out.
For me the greatest frustration of the trophy-less years isn’t the lack of silverware, it’s that we haven’t done as much as we can to win things. Teams are assembled and dismantled, the best players are sold and want to leave, and we’re constantly fire-fighting. We never seem to buy players to augment or improve the squad, only to replace those who go. And look, some of those players acted like cunts and we had no choice but to sell, and yes, we’ve been financially restricted, but players aren’t quick to leave winning teams.
But we have not used all the resources available to us to make the team better. If the manager has been tasked with balancing the books at the expense of the football team then we ought to know that. We have cash reserves, not all of which are transfer funds, but without selling a £20m player for the last few seasons we’d have made significant losses. There’s a perpetual state of confusion which doesn’t do anyone any favours.
Yet it all comes back to what’s happening on the pitch and being knocked out of a competition which realistically provided our best chance of a trophy this season is inexcusable. There’s a brittleness and a fragility to our team over the last number of seasons, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that this comes directly from Arsene. His public defence of his players has been a strength down the years, right now it’s a weakness. A humiliating defeat last night brought the same platitudes from the manager when, perhaps, some public acceptance that it’s just not good enough to perform like that could help.
I don’t expect him to crucify individuals but when we lose to a team in the 4th division I don’t want to hear about our effort or that the pitch was slippery. It was that way for both teams. Maybe in private he’ll let the players know what he thinks but it would ease some of the frustration to air some of our dirty laundry in public. It might not be the Arsenal way but the Arsenal way isn’t working right now.
There is under-performance from top to bottom. The lack of drive and ambition from those who run the club is transmitted to the manager who transmits it to the players and that’s why we lose games to Swansea, to Norwich, and to Bradford City. Something needs to change, and needs to change quickly. Not just in terms of personnel but the whole attitude of the club. Do we exist simply to milk the cash cows of the Premier League and Europe (perhaps not for long the way this season is going), to make a handsome return on an investment for a hands-off, stay-away owner, or as a football club that wants to win things and be successful?
Sadly, tragically, it’s not the latter.