Arsenal move into April with their hopes of Champions League qualification hanging by a thread. It’s a familiar story, of course. The club and the manager have been in this situation several times before, their noses bloodied, sprawled on the canvas, listening to the referee as the count climbs towards ten. On each occasion, they have managed to find the strength to endure until the 12th round and celebrate a points win.
Ordinarily, this is achieved by some kind of tactical device or January transfer window intervention. In 2005-06, the Gunners suffered physically away from home. By 25th February, they had lost 8 away games in the league. The January purchases of Abou Diaby and Emmanuel Adebayor helped them to bridge the physical gap to their opponents. They won 8 and drew 2 of their last 11 games to pip soggy panted Spurs to 4th place.
In January 2009, Arsenal trailed Aston Villa in 4th and lost Cesc Fabregas for 3 months to a knee ligament injury. Wenger teamed Denilson and Song together in central midfield, creating a more conservative environment in the engine room and then signed Andrei Arshavin to replace some of Fabregas’ stardust. It defibrillated the team for the run-in as Villa crumbled. Curiously, when Fabregas returned, the mixture of Nasri, Fabregas and Arshavin in midfield saw them concede 4 to Liverpool and Chelsea during the final weeks of the season.
In 2012-13, a chastening North London derby defeat on 3rd March saw them slip 7 points behind Tottenham in 4th place. Wenger responded by dropping Wojciech Szczesny and captain Thomas Vermaelen. They won 8 and drew 2 of their last 10 matches, conceding only 5 goals in the process. The safety first approach had the players pulling in the right direction long enough for Arsenal to break the finishing tape.
In the second half of 2014-15, the surprise breakthroughs of Francis Coquelin and Hector Bellerin reshaped the team. Aaron Ramsey moved into a floating midfield role from the right hand side. Again, it was defeat at White Hart Lane that proved to be the set of jump cables Arsenal needed. They won eight league games in a row thereafter, which was enough to catapult them into 3rd place. But they failed to win three of their last four games, as the new system was soon sussed out by defensively minded opposition.
Effectively, much of the last few years has seen Arsene toil in search of a truly symbiotic unit. He looked briefly to have found it in 2013-14, until Aaron Ramsey’s injury and Olivier Giroud’s loss of form put paid to what promised to be a new dawn for the club. The unit of 2007-08 was decimated by the departures of Hleb and Flamini and injuries to Eduardo and Rosicky. The last two seasons have been pretty much curtailed by the removal of Santi Cazorla as a key link in the chain.
So Arsenal have resorted to a series of vignettes and cameos- short lived bursts that just about salvage a season in its dying throws. The team again find themselves in need of a short term disaster plan to scrape an “acceptable” box marking for their campaign. They have been locked in this cycle of short termism for some time now and come the summer, Arsenal really need to hit the reset button and construct a long term strategy for this squad- whether that work is carried out by Arsene Wenger or A.N Other.
The problem for Arsene is that it looks like he is struggling for buy in from his players to enact even the briefest contingency. I wondered whether the Xhaka-Ramsey-Chamberlain midfield triumvirate might prove to be the next short term innovation from Wenger’s well-worn toolbox. Saturday’s limp defeat at the Hawthorns swiftly put a pin in that particular balloon. On paper, I think it ought to work as a unit. But on the pitch, the evidence is obvious- something is broken in this squad on more than just the technical level.
You can’t pull anything out of the fire if the men at the coalface have downed tools. The relationship between the manager and the supporters has long since disintegrated. Even though Alexis was clearly injured when he was substituted on Saturday, the away contingent sang “you don’t know what you’re doing” towards the away dugout. Rationality has been dispensed with, the gusto with which the manager was attacked was almost gleeful in tone.
Even with news of Alexis’ injury confirmed, I doubt many of the people that partook in the chant reflect with any great regret. They wanted their pound of flesh and they got it. When a relationship between a manager and the supporters reaches this level, it is seldom mended. Indeed, back in August I speculated that the mood amongst the travelling support was irreversible and likely to worsen.
In their oak panelled bubble, the board and the manager might reason that they shouldn’t worry too much about fan opinion- even if Ivan Gazidis has already specifically meted out the task of judging the manager to the supporters. They might point to the skies and the utter ludicrousness of hiring a plane to express one’s opinion as evidence that this is not a body of people to be taken seriously.
This of course ignores the vast majority of supporters that do not consider light aircraft as a viable vehicle for their personal opinions, but you could almost see how Arsenal might rationalise the breakdown of that marriage. When a manager loses the ear of his players, the situation is irredeemable for even the most parochially constructed logic. If the circumstantial evidence on the pitch does not convince, then recent media coverage constructs an even gloomier milieu.
News of a training ground bust up between Alexis and Koscielny was willingly leaked to the press. The latter point is of greater concern for Arsene than the former. Hector Bellerin said that Arsenal “weren’t ready” for the match at Anfield. Alex Oxlade Chamberlain’s agent is briefing the press of the player’s desire to leave. Mesut Özil’s Mr. 10% tells the media that his client feels he is being scapegoated.
The manager lost a PR war with his best player this month. In trying to discipline the Chilean, Wenger unwittingly weakened his authority even further. Arsene told the media specifically that he was aware of West Brom’s setpiece threat prior to the game at the Hawthorns. In doing so, he achieved the unique distinction of throwing his players under the bus well before it had arrived at the stop.
If these incidents had unfolded at another club, in a timeline as compressed as this, you would be left in no doubt that the manager had “lost the dressing room.” Losing the dressing room is ordinarily the requiem for a coach’s tenure, the first strike of the bell that indefinitely tolls for thee. Arsene the legacy manager has gradually become the arch short termist, as circumstance has left him to fight a series of spring time fires.
Arsene has tried a few different things to make the dead cat bounce over the finishing line. He has dropped Özil and Coquelin; Alexis, Giroud and Welbeck have all started upfront in recent weeks. He tried to make an example of his best player, he has given Chamberlain a run in central midfield and he has tried Alex Iwobi in a more central role. Nothing has worked. The players do not look as though they believe in the short or the long term project any longer. If that is indeed the case, anything Arsene tries is doomed to failure.