Tuesday, March 5, 2024

We’re on the run, no time for sleep

A few years ago, I had a colleague who was a Brentford fan. He’d temporarily relocated to Blackpool in the mid 1990s and also had a season ticket at Bloomfield Road whilst in exile. I always enjoyed discussing football with him; he had that measured, self deprecating demeanour common in lower league supporters. Years of crap football on crumbling terraces had hardwired him with wisdom and perspective. I came to regard him almost as a footballing Atticus Finch.

After Arsenal contrived to throw away a two goal lead against Wigan in April 2010, he said to me, “I think Arsenal must be the most trying team to support in the country.” I was taken aback by this suggestion. Surely there were a good 88 or 89 league clubs that would mutilate puppies to be in our privileged position? What about the travails of the likes of Portsmouth? Or Leeds? Or Coventry? Or other such ‘Icarus’ clubs that had flown too close to the sun? Surely supporters of those teams would scoff at our first world problems?

‘Besides which,’ I countered, ‘Arsenal always finish about par to where they ought to.’ The problem, he reasoned, was not where Arsenal finish; but the manner in which they do it. ‘They so often promise to do more before collapsing spectacularly.’ He expanded his response to suggest that Arsenal don’t so much regress to the mean, as capitulate to it. As I watched Swansea’s slapstick equaliser unfold on Tuesday, I thought about those sentiments.

Here were three of the season’s outstanding performers, Szczesny, Mertesacker and Flamini, combining to produce the sort of self destructive comedy that was once the preserve of younger, more callow and let’s face it, worse Arsenal teams than this. For a brief moment, the spirits of Almunia, Senderos and Denilson loomed over the Clock End goal. The ghosts reunited at the feast for one last boogie on the tombstone of Arsenal’s title challenge.

I have reflected since that my colleague’s words were only half correct. There are two bifurcate narratives that have defined every season since the stadium move. It’s true that Arsenal always finish about where they should. However, they achieve this in one of two ways, always designed to lay your emotions to waste. They either threaten to challenge for the title, before totally collapsing at the final furlong, ruing injuries to key players (2007-08, 2009-10, 2010-11, 2013-14??). Or else they flirt with mediocrity before pulling a top 4 place out of the bag at the death (2005-06, 2006-07, 2008-09, 2011-12, 2012-13).

Just when Arsenal begin to convince you, they give you reason to doubt. Just when you begin to doubt them, they give you cause for hope. Emotionally, that’s quite tiring and for many, the predictability of it all has become tiresome. In Wenger’s first season, 1996-97, Arsenal led the league for much of the season, before falling away at the end after damaging defeats to near rivals Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester United at home.

The season was still regarded with triumph after the turgid tail end of the Graham years. Essentially, now people have become bored with it. Familiarity has bred contempt. You get the impression Arsenal fans would be more forgiving if the team just kind of bumbled along in 3rd or 4th place all season, on the outskirts of the title race, but with their heads comfortably beneath the parapet of the top 4 dog fight. That would represent ‘par performance’ and it wouldn’t be quite so damaging to our nervous systems.

I think Arsene Wenger has hit a kind of glass ceiling now, but I think that Arsenal Football Club has too. Unless there are tighter financial controls on our rivals (i.e., if FFP is taken seriously), Arsenal are not going to win the league for a few years. The best we can realistically hope for is to finish 3rd or 4th, to try to figure in the title race as a dark horse and see if things go our way and to maybe win a cup competition. I consider Arsenal’s title credentials to be much the same as Everton’s top 4 aspirations.

They ought to challenge and it’s not entirely unachievable, but to manage it would be a big over-performance and a fair few stars would need to align. The question with regards to Arsene Wenger is, in my opinion, a question of whether you’re just sick of the journey by now. Because I think the destination is likely to be much the same regardless of the manager. Similar issues would await him. He might fix some of our recurring issues, but it’s likely that another set would emerge.

Because that’s what happens when you have the 3rd or 4th best squad in the league. You have some small failings which prevent you from being the best squad in the country. Much is made of the financial resources available to us and that’s quite understandable. There is an argument that Arsenal haven’t been as decisive as they ought to be, but I think we are still in a tricky position market wise and that issue would greet a new manager upon arrival.

The players we need to improve us are difficult to buy and there are richer clubs than us that want to buy them too. Manchester City spent £150m on players last summer alone. Essentially, we are relying on Özil style purchases. Out of the blue and under the radar in a special set of circumstances. Otherwise we’re still just shopping for the players that teams like Barcelona, Bayern, City and Chelsea don’t want or haven’t discovered. World class talents don’t often fall into the latter category. Unless of course we discover a hitherto unknown clause in somebody’s contract …

On the flipside, Arsenal have probably never been in a better position for Wenger’s successor than they are now. Whilst our setup will struggle to punch through the wall of City and Chelsea’s firepower, a reasonably competent manager ought to be able to keep us in our top 4 cocoon. I think Arsenal have the basis of a good squad insofar as there aren’t many players I would be desperate to get rid of. To improve, I think it needs a few additions and another year together to consolidate. Wenger wouldn’t be leaving behind the magnitude of rebuilding job that Ferguson did and the Arsenal board would need to steer clear of an appointment error of Moyesian proportions.

We ought to have a squad that can handle a league campaign and a cup competition or two until the season’s end, something we haven’t managed for a few years. If we were to win the F.A. Cup this year, I think that could be significant in strengthening the team’s belief. Wenger might reason privately that if he were to secure a top 4 berth and the F.A. Cup that it might be a good time to bow out. For him personally, I think that may be best too. Whether or not it’s best for Arsenal depends on whether or not you’re just sick of the ride. LD.

Follow me on Twitter @LittleDutchVA

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