Sunday, December 10, 2023

Director of the Bored

I feel sentimental towards Arsene Wenger. I do not think there to be any great shame in this. I am eager for him to succeed where I might feel apathy or even antipathy towards others. I might regard a manager with less of a history with Arsenal as more disposable. I very much doubt I will see another Arsenal manager in the hot seat for this long. It seems natural that I have an emotional investment in him as an individual.

Nowadays, we all like to regard ourselves and our opinions as very serious and very important. But hell, it’s only football. We are not detectives investigating a murder case, nor are we political commentators – assessing the scrutability of a public servant. There are no fatal consequences to this admission of small bias. Is your favourite player simply the most talented / able player that you saw pull on an Arsenal shirt? For a lot of you, that won’t be the case. (I know it isn’t for me).

There will be something else, something extra that separates the definitions of ‘best’ and ‘favourite.’ Sentiment is the wallpaper of the football fan’s consciousness and I think it would be a pity to tear it down, so as not to be seen as ‘soft’ by your internet peers. If one were to reflect on one’s reasons for supporting a club in the first place, sentiment would be a recurring motif. So I don’t feel the need to apologise for nor justify my attachment to a man and a manager that I respect so much.

I would like a new manager at Arsenal now. I realise lots of people arrived at this point before I have. But we are all different; we all have different definitions of success, we all view events through a different prism. One of the frustrations of the modern world is the need to be “right” about things that are cerebral or subjective. The world would be vastly improved if people learned to interfere less in things that have no material effect on them. I have no interest in trying to convince you to want a new manager if you don’t already, nor do I consider myself to have lost some kind of fictitious ‘race’ if I have reached this point later than you have.

I always felt, even through some of Arsenal’s frustrating failures, that there was some level of mitigation, or that issues were easily fixed, or that some errors were blown out of proportion. External factors that are difficult to quantify have created varying impressions of Wenger’s performance over the last decade or so. Stadium debt, oligarchs, injuries, you name it. It is difficult to set a consistent level of expectation amongst this fug of circumstances, hence the schism in the fan base.

I think Arsene is wedded to a style of football that is outdated and I hold little hope that he will respond to this proactively. I think he can and that he is perfectly capable, but I do not think that he will. In recent seasons, I do think he has tried to vary his tactics. He has shown that he can set his teams up to be defensively sound. With Champions League qualification on the line at the end of seasons 2008-09 and 2012-13, he went back to basics, building solid defensive structures that did not expose the centre halves so readily.

He did something similar at the end of last season, when he stumbled on the Coqzorla double pivot. Usually, reverting to these tactics precipitates a run of good results. However, Arsene wants to play expansive football and a winning run seems to convince him to unbatten the hatches and let his team of Jackson Pollocks flick their paintbrushes at the canvas once more. And this is when the consistency deserts Arsenal and they are left to return to a blank canvas.

It maybe that Arsene feels that defensive tactics have a short shelf life. Teams such as Atlético Madrid, Leicester City, Borussia Dortmund and *twitches* Tottenham are leaving the Gunners behind through a counter attacking style, based on organisation and discipline. In fairness to Arsenal, it is pretty difficult for them to deploy a counter attacking style because most teams don’t really attack them at all.

Manchester United are enduring a similar struggle, despite their fall from grace, teams are still minded to sit deep against them and defend in numbers. So, like Arsenal, they are almost forced into a deliberate build up. In victories against Manchester United, Manchester City and Bayern Munich this season, Arsenal showed that they can be compact, sit deep and hit on the break. It’s certainly the style that suits them the best, and that’s precisely why so few teams allow them to do it.

The heavy defeats at Anfield, Stamford Bridge and the Etihad two seasons ago scarred Wenger and convinced him to rethink his approach to such games. He seems to have opted for tactical flexibility, deploying different approaches according to the task at hand. This is a perfectly reasonable approach and one that I thought was long overdue. However, Arsenal’s seasons show recurring difficulties with a dual approach.

Arsenal have seasons where they bully the smaller teams but struggle in the big games (2013-14), or campaigns where they prosper against immediate opponents but drop points against teams in the bottom half of the table (this year). This season, the team looks totally at odds with its approach. It is difficult to tell what type of team Arsenal is and I am not sure the players really know either. If they do, they do not look entirely convinced by their style of play.

The squad is a bit of a mish mash really. As I have written before, it is difficult to see coherence or lineage in this group of players, decent as they are. (Remember cohesion?). Even during a pretty indifferent start to the season, I was just kind of expecting Arsenal to fall upon something that works and go on a bit of a run, because that’s what Arsenal usually do. It feels like Arsene was thinking much the same.

I would love to ask, or have someone in a more prominent ‘journalistic’ position than I, ask Arsene exactly what his tactical plan was with the group. What were his contingencies? He might have a very good answer that evades my understanding, but it just seems likely that he would be defensive and murmur something about having managed for over 30 years. I don’t blame him for being defensive, given the attacks and the skull achingly stupid questions he is often subjected to.

But it does feel as though his relationship with the press and the supporters has broken down to the extent that we are left bereft of explanation. In terms of perception, that creates a big problem for many of us as we grapple with his thinking. At this moment in time, it looks as though his players are experiencing that same sense of ennui, that there is a lack of a clear structure or plan to follow. That perception could be incorrect of course; there might be other factors responsible for what has been a poor season.

One of Wenger’s trump cards has always been entertainment; that despite its flaws, his teams could play a stylish brand of football. That this has now disappeared might be the clearest sign of irreversible stagnation. The football looks simultaneously bored and boring, lacking in ideas or, just as crucially, lacking faith in the ideas it is meant to espouse.

Arsenal are still a good lark for the neutral because of their commitment to self destruction. Everyone loves watching a knife thrower, except for the person strapped to the board. Another point of contention is that Wenger pretty much guarantees the bare minimum of achievement. Clubs like Liverpool, Manchester United and now Chelsea have endured disaster seasons in mid-table.

Ironically, this is probably a big factor in the current dissatisfaction. Fans of Liverpool, United and Chelsea have been nourished by storm clouds. Their expectations have been reset, enabling them to look upon their teams with renewed perspective. United fans are probably more invested in finishing in the top 4 than Arsenal fans this season. Chelsea will almost certainly improve drastically next year, to the extent that their fans would greatly enjoy a top 4 finish, even if that were to be the sum total of their achievements.

For Arsenal, the storm clouds linger, but never quite burst, leading to little but building pressure. If Arsene told Ivan Gazidis tomorrow that he would like to sign a new contract, the papers would be under his nose before he could finish the sentence. That is an uncontroversial assumption I think. That Wenger has not done so suggests that he is biding his time and his decision will probably rest on the amount of grief he is getting this time next year.

He has virtually admitted that he would not have renewed his last contract had the Gunners lost to Hull City in the 2014 FA Cup Final. It seems unlikely that somebody with Wenger’s perspective would stake his ability; or his belief in his ability, on a single match like that. It’s more likely that he would have just found the long term tumult unbearable in defeat. So when Ivan Gazidis infamously muttered that Wenger was accountable to the fans, he probably wasn’t being as cute as we thought.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto

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