Monday, July 22, 2024

Arsene Doesn’t Know

I have long thought that, with emotional distance, history would judge Arsene Wenger impeccably. Once the maelstrom had died down a little, the anger had faded and his successor had done whatever it is his successor is going to do, that he would be recalled with reverence.

Towards the end of Ian Wright’s playing days, I recall constant debate as to whether his temper and his controversies would tarnish his legacy. Obviously we know now that they haven’t. Distance and perspective often reshuffle the conversational pack. Legacy is something that can only be judged in hindsight and, in any case, Arsenal’s troubles were relative.

The 1991-92 season is recalled with great relish and nostalgia by those that witnessed it, but ultimately Arsenal finished 4th, were knocked out of the European Cup in the second round and infamously lost to Wrexham in the FA Cup. In 1993-94, Arsenal finished 4th and won the Cup Winners Cup, which would be held up as a moderate success in a modern context.

The parameters have shifted and, while I think Arsenal have underachieved, finishing in the top 4 and bagging the odd FA Cup did not represent a gritty life on the never never. It has been repetitive, frustrating, even a little boring at times, but not exactly awful. In 2014, I wanted Arsene to leave for his sake as much as anything, with the 9 year trophy hoodoo broken, I wanted him to sail off into the sunset.

In May, I felt a parting of ways was mutually agreeable, with a clearly fading manager that appeared to have lost the dressing room afforded another opportunity for a happy ending. Now, well, now I feel as though Arsene Wenger is chipping away at his legacy with every month that passes without his resignation.

Different people have boarded the #WengerOut bus at different times and we ought to spare ourselves the indignity of viewing it as a competition. We all have different values, different barometers and different drivers. For me, I really began to suspect Arsenal could no longer progress under Arsene during the outset of the 2014-15 season, as he tried to shoehorn Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla and Mesut Özil into the same midfield.

Obviously, it was very poorly balanced and results were indifferent. Wenger was rescued really by injuries to Wilshere and Özil. He stumbled upon the combination of Cazorla and Coquelin totally by accident and persevered with it. Theo Walcott briefly threatened to be a workable centre forward and Aaron Ramsey established a niche as a roving right sided midfielder.

Wenger was convinced enough by the balance of this new side, a concoction arrived at via a frantic process of trial and error, not to sign a single outfield player in the summer of 2015. In the meantime, the bodies of Mikel Arteta, Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, Abou Diaby and Santi Cazorla continued to creak and Arsenal lost all technical control in the midfield cockpit. The plane has been more or less spiralling ever since.

A continued lack of tactical clarity, over what sort of a team Arsenal is supposed to be and what sort of shape they have been chiselled into, has reigned. Finally, in the winter and early spring of 2017, it looked as though the players had given up trying to work it out and their motivation almost tangibly died.

Arsene succumbed to the shouts of ‘spend some fucking money!” from the terraces, but his recruitment has been chaotic. At time of writing, it looks as though Lucas Perez and Shkodran Mustafi will last just 12 months at the club, Granit Xhaka still looks like an intern too afraid to ask how to use the photocopier.

The players Arsenal want to sell don’t want to leave because of their generous salaries and the players the club are trying to commit are directing calls to voicemail. In the background, the club blazers have amassed a fine collection of slogans which have passed into canon. ‘Catalyst for change’ joins ‘Thank you for your interest in our affairs’ and ‘We should be able to compete at a level like a club such as Bayern Munich’ in the folklore of ironic hashtag.

Meanwhile, Arsene continues to clutch straws, assembling a collection of players seemingly at random without a clear idea of how and where to use them. In the spring, Arsene took one last roll of the dice, moving to a back 3 for the first time since 1997. I don’t think he has ever totally convinced anybody that he believed in this formation.

Indeed, he pretty much admitted from the outset that it was a confidence trick, another move borne out of desperation from a lack of other ideas. It wasn’t perfect, it didn’t produce scintillating football, but it did improve results- for a while. It was the final piece of driftwood to cling to, for a manager who had been drifting with the tide.

Alas, in the early stages of this campaign, Arsene has opted to soak this life raft in kerosene and set fire to it with a series of baffling selections, unbalancing the team entirely unnecessarily. The manager has introduced doubt and uncertainty into his confidence trick for reasons that are difficult to fathom.

As I said on the Arsenal Vision Podcast in the wake of the Stoke match, a great manager anticipates problems- or else gives the opposition so many issues that they don’t have the chance to expose those of his own team. A good manager solves problems, an average manager is just about able to paper over cracks via trial and error and a bad manager creates problems for his own players.

Arsene, for my money, has transitioned into the final category over the last few months. The team is poorly coached and the administrative issues rife within the club show that it is poorly managed too. Wenger has turned down two opportunities to leave on a high and now Arsenal are locked in a loveless marriage driven by nothing more than a mutual fear of loneliness.

When you are living in a moment, it is difficult to analyse how it will be assessed in hindsight. But I think it is becoming clear now that Arsene Wenger is damaging his legacy, even if distance and perspective will eventually abate current wounds and rifts. He will now almost certainly be remembered a little like Brian Clough, as a once great manager whose hubris allowed him to carry on for too long. (You would like to think that alcoholism and relegation will keep the Clough arc distinct from Wenger’s).

Graham’s legacy was tarnished because Arsenal began to drift under his stewardship (also, by the small matter of a brown envelope). Like Arsene, Graham’s tenure has two chapters. The first half full of swashbuckling football and titles with an exciting young team and a second stanza of indifferent fare but a competence in cup competitions.

The Graham timeline is far more compressed, but I think his tenure is not remembered with the reverence it deserved because the second half of it looms larger in the memory than the first and because Wenger swept us off of our feet so soon after it was over.

During the veritable mixed bag of ‘Project Youth’, it felt like Arsene had, to indulge a glib football phrase du jour, a philosophy. It was something he believed in and that he pursued with clarity. It might not have worked as he would have liked, but it was something he very obviously stood behind.

Wenger is often accused of stubbornness, but now there is little evidence of a philosophy or a set of ideas to be stubborn about. He just looks lost. Arsenal don’t play attractive football anymore and haven’t for some years, they have moved from beautiful but flawed to just plain flawed. The fans turned a while ago and the players are not committing- on paper or on grass.

With a new contract just signed, the urgency to try and force the manager out from the stands has evaporated. In the away end on Sunday, we resorted to ironic chants of ‘We’re Gonna Win the League (And Now You’re Gonna Believe Us). The next step is probably more empty seats, a shrinking season ticket waiting list and the gnawing realisation that it really didn’t have to be like this.

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