Friday, March 31, 2023

Waiting for Godot

“Well I felt in the first half we missed three or four on the counter attack and at that level it’s very difficult to swallow. Of course in the first half we had plenty of opportunities where you expect a better final ball for us.”

“We prepared properly and in a serious way. But we were complacent, not focused and were open every time we lost the ball. People subconsciously think you just have to turn up to win the game.”

Both of the above quotes have tripped off the tongue of an increasingly beleaguered Arsene Wenger in the month of February. Wenger, the arch protector of his players, the iron umbrella that, publicly at least, is prepared to shelter his troops at all costs, is veering into “throw them under the bus” territory- the “not me, guv” territory beloved of Sam Allardyce.

This is usually the terrain managers swerve into towards the end of their tenures, a kind of managerial equivalent of trying to ease your way onto the hard shoulder when the wheels have fallen off and the engine is on fire. But Arsenal continue to exist in this dysfunctional limbo of a legacy manager terrified of what life after Arsenal holds and a disengaged owner who won’t make him leave.

So Arsene, who rarely looks or seems happy nowadays, continues to toil away and scratch away at flesh that grows redder and rawer. Addicted to the light that blinds him. That Wenger was a good manager once seems to have invoked an unwritten gratitude clause, where he is apparently allowed to choose just how bad this can all get. As supporters we have little choice but to look on in apparent reverence for feats that are fading into the memory banks.

Arsene’s bloodied frame is splattered all over the canvas, but still he keeps clambering to his feet against all sound medical advice. The cornerman won’t throw in the towel, so all we are left to do is watch and wait for the inevitable, the sweet release when the punching finally stops and the blood is allowed to dry.

Last season, the fans tried to make life as uncomfortable as possible for Wenger as his contract ticked down. Sensing that the Board of Directors were too in thrall to make the much needed call, Arsenal fans tried to barge their way into the breach. Arsene was able to withstand the restlessness of the natives and now the rage has been supressed and replaced with apathy.

On Sunday afternoon, thousands of Arsenal fans made for the exits with twenty minutes and more of a cup final still left to play. I don’t think this should be interpreted as a gesture of petulance. From what I could see from the upper tier, there was no flailing of arms, no gnashing of teeth. People just quietly filed away having seen this film on many occasions already.

Even during the first half, the Arsenal end was eerily quiet at Wembley. Gunners’ fans have become unwitting extras in a real life version of Waiting for Godot. The team has new players, there have been a flurry of new, exciting appointments behind the scenes. But the overwhelming issue remains unaddressed, almost untouchable.

At times, Arsenal’s board appear to be genuflecting the deranged rationale of America’s pro-gun lobby, where every solution except the most obvious is proffered. (Obviously, in Arsenal’s case, the consequences are far, far less grave and serious). And yet, the happenings behind the scenes do point to the possibility of a brighter future.

It will take a gargantuan effort for Arsenal to win the Premier League given the resources of their rivals, but tangible improvement and better football are very achievable aspirations. To become an active part of the Premier League’s entrenched top 6 hierarchy, rather than a poor relation within the structure is not close to unrealistic.

Arsenal is a club of potential protected by wealth, which makes the current decline all the more painful to witness. Improvement is within the club’s grasp with one fairly simple, cosmetic change. I used to worry that Arsenal would inevitably enter a kind of post Wenger slump after his departure. I am now convinced we are already living it.

I now suspect that short of appointing a total chancer as manager (which, of course, remains a risk), the players and the club cannot fail to be reinvigorated by a new boss. A new coach no longer has to worry about the looming spectre of a legacy manager, because pretty much everybody will be stupidly grateful for his arrival. This is no longer a potential ‘Rebecca’ scenario.

On current evidence, it is the players that will lead the guard of honour for the new man. They look increasingly stressed by their manager’s laissez-faire approach of relying on player intuition. The lack of a clear plan for in game scenarios puts greater emphasis on the players to solve problems in lieu of the manager doing so. Players under stress are more likely to commit the almost comical errors we see from the current squad.

The result is a dizzying cycle of stress that begets mistakes, which causes further stress and ever more egregious errors. On pitch coaches like Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Roy Keane or even John Terry (*wretches*) are a dying breed now. Look around the top 6, Vincent Kompany is possibly the only player left in the elite tier of the Premier League that fits into this “on pitch management” style of leadership.

Captaincy is possibly a crude measure by which to measure leadership, but the other club captains in the top 6 are Michael Carrick, Hugo Lloris, Jordan Henderson and Gary Cahill. Nowadays, it is managers that provide this kind of leadership. Players look to the bench and not the armband as they once might have. The modern player, rightly or wrongly, is ill equipped to coach himself through a match. The solution for Arsenal is, by now, glaringly obvious.

The Premier League’s wealth is structured in such a way that finishing any lower than 6th is an unlikely relegation of sorts for Arsenal. It’s still a top club situated in one of the world’s most desirable cities with an infrastructure to match. Arsenal also have a lot of good players. The future holds no guarantees of course, but it feels as though we are all sat in the departure lounge waiting to board a considerably delayed flight.

So we sit. And we wait. But Godot does not arrive.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillberto– Or like my page on Facebook

Myself and renowned Arsenal historians Andy Kelly and Mark Andrews have written a book about the tumultuous early years of Arsenal Football Club covering the period 1886 – 1893. ‘Royal Arsenal- Champions of the South’ is available for pre-order here.

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