Groundhog Day or Judgement Day for Wenger and Arsenal?
We’re into the last knockings of the European football season now, and fans across the continent have a chance to assess the merits (or otherwise) of their clubs’ respective campaigns. For some, the season is still very much in the balance. Barcelona, for example, have swung from dreams of back-to-back league and Champions League doubles to the verge of unmitigated disaster in the space of a fortnight, leaving the door open for Real Madrid to turn crisis into catharsis. In England, the nightmare is nearly over for Chelsea supporters, while in France PSG fans will be indulging in a period of soul searching and introspection following ignominious defeat in the first annual Champions League Petrobillions Derby.
For Arsenal fans, like me, assessing the 2015/16 season is a little more complicated. After all, The Gunners have simply done what they do year after year – remaining competitive enough to just about clinch a Champions League place without ever really threatening to compete for the Premier League title. It’s been 12 years since we last won the league, and in that time our domestic performances have hardly run the gamut.
Our worst season in that spell was arguably the 2011-12 campaign, which began with the sales of Samir Nasri, Cesc Fàbregas and Gaël Clichy followed by the deadline day panic buys of Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and the ill-starred André Santos. The Arsenal side that turned out to be walloped 8-2 by Manchester United that August was arguably the worst in recent memory, and yet we still contrived to finish the season third with a reasonable haul of 69 points. The best season? You could put a case forward for last term, when we successfully defended the FA Cup and enjoyed a 26-goal return from electrifying marquee signing Alexis Sánchez. Again we finished third, this time with a slightly more respectable 75 points.
These two examples are telling. We seem to have hit the Premier League equivalent of a glass ceiling, cementing our place as the third or fourth-best club in the division – the playing staff may change but the performances remain the same, seemingly as immutable as bedrock. In a little over a decade since the totemic ‘Invincibles’ season Arsenal have never finished higher than third nor lower than fourth – their lowest points tally 67 and their highest 83. If nothing else, we’re consistently inconsistent.
So how to rank this current season? Third or fourth in the league, a poor-to-middling cup campaign and elimination in the last 16 of the Champions League is about a par score for the post-Henry, post-Viera, post Bergkamp Gunners, but the major difference is that this campaign the tired old excuses have effectively dried up. No key players left in the summer. The stadium debt has been paid off. Instead of having to sell our stars every year we can now attract world-class recruits like Sánchez, Mesut Özil and Petr Čech. With Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City enduring stuttering, transitional seasons, the 2015/16 campaign was Arsenal’s best chance in over a decade to shake off their torpor and top the division. And we blew it.
As such, the general consensus among Arsenal supporters is that the 2015/16 campaign ranks among the very worst in recent years. The frailties of this club seem to run bone deep – as much a part of the side’s identity as attractive passing football, possession play and promoting players from within. Arsène Wenger brought those positive characteristics with him when he became head coach in 1996, transforming an unexciting defensive-minded side into one of the world’s most thrillingly attacking club teams. And yet now he seems unable – or unwilling – to address this group’s many deficiencies.
‘Arsenal always let you down’. So said Mark Lawrenson, and for once it’s hard to argue with him. We’re mentally fragile. We ship too many soft goals. We lack leadership on and off the pitch. We boss games with 70% of the ball and still fail to score. We try to walk it in. We can’t defend crosses or set plays. We find form in half-season bursts. Our injury record is calamitous. There are obvious holes in this team that aren’t being plugged, seemingly due to either the belligerence and stubbornness of the manager or the parsimoniousness of the board – or both. None of these woes come as news to anyone who follows the English game. Of the side that succumbed to United in that dreadful 8-2 defeat, only Koscielny, Coquelin and Ramsey featured in the 1-1 home draw with Crystal Palace on Sunday. The playing staff have changed, but the weaknesses remain. Same shit, different day.
As a supporter, watching Leicester and – crushingly – Spurs seize the initiative in what should have been our season has been torturous. The weekend’s draw against Palace felt like a particularly brutal nadir, but we’ve all known that the jig was up since the back-to-back defeats against Manchester United and Swansea in February and March. A league table of results since Christmas (at which point we topped the division) would see us in the bottom half of the table. It’s a woeful capitulation but not a new narrative for us.
This team, with all its star quality, doesn’t deserve to win the league. We’ve been out-fought and outclassed by well-managed sides operating on fewer resources than the Champions League elite – in other words, we’ve been out-Arsenaled.
– Louis Rossi