It was a weekend of further frustration and disappointment as The Arsenal surrendered another lead, albeit just the one goal this time, as we lost 2-1 away to Swansea. The heavens opened and it’s fair to say the torrential downpour was an apt representation of the Arsenal mood on Sunday afternoon.
For many seasons the question was whether you’d prefer fourth place and no trophy or fifth place and the FA Cup. My response was to ask why the two must be mutually exclusive, with last season eventually proving to be the perfect illustration that they don’t have to be.
Now we seem to have moved on, just about, with people now seeking clarification as to whether you love Arsene Wenger unconditionally and want him to stay or whether you’ve grown to dislike him and want him replaced. Once again I’m left wondering why the two must be mutually exclusive. Can you not still love Wenger, but also be an advocate of change, whether this be change in Arsene himself or be bringing in a new manager altogether?
For me the former of the two options is unlikely; I just can’t see Arsene changing his ways, his approach to the game, to his ways of working, and so on. Therefore, is it a case of what we have we hold or perhaps what we have we should fold? As the full-time whistle blew on Sunday what I felt was an undeniable feeling of sadness. For the first time in his tenure as Arsenal manager I categorically felt that it is time for Arsene to step aside. This feeling was then overrun with even greater sadness that he had not taken the opportunity to do so gracefully and on a high after our FA Cup triumph in May.
Sometimes in defeat you have to hold your hands up and admit you’ve been beaten by the better team. Other times the focus is on individual players. And it’s also not unheard of to blame external factors, such as the pathetically inept officials we have in the Premier League. But on this occasion, for the first time ever (in memory) I blamed Arsene Wenger. I have too many questions to which I cannot identify the answers or understand the logic behind the answers I am being given.
Victory at Bayern in March 2013 was achieved with a more cautious and defensively intelligent approach, which culminated in a fine run of form. In addition, we achieved seventeen clean sheets last season, a joint league high. Where has this defensive solidity disappeared to? Why have we reverted to being so ridiculously gung-ho? How can we so foolishly overcommit against Anderlecht in the build up to their equaliser and then repeat our mistake just days later? 3-2 up with 1 minute to go and 1-0 up with 15 minutes to go and this is our approach…
It’s absolutely ridiculous. Granted the players have to take some of the responsibility, for they are the ones making the runs forward, but why are Arsene and Steve Bould not stood on the touchline barking orders to hold their shape? Why are they not calling over the full back on the dugout side of the pitch and giving instructions to sit deeper or to pass on the message to the midfield to set up camp in front of the centre backs? That they both sit in the dugout, almost expressionless, as they witness more defensive stupidity is inexcusable to me. Where is the management, the leadership? I know Arsene feels our pain, yet I don’t see it.
Another concern highlighted more than ever on Sunday was Arsene’s in-game management and tactics or should I say the apparent lack of. I refuse to accept Arsene doesn’t have tactics at all; he quite clearly has pre-match tactics or plans. However, his adaptability to the events that unfold during the course of the game is sometimes shocking. At 1-0 up with 15 minutes to go why stick with an open 4-4-2? Why not switch to 4-5-1 to protect the defence and the lead, especially given events against Anderlecht days earlier? Why not introduce Wilshere and Rosicky, some fresh legs and fighting characters to help sure up the midfield?
And then there was Calum Chambers. Given the round around from the first whistle and on a yellow card, yet where was the tactical readjustment or substitution to offer him more protection? Or better still why wasn’t Chambers replaced himself? I appreciate Bellerin may not have as much experience as his English counterpart, but he couldn’t have done any worse and he certainly has more pace to burn. Every single one of us foresaw a goal coming down Chambers flank, yet nothing was done. Would Ferguson or Mourinho have left Chambers out there like a sitting duck? Not a chance.
Players will always shoulder some of the responsibility, and often rightly so, but I’m largely left feeling sorry for some of them on this occasion. Chambers, a top player but who is still young and will make mistakes as he continues to develop, being left to his own devices. Nacho Monreal, beaten in the air by Gomis for the Swansea winner, being asked to play out of position. And why? Because we’re attempting to go through a season with only two centre backs. And if Chambers is regarded as third choice centre back, and Bellerin not trusted enough for deputy right back, then why was Jenkinson allowed to go out on loan?
So many questions, so few understandable answers. If this was a one off I’d perhaps have a little more empathy. But it isn’t; we’re reliving the same games and the same season as we have for the last five or six years. We start well and fade late or we start badly and make a mad dash for fourth at the eleventh hour. And each time it’s because we’re just two or three players short, have one or two unfortunate injuries, or drop points in too many home games when we’ve been unable to break a team down and conceded farcically.
Playing personnel has changed. The assistant manager and coaching staff has changed. Fitness teams and facilities have changed. Even board members have changed. But one thing has not; Arsene Wenger. And the simple fact is he never will.
I’m left with mixed and conflicting emotions. I still love Arsene as much today as ever before, yet wish he had left on a high in May so that his legacy remains strong. And these feelings are compounded by the knowledge that he’s unlikely to change, unlikely to leave, and almost certainly won’t be asked to leave. So for the next two and a half seasons all I can foresee is more of the same. More frustration, more disappointment, more sadness and the strain it will place on Arsene, his legacy, and his relationship with us supporters. I hope I’m wrong, I hope there are more good times to follow, but as things stand all I can see is many more if, buts, and maybes, with a top fourth finish to paper over the cracks.