Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wenger Deserves To Leave Arsenal On His Terms Only

'Where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters.'

Arsenal Fan 1: What about the last home game last season?
Arsenal Fan 2: What about it?
Arsenal Fan 1: They were rubbish. They were fucking rubbish.
Arsenal Fan 2: They weren't that bad.
Arsenal Fan 1: They were fucking rubbish last year. And they were fucking rubbish the year before. And I don't care if they are top of the League, they'll be fucking rubbish this year, too. And next year. And the year after that. I'm not joking.
Arsenal Fan 2: I don't know why you come, Frank. Honest I don't.
Arsenal Fan 1: Well, you live in hope, don't you? 

                                                                                                                     Fever Pitch, 1997.

There will be a statue eventually. And when it's unveiled, people will talk only of the good times, out of respect. A bit like a funeral. In times of sombre reflection, no one wants to venture down the path of criticism, of finger-pointing, of asking those probing questions, of pointing out the faults. It feels bad. Disrespectful. Wrong. And it feels wrong chastising Arsene Wenger. It feels wrong discussing his demise. It feels wrong to call for his head. He's done too much for Arsenal and deserves better.

Or does he? The numbers are alarming, certainly. An eighth season without a trophy. But what would a trophy achieve? Would an FA Cup success this season have been applauded? Not really. The stat would simply be altered. 'Just one trophy in eight seasons', 'No league title in nine years', etc. The narrative never changes, only the details do. The Blackburn defeat was largely irrelevant. The Cup is not a priority for Arsenal or for any top Premier League team. It's a bonus. Will winning a Cup competition attract high-profile players? Will it lead to substantial financial reward? So, it should be treated like any other loss. It's disappointing, it's never nice to lose but let's move on. But it's been used to illustrate a fragility at Arsenal, a deep-rooted unhappiness and frustration. Recent history suggests tonight's clash at the Emirates will restore some faith, for the moment.

At this juncture last season, Arsenal had 46 points and were in joint-fourth place in the league, trailing Spurs by seven. They'd finish the campaign ahead of their local rivals,  qualifying automatically for the Champions League group-stage. Right now they're on 44 points and in fifth, trailing Spurs by four. Premature to write them and Wenger off? Perhaps. 

Much was made of how Arsenal would struggle without Robin van Persie. They have missed his ruthlessness, his ability to carve something from nothing, his leadership. But they haven't missed his goals. 53 scored by this stage last term, 50 right now. The Dutchman single-handedly won the club 27 points owing to goals he scored last season. This time, it's been a collective effort. Walcott, Giroud and Cazorla lead in terms of 'important goals' but Podolski, Arteta, and even Koscielny have contributed match-winning strikes. It's not as eye-catching, it's not as explosive but it's working. 

The most important objective for Arsenal is to push themselves to the limit of their capabilities, be they financial or otherwise. From a football perspective, they haven't challenged for a title since 2008 and, on average, have finished 15 points behind the eventual winners in subsequent seasons. But if they can't compete for first and second, consistent Champions League qualification is the next best thing. And Wenger, a man so desperate to claim a European Cup, would not accept failure to do so. Yesterday, hearing him talk of his team's 'fantastic opportunity' to win this season's tournament, leads one to believe Wenger seriously fancies Arsenal to win a first ever Champions League before another championship. But gone are the days when a domestic also-ran claimed Europe's top trophy, last season aside. 

Harsh, perhaps. But it's the biggest problem facing this Arsenal side - mediocrity becoming acceptable as the norm. Their start to last term a reminder of what can happen when a club rests on its laurels, Wenger forced into a humiliating emergency sweep of the transfer market to plug the gaps. But, the turnaround was superb, assisted by an unbeatable February and March in the league. He did turn it around. He did get there in the end. But, if there is a managerial change, expectations are lowered. The new man will need time. A delicate process. Suddenly, the traditional Champions League qualification isn't there anymore. The club is in transition. The club is in free-fall.   

But, loyalty doesn't follow in the modern game. And where once Wenger's greatest foe and most vociferous opponent was Sir Alex Ferguson, now it's his once-loyal and once-passionate supporters. It's difficult to come back from that place - the constant struggle to prove yourself correct to those you've never had to. But Wenger deserves the right to back himself in situations like this. He deserves as much time as he needs. He deserves a statue.    

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