Arsene Wenger’s latest offerings on what the club hopes to do and what he believes the expectations of the supporters are during the January transfer window pointed to a clear disconnect, and the Frenchman is in danger of becoming too detached from the rank and file fans.
The 63-year-old has become an increasingly divisive figure among many sections of the club’s support this season, but with the club currently sat in sixth in the league table and still in the Champions League and FA Cup, there is clearly still plenty left to play for, even if they could do with a bit of tinkering and a few additions here and there during January.
Wenger told reporters last week: “It’s very difficult, because the level of expectation is very high. People want to come in, they want to see Lionel Messi. They don’t want to see a promising guy. First of all, the name gives hope. When a guy has no name people are already sceptical. So it’s much more difficult for us.”
Of course, the line that was immediately set upon and used in headlines up and down the country was the Messi one, but that completely ignores the wider point and context of what Wenger was getting at, which is worrying to say the least – that the expectations of the fans have gotten out of hand and sky-rocketed to an unobtainable level.
To an extent, Wenger has a point, for the success he helped guide the club to has mollycoddled a generation of supporters only to be then weaned on a seven-year trophy drought ever since which has led to the more hysterical, reactionary voices in the back given more credence than normal among the masses.
Nevertheless, there’s a very clear difference between what many rational thinking Arsenal fans expect and what Wenger has proposed; they do not want the earth, they do not hold out hope for Messi, they simply want the club to move out much of the deadwood that clogs up the wage bill and bring in the odd intelligent signing that can help bolster the team’s top four push.
There are signs that slowly but surely that this systemic problem is being addressed, though, with Sebastien Squillaci edging towards a move back to France, Marouane Chamakh moving on loan to West Ham until the end of the season and Johan Djourou doing likewise with Hannover in the Bundesliga and there remain hints that Andrei Arshavin could be allowed to depart, with Reading interested.
Wenger has grown too close to the board it seems and become more and more distant from the fans; the result is that what qualifies as success has become distorted and they’ve gradually been allowed to fall away from the pinnacle of domestic and European competition. Winning games is no longer the be all and end all behind the regime and Wenger appears to have a vested interest, namely his reputation, on Financial Fair Play being a success and Arsenal bridging the gap on their rivals.
This is not a call to arms for reckless spending or an undoing of the sound financial footing that the club has clearly been put on over the course of the past decade, rather the seeking of a middle ground. The tone of Wenger’s statement presents a very clear black and white picture and he’s done that deliberately; if you’re not on his and the board’s side, then you must want Messi, rather than say Demba Ba or Yann M’Vila, two affordable targets at the start of the window.
Both Leeds and Portsmouth chased the dream and struggled financially in a massive way, dropping through the leagues shortly thereafter and Wenger will surely leave a lasting legacy at the club, but the need for a new centre-back, holding midfielder and perhaps even a specialist winger as opposed to a converted central player (not Aaron Ramsey, never again, Arsene) does not make you part of the lunatic fringes.
Isolating yourself in such a fashion from the fans and aligning yourself so clearly with the bean counters on the board is a risky and potentially harmful move, as it completely changes how you view issues that need fixing. At the moment, poor players are being paid high wages and that is a problem, because it means they are then so difficult to shift on, impacting on transfer budgets and the wiggle room required in negotiations with the club’s top earners and best players.
Not only does Wenger need to reinvest in the side in January and add fresh blood to an inconsistent side, he needs to do so because his past mistakes are clogging up the wage bill and stopping them from kicking on. Instead, all we get are confirmations that the club considered signing Ba and Lewis Holtby but let them pass by while their rivals smartly strengthen and pick up the pieces. Striking that balance is the biggest challenge that Wenger faces this month.