Arsene Wenger and Ebenezer Scrooge are far from kindred spirits. For all the angst Wenger receives from Arsenal’s own supporters and the wider world, there is a relentless optimism about the Frenchman; a belief that his footballing ideals are still the purest and most righteous and that eventually, an underlying sense of karma intertwined the the beautiful game will soon restore him and the club he loves to their former glories.
But there is a debate over whether that qualifies as naivety or stubbornness in football’s increasingly corporate, increasingly money-driven modern age, and if the most accurate answer is the latter, that is where Wenger and Scrooge share a fatal flaw.
And just as a fictional Christmas Eve where haunting ghosts from the past, the present and the future visited Charles Dickens’ famous character to correct the errors of his ways, the three directions of time visited Wenger on Sunday too, in a poignantly telling afternoon for a club that finds itself in painfully dire straits.
The first period of time was the present, ironically presented by Wenger himself prior to the 1.30pm kickoff with Bournemouth. Le Professeur revealed in his pre-match interview that there would be a resolution on Alexis Sanchez’s future within 48 hours – coincidentally, shortly after news of Manchester United bidding for the wantaway Chilean had spread across the British press.
Six years after begrudgingly selling a key player to Manchester United because of an unresolved contract situation, that time Robin van Persie, Wenger finds himself strengthening a divisional rival with one of the best attacking players in world football once again. And nine months after insisting Sanchez wouldn’t be sold to another English team, Wenger finds himself reneging on that promise.
“I don’t think that you would sell him to any Premier League club, that is for sure. Why would you sell him to another [Premier League] club? You want to be as strong as you can be, and not strengthen the other teams.”
If the present was difficult for Wenger to stomach though, as Scrooge once discovered while watching friends and relatives mock his very name, the Frenchman’s glimpse into the future was something else altogether – a rudderless 2-1 loss to a relegation-threatened side in the absence of Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. It must be said that there was nothing hugely exceptional about the defeat at the Vitality Stadium; Arsenal have lost more games than they’ve won on the road in the Premier League this season, dropping twelve points to clubs lower than them in the table in the process.
And yet, there was something uniquely drab about an Arsenal performance with neither Sanchez nor Ozil in the team, a situation that could well become permanent before the close of the transfer window if the rumour mongers are to be believed. The Gunners could only produce three shots on target against a side just one point clear of relegation pre-kickoff and their goal in the 2-1 defeat owed more to a fluffed save from Asmir Begovic than their own attacking quality as Hector Bellerin’s shot slipped under the Bosnian international.
Arsenal looked decisively ordinary without their two talismanic entities and were the north London club to lose one or both come the end of the month, it’s hard to imagine them producing the kind of inspiring attacking performance Arsenal have become synonymous with under Wenger during the rest of the season. With the contract of Sunday’s best performer, Jack Wilshere, due to expire as well, Arsenal’s immediate future is an incredibly bleak one; one without undisputed top-class players, one without any real focal points in the final third, and one without what has been Wenger’s redeeming saving grace amid his club’s relentless slump – the exciting brand of football.
Then, finally, came a moment from Arsenal’s past that put into perspective how far the north Londoners have fallen. On paper, Liverpool beating Manchester City to solidify their top four credentials is an abysmal result for Arsenal, and certainly one not worth celebrating.
Yet, amid a weekend in which Wenger effectively announced Sanchez’s departure to a divisional rival and Arsenal were once again humbled away from home by considerably lesser opposition, this time in the absence of their two most important players, the confirmation of the Invincibles as the only undefeated team in Premier League history was the single silver lining. Arsenal have reached a point where their only solace is clinging onto former glories. That’s an almighty distance to fall in the 14 seasons since Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and co did something unprecedented.
In this Dickensian analogy though, the difference between fiction and reality is a disturbing one for Arsenal. When Scrooge awoke on Christmas morning, he was allowed to start anew. It was something more than disturbing dream, yet in actual terms no more serious – the world was as quick to embrace the new, enlightened, optimistic Scrooge as he was the world.
In actuality, Wenger isn’t so lucky; the events unfolding are undoubtedly real rather than the consequence, as Scrooge puts it, of ‘an undigested bit of beef’. And much unlike Scrooge, the damage caused, especially since the start of last season, is verging upon irreversible.
A painful Sunday that combined the past, the present and the future makes it hard to see where Arsenal and their under-fire manager can possibly go from here. The only logical answer is further down.