Forget Arsenal’s slow, steady slide down the Premier League table since the Invincibles lifted the Premier League title in 2003/04.
Forget that last season marked the first under Arsene Wenger’s tutelage in which the Gunners failed to qualify for the Champions League. Forget how Arsenal’s deficiencies compared to the continent’s best were annually exposed in seven consecutive seasons as they failed to advance from the Round of 16 in Europe’s top competition.
Forget the fact Arsenal are on course to record their worst top flight finish since 2004/05, come the end of a season in which they’ve thus far managed to pick up just 13 points away from home. Forget the way in which Arsenal’s knack of letting history repeat itself, each time a little more embarrassingly before, has become a running joke in English football. Forget the fact Wenger’s once revolutionary philosophy is now so old hat that an entirely new generation of managers have built trophy-laden careers on counter-acting it, such as Jose Mourinho, or further evolving it, like Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola.
Even forgetting all of that, there is still one reason Wenger must accept his time at the club needs to come to an end this summer – the epidemic of empty seats at the Emirates Stadium.
While Europa League games have seen less noticeable absences, the lack of attendance to an arena that was meant to push Arsenal to true competitiveness with the biggest clubs in the world has been a more significant talking point than anything generated by the 3-0 loss to Manchester City, the 3-0 wins over Stoke and Watford and last Sunday’s pleasantly entertaining if not entirely immersive 3-2 comeback against Southampton.
We’ve seen all that before from Arsenal, the complete demolitions of smaller teams, the narrow avoidance of potential banana skins, and the humbling performances against the calibre of team they’re supposed to be competing with.
But fans no longer finding the motivation to fill the seats their season tickets paid for, or even shelling out single matchday fees, is something new, something dangerous, and something incredibly telling about the moment the club currently finds itself in. This isn’t so much outrage at the lowly depths Wenger has taken the club since the days of the Invincibles – rather, begrudging acceptance and subsequent apathy.
For Wenger, that should be a bigger wake-up call than any of the warning signs from the last 14 years. His philosophy has always revolved around playing a brand of gorgeous football that will leave fans purring – in fact, his devotion to that style of play has been the ultimate justification for why Arsenal have often come up so glaringly short against more pragmatic divisional rivals. He’s only been interested, for better or worse, in winning things the Arsenal way.
And yet, Arsenal no longer boast the Premier League’s monopoly on truly expansive, open play. Even the high standards of previous seasons, when Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri’s shared creativity was at the epicentre of the team, have been surpassed this year by Manchester City and Liverpool. Tottenham will feel their current side can rival anything Arsenal have produced in the last five years in terms of aesthetics too. It’s only really Manchester United and Chelsea who Arsenal can claim to play more entertaining than when enjoying their best form.
But it’s not simply a case of Arsenal being overtaken by competitors that were once below them as a consequence of their waning success. There is no doubt that Arsenal have significantly regressed stylistically over the last 18 months, and the Arsenal way of playing – an idea that once felt so definitive, identifiable and secure – has become murky and unclear.
That’s partly due to how this Arsenal side is far less confident than it once was, not to mention the inevitable lack of familiarity since the January shakeup in attack with Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan replacing Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez. But it’s also a sign of how Arsenal have failed to maintain their own high standards, and how Wenger has lost his once relentlessly stubborn focus on attacking flair.
As much as the failings of the last 14 years, that’s exactly what the empty seats at the Emirates Stadium are a damning indictment of. A side that once prided itself on beautiful football can’t even claim to be the Premier League’s habitual entertainers anymore. In fact, they’re not even entertaining their own supporters and even without the many teams now ahead of them in that regard, the Arsenal way of playing is nowhere near as prevalent as it once was.
A key example of that is the Goal of the Year award. In 2013/14 and 2014/15, Jack Wilshere clinched it for two years in a row, one of those strikes being the finishing touch to a definitive Arsenal move that saw the Englishman combine so poetically with Giroud.
As things stand, Arsenal won’t even have a contender this term – they’re still waiting to win their first Goal of the Month of the campaign. Of course, Arsenal fans know better than anybody how often these become popularity contests, but it remains a small yet significant sign of the times.
Which inevitably begs the ultimate question; if Arsenal aren’t even playing consistently entertaining football anymore, the kind of football that can guarantee bums on seats in spite of poor results, what exactly are they bringing to the English game, what exactly do they now represent and what exactly is Wenger bringing to the club?
It’s certainly not success, at least in the way fans perceive it. And when matters have reached such a head that supporters are voting with their feet, clearly it’s time for a change.
Perhaps that responsibility falls on the board and their particularly passive majority shareholder Stan Kronke. And yet, if Wenger loves Arsenal as much as he says he does, surely someone with so much passion for the club will feel obliged to stop, look and consider the ramifications for the increasingly sparse crowd surrounding him.