After dispatching with local rivals Tottenham 5-2 last weekend, you’d be forgiven for thinking that things were on the up for Arsenal, but after enduring a drab 0-0 draw against Aston Villa on Saturday evening, the boo boys were out in force once more, only serving to highlight just how fickle and divided the club’s support really is over the issue of their manager Arsene Wenger and whether he deserves to continue to lead the club forward in the future.
To put it into context, the result against Paul Lambert’s struggling but spirited side left Arsenal in sixth place in the Premier League after 13 games, having drawn five, won five and lost three, sitting five points behind Chelsea in fourth place. This is far from a catastrophe given the circumstances which has seen the club lose its best player for two successive summers running and with plenty of the season still left to play.
Arsenal fans appear to collectively lurch from one crisis to another, from despair to unbridled joy with consummate ease, with very few shades of grey in between. Of course, the reality is that when you trust a manager, as the board undoubtedly do with Wenger, to the tune of 16 seasons, stability and continuity are almost ingrained in the club’s psyche and the pace of change is often painfully slow, which makes a mockery of the hysteria on the terraces, with perception often far outstripping any kind of development.
The north London club, perhaps more than any other in the top flight, finds itself at the whims of a vocal minority susceptible to the media-driven narrative that encapsulates the extremes felt by the few; this in turn sees those very same grievances projected onto the many. Arsenal are currently enjoying their 15th straight season in the Champions League and while Wenger’s argument that finishing fourth is tantamount to winning a piece of domestic silverware is troubling, what is the alternative?
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The boo boys should be careful what they wish for and amidst all the knee-jerk reactions to what was an admittedly disappointing result, but far from the end of the world, who do they propose that the club moves for to take over the reins instead of Wenger? What mythical manager out there could do a better job with the resources that he has at his disposal than the Frenchman?
The game against Villa was the club’s third inside a week, with their previous two seeing them hammer local rivals Tottenham at home and their victory over Montpellier in mid-week clinching their place in the knock-out phase of the Champions League. To be greeted with jeers of “you don’t know what you’re doing” by a section of the away support just further drives home the point that some fans have been mollycoddled to such an extent, that they live in a bubble, seemingly devoid of any sort of context. Honestly, when you’re banging the same drum as Piers Morgan, you really do lose all credibility and you have to wonder just how far you’ve strayed from both sanity and rational thought.
The current situation at Arsenal is far from ideal, granted, and the club do appear to have bargained way too much on the Financial Fair Play rules being strictly enforced by Uefa. Turning the tide back over the waves of mediocrity which all too often dominate their displays is going to be difficult and requires patience above all else, but it’s at least a coherent plan worthy of consideration, rather than making a scapegoat out of Wenger just because the team happen to be playing poorly on an absolute dog of a pitch.
Wenger showed signs of his frustration in the press conference after the game, with his substitutions largely seen as lacking in invention, stating: “What is the thinking behind the substitution? I will not explain every decision I make. I have managed for 30 years at the top level and I have to convince you [journalists] I can manage the team?” When pushed on the topic of the chants, he seemed reluctant to have a pop at the fans: “I don’t want to comment on that. I do my job and do my best for the club. Why should I create a rift? I have given you the answer.”
The problem that Wenger faces is that he’s failing to match the expectations which he himself helped to create. A seven-year trophy drought is no laughing matter and to an extent, the failed experiment with the dogmatic approach to a one-dimensional playing style was all at Wenger’s behest and the extent to which they’ve fallen away from the summit of the English game was somewhat preventable.
However, when you consider that prior to the club’s title triumph in 1997-8 under Wenger, that the club hadn’t won the league for six years and had won just a solitary FA Cup since the 1970s, then they are clearly in better shape now than they ever were back then. The belief that the grass is greener has festered away at some of the club’s fans and it’s a dangerous view to subscribe to. Gratitude for past achievements is not a good enough reason to keep a manager employed in the present, but it should at least afford them more time to turn things around when things are not going according to plan.
Wenger is far from perfect, but criticism, such as the booing he endured away at Aston Villa at the weekend, just lacks any semblance of perspective; the sort of fans which feel it is their ‘right’ to compete at the higher end of the table and challenge for trophies. That the fans have to contend with the highest average ticket prices in Europe must be hugely frustrating, particularly given that Wenger seems reluctant to criticise the board over the matter, therefore making his position untenable, but we shouldn’t lump all our negative points about the club on to the shoulders of one visible target.
The relationship between a manager and a team’s fans is always a tricky one to balance, but with a dearth of alternatives and a team undeniably in transition out on the pitch, patience and faith are the order of the hour, not malevolent discontent which threatens to undermine anything Wenger does. With the club’s identity so directly intertwined with the Frenchman’s, removing him from the job could have catastrophic consequences that will condemn Arsenal to years in the wilderness, and with the fate of the side hanging by a thread, now is simply not the time for rash decisions and reactionary rhetoric.