There is a culture of accepting second-best at Arsenal that begins and ends with the man in the dugout.
That is not to suggest Arsenal’s players are in any way content with what has happened in the last week, enduring a 2-0 defeat to Barcelona that will likely see them eliminated from the Champions League’s Round of 16 for the sixth year in a row and a 3-2 loss to a makeshift Manchester United that has shrouded serious doubts over their Premier League title credentials.
But the problem at Arsenal is quite simply that, even if the players are unhappy about it, they know there will be no long-term consequences for that horrendous pair of results. In fact, Arsene Wenger seemingly prides himself on placing faith where managerial colleagues would refuse and remaining optimistic about the future, even if the present is incredibly underwhelming.
If Wenger were running an inner-city youth scheme for local yobs and vagabonds, his patience would be commendable if not downright saintly. But Le Prof is managing a team of professionals striving for success in a results-based industry who expect to be motivated as much by the stick as the carrot. Unfortunately, Wenger’s cane-swinging arm has been out of action for some time.
That is not to say Wenger doesn’t know how to give his players a half-time rollicking, but actions speak louder than words. Sir Alex Ferguson’s hair-dryer treatment must have felt like hot air to Ryan Giggs and Paul Scholes after two decades of the Scot’s tough love, but the pressure to perform was sustained at Manchester United by merciless dismantling of the starting Xi just when everybody started to feel settled.
Nobody was safe under Ferguson unless you consistently performed to the highest level. Even then, a misplaced remark, a public display of defiance, an overly exuberant social life or simply age could well spell an abrupt departure – as Roy Keane, Jaap Staam, Ruud van Nistelrooy and David Beckham, to name a few, eventually found out.
Ferguson could take those measures because he had a ‘helicopter view’ of the club. Wenger has the privilege of overseeing Arsenal from the same perspective, but his heart has continually ruled over his head when wielding the axe. Would Nicklas Bendtner, Mathieu Flamini, Wojciech Szczesny, Tomas Rosicky and Abou Diaby have been given the same chances by another top for club? Or for that matter, would Chelsea, Manchester United or Manchester City have abided Theo Walcott’s limited development since his teenage years or Jack Wilshere’s endless injury problems?
That must filter into the mentality of the players. After all, if you miss out on the Premier League title every season, if you never progress to the latter stages of the Champions League, if the manager’s future is never questioned by the board and even those who can only make it out of the physio room for a couple of cameo appearances a season are continually handed contract extensions, would you really worry about the potential repercussions of failing to turn up against Manchester United?
You’re not going to be moved on during the summer. In fact, you’re still going to be at the Emirates next season, standing between a beaming Wenger and a crutch-propped Jack Wilshere, still picking up a healthy salary, still playing regular football and still under no particular pressure to finish higher than fourth.
Don’t get me wrong, I am by no means suggesting this is overt decision-making on the part of any individual, especially Wenger who genuinely believes this Arsenal side is capable of winning the title. But Chelsea and City don’t settle for ‘belief’ and ‘capability’ – they relentlessly look for guarantees even if they come at the expense of loyalty – and it’s that lack of ruthlessness, spawned from blind optimism, which has crept its way into the Arsenal psyche.
There is a common conception of Arsenal’s players ‘bottling it’ on the big occasion. But it’s the lack of pressure at the Emirates, the excuses of limited finance and misfortunate injury crises, the illogical loyalty to underachievers, the continued acceptance of fourth-placed finishes, the incredible apathy towards the Champions League and the sheer fact Wenger has survived so long in spite of minimal success that is holding truly the players back.
Arsenal could beat Swansea this evening and Tottenham at the weekend to instantaneously revive their wilting title credentials. Heck, they could even go on to lift the Premier League crown and the FA Cup by the end of May. But change is desperately needed at a club that has accepted shortcomings of players, their manager and in the transfer market for far too long, that now finds itself amid the most competitive era of domestic football since the Premier League’s incarnation.
Arsene Wenger has proved time and again that he’s not a man of change. The Frenchman’s footballing revolution ended over a decade ago and he’s now so assured of his own principles that he’s prepared to live and die by them. Some would say that’s commendable, as are many aspects of Wenger’s reign, but being commendable doesn’t win you titles. The mentality at Arsenal won’t change until there’s a new man in the dugout.