Rock bottom in 45 years of following Arsenal by AndersS
Since I was a 9 year old boy, 45 years ago, I have followed Arsenal as an ardent fan. I live in Denmark, and I have watched probably 80-90% of Arsenals matches on TV in all those years, I have been to both Highbury and Emirates to watch games and I have been in several European cities to watch Arsenal games. So I can tell you, I have experienced ups and downs with Arsenal, and I could write all day about them.
When Wenger came to Arsenal, I was a little bit skeptical, as he really didn’t have much of a record to show for himself, but he quickly won me around. It was a revelation to watch Arsenal become a team playing the most attractive football in England, in fact maybe in all of Europe at the time.
Before we had some years with decent results, but our brand of football was so boring, even some of us fans were embarrassed at times. With Wenger we both could get results and play beautiful football. It was fantastic, and we looked like potential champions every year.
Being a businessman myself, I could also understand the analysis, that if we were to compete in the long run with financially stronger clubs like Manchester United and Real Madrid, we had to strengthen commercially and draw more benefit from our growing appeal. A new larger stadium was obviously needed. It was a huge undertaking, and it was understandable it put a financial restraint on player wages and new acquisitions. In those years, we stayed fairly competitive, which I thought was a big achievement, not only because we had to be very careful financially, but also because a new competing factor came in. Rich billionaires buying teams and players as a hobby. Of course it was disappointing not winning big titles, but we were close at times, and there were signs that good times lay ahead. Eventually our stadium would be finished, our revenue would go up, and investments in the team could rise.
Another promising outlook also was in the cards. Football clubs were becoming global brands, and although Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona were ahead of us in that area, we were actually catching up, and a very positive sign lay in the fact, that we were the biggest club globally on social media, indicating that in generations younger than me, Arsenal was potentially the biggest club or brand globally in the future. I think our attractive football was very much a reason for this. So it still looked rosy.
But looking back, I also think we overlooked some important signs. Most of the time, we lost to Manchester United. We seemed to play the better football and dominate possession, but they won, because they had the better tactics. They happily let us dominate possession, and then hit us on the counterattack. It worked nearly every time for them and still we kept playing the same way against them. I think Sir Alex must have had a lot of fun out of that.
But that wasn’t the only thing. Every season, we seemed to let in more goals than could be tolerated, if we were to become champions. Some years it was put down to bad defenders or bad goalkeepers and later to the lack of a good defensive midfielder. So the only focus and criticism there was, was that Wenger either didn’t want to or wasn’t allowed to spend money on the right player(s), and personally I agreed. But here were a few other critics claiming Wenger’s tactics were too naïve.
Over the last couple of years, I have come to realize, that maybe those early critics were actually right. Football has changed. Today, winning teams does not consist of an attacking force + a defensive force, where the attacking force can leave it only to the others to defend and to win the ball back. Today winning teams have 9 or even 10 players, who press and defend as soon as the ball is lost, and especially the midfielders and wingers are “2 way players”, who are nearly all are as good in defending as in attacking.
We have never made this transition, and it can’t be down to the players to adapt to this new winning formula. It must come from the manager. But I can’t see it happening with Wenger. It should have happened 2 or 3 years ago.The stats are so clear on this, and I think for many, it is also very clear to the eye, even when you watch us against lesser teams than Bayern. And for those who doesn’t believe the stats, or don’t think it can be seen against lesser teams, you would have thought it could be clear, when we as good as always come up short against the best teams in England or in Europe. But for some reason, we are still trying to play the way, it could be won 10-12 years ago.
Over the last few weeks, I have noticed a change. More and more neutrals and more and more fans, have become pessimistic about Wenger’s ability to change it. This isn’t exactly new, but it seems like it is a stronger feeling this time. But what is new is, that even the players seem to have lost faith. They can’t be without knowledge of the growing sentiment against Wenger, and although there are obvious rallying cries from the player, saying “we will keep on fighting” etc., I also think there is an obvious lack of vocal support for Wenger himself from the players. And last night, we saw something, which I honestly don’t think, I have seen before. Not only did several players argue with teammates, but several looked like giving up 10-15 min. into the second half. That attitude is sign, that maybe things are really unravelling. Given, that all chances of a major trophy more or less are gone, star players with unresolved contracts, motivation and confidence at a very low point and a manager in a very shaky position, the ingredients for more disasters are there.
So I think, not only does Wenger have to go, it may actually be a question whether he has to go instantly, so a new plan can be made, before it gets even worse. At the same time, I am grateful he has shown us glimpses of a possibility to become one of the leading clubs in the world. If clever business and clever football management again could come together in a new plan, we could start moving in the right direction again. But it can’t be with Wenger, and if he gracefully admits, that he now realizes, this is what is needed for Arsenal, he could still leave as a legend, and we could start looking to the future with renewed optimism.