The saying goes, “It may get worse before it gets better, but it will get better.” Towards the end of Wenger’s reign, the majority of Arsenal fans weren’t naïve to the fact that things may have to ‘get worse’ before the glory days returned, but there was a general belief that they would return and him stepping aside would enable that.
But after Thursday’s night European exit, for many, that belief is now gone, with the rest left wondering, ‘how much worse are things going to get?’ The sad and harsh truth is, numerous people have been asking that question for a few years now; Thursday night’s exit was just one more disappointment in a long line of let-downs and one that emphasised the starkness of the situation we now find ourselves in.
The club need to be winning titles, that has to be the ultimate goal, yet, in years gone by, the club were contented with the consolation of Champions League qualification, then that slipped from our grasp and the consolation prize then turned into the goal. Europa League football was almost a stain on our reputation when we entered it under Wenger four years ago, now we will even have to go without that.
Followers of the club are under no illusions, the club has been in a downward spiral for several years and although there have been glimpses of potential and flashes of hope, that trajectory isn’t showing any genuine signs of letting up. A trophy less season where the club yo-yo’s between the top and bottom half of the table could only be worsened by a relegation battle, something unthinkable for a club of Arsenal’s stature. It seems, we’re running out of room for regression, but if the mismanagement of the club has taught the fans anything over the last decade, it’s that the unthinkable can happen if there’s no clear and strong leadership!
Under the tenure of Wenger, things had been left to go stale. In the early stages of his Arsenal career, the Frenchman had some of the best players in the world at his disposal, the freedom of expression he gave those players left room for; brilliance, leadership and ultimately success. The same freedom he gave his players toward the end of his career, left room for the opposite; stupidity, weakness and failure. At the end of his Arsenal career, we were starting to see predictable and passive performances that were making the dream of a premiership win drift further and further away.
At that time, it was easier, to pin all of the club’s problems on one man, to say that the club had become impotent because football had somehow overtaken Wenger; new coaches, new methods and new formulas of winning, he just couldn’t keep up. The general consensus at the time was that Wenger may have been holding the club back; we could only go off what we were seeing on the pitch and that opinion seemed a logical one.
However, when Wenger left, the cracks many accused him off causing weren’t filled and repaired, they kept growing. One would assume that it would feel like a big change when you swap out a manger whose been at the helm for over two decades, but honestly, the change wasn’t as tangible as one might have expected. The performances and patterns were similar; we were overwhelmed against the top teams, we were sometimes impressive against lesser opposition and the style of play was more or less the same under Emery, as it was under Wenger. This was the first sign, that the culture of the club couldn’t be solved with replacing just one man for another.
From Wenger, to Emery, to Arteta, drastic changes on the pitch are hard to find. You could be fooled into thinking that the same man oversaw our last two semi-final defeats in Europe against Villareal and Atletico Madrid or our final against Chelsea in 2019. Different men, at very different stages in their career but the same frustrations and the same whimpering performances.
Of course, Arteta cannot be absolved from all blame this season but he also cannot be expected to hold back a wave that’s been building for some time. Clearly, the problems run far deeper than the man standing on the side-lines, a so called ‘quick-fix’ would not work in our current situation. Although, a trigger happy approach toward managers might appease some fans need for ‘action,’ it wouldn’t necessarily provide the catalyst for change that is needed at Arsenal at the moment. Moving Arteta out now, would create a distraction to the bigger problems at play, but it wouldn’t necessarily be the solution to them.
Ten years ago, a change of manager might have proved the difference in Arsenal winning titles, but not anymore. Things have drifted too far, yes, you need to have the right manager in place, but more than that needs to be done around them. At the moment, apathy and arrogance is bleeding from the top of the club all the way down, for too long the reputation of Arsenal has kept the club afloat, but the name and reputation isn’t enough to keep us in the elite of Europe or the top six of English football anymore.
There has been speculation and debate over who and what may be to blame, for the state of the club right now; apathetic owners, a board lacking football intelligence, ill-advised recruitment, the legitimacy of those claims seem hard to dispute. Then there’s the claim that, we’ve had the wrong managers and speculation over rotten apples in the squad, they’ve been issues that are harder to agree on. One thing we can take as a cast iron certainty though, is that it’s going to take a long time to undo the culture of the club and set a new one.
The words ‘process’ and ‘project’ are already sowing seeds of contention amongst fans, naturally, we don’t want the club to be a project or in a process, we want real success and we already feel we’ve waited long enough for it. Alas, we can’t escape reality, the club has been a victim of the previous boards incompetence, now, the club is suffering due to the inexperience of those in power. It will take time to undo the actions of the former and it will take time for the latter to gain experience and see it through, facts that are bitter pills to swallow.
Time though, isn’t on Arsenal’s side. Years of riding purely on the club’s reputation has resulted in the club being increasingly uncompetitive in an increasingly competitive league. We’ve seen changes to the board, changes to the recruitment team and changes to the structure; all desperate attempts to turn the tide. Unfortunately, this has just added to the turbulence. The club need to start learning from their mistakes; the changes in roles and staff walking the plank won’t steady the ship. If this kind of indecision and lack of leadership continues, things will get worse and may not ever get better.
Another time sensitive issue comes in the shape of Arsenal’s best young players. Arsenal have been gifted a lifeline, but one with an expiry date. Saka, Smith-Rowe & Martinelli look to be amongst some of the best young talent in the world, they’re the type of players that don’t come around often, certainly not at the same time. They look destined for big things, but at the moment Arsenal don’t. If Arsenal continue on their current path, those players will outgrow the club and they will leave, just like most of the club’s best players have done over the last decade. The club need to learn from their mistakes on and off the pitch or they’ll continue repeating them.
The club is under severe pressure at the moment, the shouts for the owners to sell up are getting louder and louder; yet they seem undeterred and resolute in keeping ownership of the club, they tell us they’re committed to the cause. The odds for Arteta being relieved off his duties have been slashed, the man himself sounds frustrated, but determined to prove himself. The words of the owners and manager don’t hold much clout with the supporters anymore; the fanbase has grown tired of the weary talk of ‘warchests’ and shouts to ‘trust the process.’ If the Kroenke’s are committed to returning the club to glory and if they’re committed to Arteta, now is the time to back that up. The prospect of Arsenal bobbing along and ‘just’ qualifying for European Competition, collecting the income but not delivering any European glory is finished. Arsenal will have to fight for their place back at that table and they’ll need every one pulling in the same direction to do it.
The club have been left to drift into mediocrity, the culture shock of a European exit has confounded and exposed that once and for all. The hierarchy haven’t got a world renowned manager to hide behind, neither can they hide behind European qualification or try and cash in on the club’s reputation to buy themselves a seat in a European Super League. The hierarchy have lost their battle in keeping up appearances; their neglect has been exposed.
Mere talk cannot get the fans onside anymore, that ship has sailed. Things have got as bad as they can be allowed to get for a club like Arsenal. Now is the time for action and the owner, manager and players, need to be hungry, humble and be ready to fight or they should take their leave, because the club is up against it and they’re against the clock. Top to bottom, all need to be pulling in the same direction, to make things ‘better,’ to make things right and to pull a massive club back to the top.
I’m a lifelong gooner in my early twenties, hailing from coastal North Wales. The passion for all things red and white is passed down from generation to generation in the Collins family, a gift and obsession that was first passed down by my Grandad, who was a regular at Highbury in the 60’s, it’s been a lifetime of sharing the pain and joy together ever since.
It was at a cold and wet trip to Manchester City that I caught the bug, a day that ended in a defeat to a Joey Barton penalty, it’s pretty much been down hill from there but I’m sure the glory days I’ve heard so much about will return and I’m here to document that journey.