Renewing my vows – and why Arsene has to go

I used to write about Arsenal here all the time. I loved it. I did it for free and I did it for pleasure. If you read during those days, I remain incredibly grateful.

You probably haven’t noticed, but over the past couple of years entries on this blog have tailed off to an eventual halt. While I’ve continued writing, podcasting and vlogging elsewhere, I’ve found it difficult to find the time and energy to update this site. This, after all, was always a labour of love—and the sad truth is that much of the love has gone.

In many ways, this blog is a shrine to Wenger’s Arsenal. It was his teams that made he fall so hard for the game that I dedicated a significant portion of my life to writing about it. I’m now lucky enough to do that professionally. I cover Arsenal for a variety of sites, and I recognise it’s an incredible privilege. After years of graft, my work was my hobby. But over the past couple of seasons, it has begun to feel very much like work again.

The reason I’ve returned here is because when you’re writing for other people, you usually have to have a measure of objectivity. You have to be professional. This is not a professional piece—it’s a deeply person one.

Here’s the thing: I need Arsenal to change. I need a new story to get my teeth into. Part of the reason I haven’t been writing here is because I know you’ve read it all before. It’s increasingly difficult to find new and entertaining ways to say “we looked quite good then we absolutely fucked it”.

Arsenal hark on about stability, but continuity can prove the enemy of optimism. Turbulence brings about the possibility of change, and Arsenal fans are surely ready to welcome that now. I know I am – I’m fully aware that it might get worse before it gets better. Bring it on. I feel like I’ve watched 1000 episodes of Friends back to back and now you’re gong to randomly change the channel. Yes, we might land on Made in Chelsea, but at least it’s different. And we might get Planet Earth. We don’t know. Just change the fucking channel. What is elite sport about if not taking risks?

I’m beating around the bush, because I’m not sure I’ve ever said it in such plain terms, but Arsene Wenger has to go. It’s horrible to say because I’m such a huge admirer of his. Trust me, when you’ve sat opposite him in a press conference, it’s difficult to square this brilliant, erudite man with some of the vitriol and abuse he receives from his harshest critics. He isn’t ‘comical Arsene’, he isn’t a joke — he’s an incredible manager and thinker who has clung on too long.

Make no mistake, we’re in a real mess now. When Wenger signed his new contract in 2014, many assumed it would be his last. However, it feels like almost no plans have been to put in place to deal with the eventual succession. The board are paralysed, and players unwilling to commit. As a club, we are sleepwalking towards a nightmare of a summer.

Well, I feel wide awake now. It’s sad but satisfying to have some clarity. Arsenal need a new man to break this cycle of perpetual disappointment. I’m invigorated by the prospect of something different.

So I’ve come out of retirement to say that I hope Arsene Wenger will soon enter his. Or go to another club—genuinely, it would make me really happy to see him succeed elsewhere. I would love to see him complete his CV and win the Champions League. I hoped for a long time he’d do that with Arsenal, but I now recognise that isn’t going to happen.

I still think he’s capable. There are clubs and leagues where Wenger could still be a success, but unfortunately Arsenal and 2017’s Premier League are no longer one.

It’s almost impossible to break down where it all went wrong, but the simplest answer is that it never really went wrong—it went stale. Top level sport is about pressure and accountability, and those things have been uniquely absent at Arsenal. The manager has never been under real threat, and that comfy atmosphere has seeped into the playing squad. There has been pressure from the fans, sure—but never in the history of the club have the fans held less sway. There are tactical issues of course, but the fundamental problem is a lack of ambition and aggression. The owner and the board play a huge part in that too, and I hope some of the anger at Arsene is redirected at the entirely deserving Kroenke & Co.

Earlier this week, Wenger spoke of himself as a ‘masochist’. He’s entitled to his kinks, but as an Arsenal fan I no longer want to subject myself to this. Any algedonic pleasure has long since worn off.

I do love Arsene, but I love Arsenal more. For that relationship to work out, I need something to give. Change the manager, and maybe we can have a fresh start. Start again. Renew our vows. Maybe I’ll even blog here more often.

I’d love Arsenal to be fun again. I’d settle for it being interesting. Give me something different, Arsenal. Give me a reason to believe.

Arsenal 0-0 Chelsea: A different kind of frustration

I’m used to finishing matches between Arsenal and Chelsea with a feeling of immense frustration gnawing at me. It generally floods in to replace the dread that’s accompanied the build-up to such games.

However, this time round it’s been different. Heading in to the match I was actually excited. We had such a weight of momentum behind us that I was convinced we stood a really good chance of ending Arsene Wenger’s ugly record against Jose Mourinho. If there was ever to be a time to end the hoodoo, this felt like it — 13th time lucky.

It wasn’t to be. I do feel frustration now, but it’s not the hair-pulling, hand-wringing hysteria that previously accompanied our capitulations in these top-of-the-table clashes. I think Arsenal did most things right. Game-management has been Arsenal’s undoing on so many occasions, but they were largely able to negotiate this fixture with intelligence and maturity.

Nevertheless, they couldn’t shake the Mourinho-faced monkey from their back. We did most things right, but he clung on to preserve his record. This was an Arsenal team ready to win, but they faced a Chelsea team who weren’t ready to lose. The scoreline may have been a draw, but only one manager left with the result they came for.

At this point in the season, Mourinho has given up any pretence of trying to appease Abramovich with attractive attacking football. He abided by that decree in the first half of the season, but on this home straight he’s reverted to type with some execrably pragmatic displays. It’s regression to the meanest of footballing philosophies, but it works.

For Arsenal, there’s no shame in drawing with the champions elect. It’s actually a very decent result, especially in the light of Manchester United’s defeat at Everton — but it also feels like an opportunity missed. Chelsea might be weaker in future, but with eight consecutive wins behind us I’m not sure we’ll ever be stronger.

The fact we still couldn’t break them down suggests that when we do eventually beat them, it will require the rarest of defensive lapses. As John Terry marshalled Olivier Giroud into subordination, his hilarious slip at Stamford Bridge felt like an awfully long time ago.

This game was understandably talked about as an opportunity to lay down a marker for next season, but the reality is that Arsenal do not need to beat Chelsea to win a Premier League title. Far more important is to avoid the sort of disastrous start to the campaign which handed Mourinho his insurmountable lead.

Arsenal didn’t get the landmark win they craved but they gave a good account of themselves nonetheless.

Traditionally, my exasperation has stemmed from the fact Arsenal have humiliated themselves. This time, it’s due to the fact that we weren’t able to humiliate Mourinho. I’m choosing to look upon that as progress.

Arsenal 1-3 Monaco: On our never-ending naivety

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A despondent Arsene Wenger had finished giving his press conference, when a voice cried out from the back of the room to ask if he would mind answering one question in French.

Wenger stood at the head of the media lounge. He didn’t respond, but nor did he depart, so the voice went on. What, it asked, was the most disappointing aspect of Arsenal’s performance?

You didn’t have to be fluent to understand Wenger’s answer: “notre naïveté”.

Naive is a word that has become synonymous with Arsenal. As a bit of a test, I ran it through the search engine on my own blog. Here are the most recent uses:

“We all know that Arsene Wenger isn’t going anywhere until 2017. With that in mind, we have no choice but to demand more from the players. They can’t hide behind his diminishing reputation. They might not like it, but this is their mess too.  It’s never just one thing, and Wenger’s tactical naivety does not fully excuse theirs.”

Then:

“However, neither of those can match the humiliation of losing 6-0 at Chelsea. The tactical naivety Arsenal showed in that game is what makes me a little concerned about the length of Arsene Wenger’s new deal.”

Then:

“Wenger was comprehensively outmanoeuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.”

I gave up at that point. Not even I am so morbid as to dig deeper in to the mire.

However, you might see what I’m getting at. Naivety ought to be a temporary thing. It’s a state of being characterised by a lack of experience or sophistication. That should get better. It should be fixable. And yet here we are, approaching the end of a decade of defensive guilelessness. We’re a team caught in arrested development.

Google “how to stop being naive” and it’ll tell you the process can be accelerated by having your heart broken. Well, that one doesn’t seem to have worked for us. The painful lessons keep on coming, and we keep on ignoring them.

What happened against Monaco approached the absurd. Going 2-0 down was bad enough, but to concede a third having dragged ourselves back in to the game was madness. The craziest part is that I wasn’t even surprised. How many times have we seen Arsenal carelessly chase goals, only to be sucker-punched?

This latest horror show arrives days after we came inches from surrendering a 2-0 lead in the final few minutes at Crystal Palace. The further away it gets, the more that Manchester City win feels like an anomalous result against an out-of-sorts side.

Arsenal will re-qualify for the Champions League, but last night was a reminder of why it’s unlikely to get significantly better than that any time soon. You can look at our annual top four finish as a remarkable piece of consistency. Alternatively, you can see it as a staggering lack of progression — evidence that the teams of the second half of Arsene’s reign have been chronically hampered by an unworldliness the manager seems powerless to fix. We’re good, but unless something changes we’ll never be good enough.

It’s all very well for Arsene to accuse his players of naivety, but he is the man charged with educating this squad. If naivety is the problem, better coaching is surely the cure.

Is Arsenal’s victory over Manchester City down to the manager or the players?

I don’t quite know what to make of Arsenal’s win over Manchester City. My initial response was, like yours, one of shock. An Arsenal side guilty of making the same mistakes again and again appeared to have suddenly learnt from them. Frustration at their slow uptake was secondary to the joy of an unexpected victory. Arsene Wenger had got it right, and in doing so acknowledged he was wrong.

And then came his tetchy post-match interview, in which he effectively denied his side had done anything dramatically different to their normal gung-ho approach. Ignore it, I thought: he’s just struggling with publicly compromising his principles. No-one wants to climb down from their aesthetic mount on national television.

But then came this Olivier Giroud interview (“The boss didn’t say to stay back and counter-attack”), in which he appears to reveal that the players weren’t specifically instructed to let City have the ball. Arsenal’s tactical masterclass, Giroud seems to suggest, came about as much by accident as design.

Now, there is evidence against Giroud’s crude ‘big bang’ theory that re-establishes the divinity of Arsene. For example, our approach at City was fairly reminiscent of our cautious display at Stamford Bridge earlier this season. There were indications then that we had adopted a more conservative set-up. The difference, as so often in these big games, was the first goal. Individual errors granted Chelsea the lead, and recovering from that deficit away from home proved impossible.

However, if we take Giroud’s comments at face value, what does that mean for Arsenal’s newfound resolve and discipline? Where does that come from? Certainly not Steve Bould, who appears to be as impotent as Pele before his lucrative endorsement deal.

A potential answer arrives in the form of the players. Is it possible that, in spite of their manager’s intransigence, they have simply adjusted of their own accord? There are enough new ingredients for me to believe it’s possible: the eerie calm of David Ospina, the fearless physicality of Francis Coquelin, the inspirational athleticism of Alexis Sanchez. Perhaps this Arsenal, with these personnel, has taken matters in to their own hands. If the manager wasn’t prepared to teach his team some necessary lessons, perhaps certain players have – inadvertently or otherwise.

In reality, our win may be down to both players and manager. The two possibilities are in no way mutually exclusive. That would certainly fit with Wenger’s ethos: he is always eager for his players to take responsibility for their own actions on the field. The intriguing thing is how difficult that makes it to apportion credit.

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ps. TRANSFER BUSINESS: I talked about it on Twitter the other day, but my understanding is that Arsenal are confident they would secure a work permit for Villarreal defender Gabriel Paulista without too many problems. The Spanish club are holding out for something close to his €20m buyout fee, which sounds a lot until you remember just how hard it’s proven to find a half-decent centre-half. For more on Paulista, read this profile piece I wrote on him for ESPN.