Life for the Gunners looks bleak following Tuesday’s European exit – with a squad in disarray and a manager and key players potentially leaving.
Nobody was expecting Arsenal to overturn the 5-1 defeat against Bayern Munich on Wednesday evening. Not Arsene Wenger, not the players and certainly not the fed-up fans who marched through north London before kick-off demanding the Frenchman “get out” of their club.
Go back even further and you’d be hard-pressed to find anybody who thought Arsenal would win the tie in the first place. And that’s the problem.
Arsenal never surprise anyone, never excite, never fail to disappoint. They qualify for the Champions League through their league placing and get eliminated from the Champions League before the quarter-finals. Groundhog year.
Put yourself in the shoes of those fans who partook in the march and ask yourself: What is there to live for as an Arsenal supporter? These nights when the battle is over and you’ve already lost? Nights like Saturday when you hope that your club can put some distance between themselves and Liverpool in the race for the top four but when deep down you actually know you’ll lose?
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Arsene Wenger initially had not only an excuse but a legitimate reason for a club the size of Arsenal underperforming through the past 10 years or so. To keep them in the Champions League – year after year – with a debt that size on the Emirates Stadium is one of the great feats of modern club management. Every year he watched players depart, for money and for trophies, but could always rationalise the exits through financial necessity.
The likes of Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie left the house Wenger built to win titles elsewhere. Arsenal fans in their heart of hearts knew that their own club could not sustain a title challenge and – whatever the resentment they felt at their exits – they knew a Manchester City or a Manchester United were always closer to winning the league than they were.
But the signing of Mesut Ozil in particular was to change all that. His was the statement transfer to demonstrate that Arsenal were back in the frame for titles; paying £42.5 million for a Real Madrid starter who would prove to have the quality to win the World Cup at the end of his first season in London.
Alexis Sanchez was next. He was signed a year later and he too went on to claim international honours at the end of his first term and has now won consecutive Copas America with Chile.
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The capacity for those two superstars to win big trophies is undimmed but it would appear their qualities have been absorbed by the sanctuary of mediocrity that Arsenal has become.
Ozil and Sanchez would very likely walk into any other team in world football yet both remain chained to an Arsenal squad with an unrivalled ability to underwhelm. The excuse of not having the money to compete is gone now; Granit Xhaka cost more than Chelsea paid for N’Golo Kante. Big money has gone on Danny Welbeck, Calum Chambers, Lucas Perez, Alex-Oxlade Chamberlain, Mohamed Elneny and more without any noticeable uplift in output. Everyone who signs for Arsenal – whatever their level to begin with – seems to converge on the point of ordinariness.
If any potential high-class Arsenal signing was considering moving to north London this summer they might well have been put off by the manner in which Alexis’s desire for improvement has been met with stiff resistance by players incapable of matching his efforts. His paltry total of one FA Cup in three seasons is a warning to good players everywhere: Don’t come to Arsenal.
It is bewildering that Wenger fails to see the long-term pattern in any of it. He still analyses the disappointments match by match, incident by incident; seemingly the only one who remains surprised at how often they fail.
It is he who still maintains control of the club, its direction and its future prospects of success. He is said to be equivocating over a new two-year contract; that lack of commitment now causing no end of uncertainty not only to fans but to players too. Mesut Ozil has already disclosed that he is waiting to see what Wenger does before making a decision on any new deal.
How can Arsenal realistically begin attracting any new players when they cannot guarantee the manager will be here next season? How many managers will come onto the market and just as quickly go off it while Wenger prevaricates? How can a succession plan be put in place while Wenger is insistent on staying in control as long as he can?
The fans are sick of it, the false hope and the cycle of decrepitude that every season brings.
What they might be failing to consider though is the fate of Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired. He called the shots on his own departure – winning a title and going out in style. He was ready to go but the club wasn’t ready for him to leave. United have fallen off a cliff since he left – relative to their achievements while he was there – and are nowhere near competing for major titles. And look at the level of investment they require just to tread water.
If they stay in the top four then what Arsenal need to do is manage Wenger out; set up a sporting director position, surround Wenger with coaches capable of taking over. If they don’t qualify, well, he’s in trouble. After Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory, Arsenal fans could be the next ones to rage against a system that’s not working for them and demand someone, anyone takes over.
In any context, Wenger’s departure this summer could be hasty. Arsenal are not ready for it. The options are either Wenger stays and they endure the same old story or he leaves and in a year or two Arsenal fans might well be begging for the heady days of being thrashed by Bayern in the Champions League last 16.