It is Xmas 2011 and I am fighting a losing battle. The turkey has been eaten, and I am discussing “The Arsenal” with my brother. I am in full flow, but he suddenly propels himself forward, his face going red, almost falling out of his armchair, jabbing a finger in my direction “BUT.. BUT…after the stadium move they should have SPENT, SPENT and SPENT. They should have got a replacement for Vieira, a replacement for Campbell, not signed THAT clown of a goalkeeper”…. “And as for your comments about us not being able to compete with City and Chelsea.. well.. this is ARSENAL FOOTBALL CLUB! we’ve been one of the best clubs in this country for over a 100 years.”. The conversation is suddenly like ships in the night.
My brother is 12 years older than me, he grew up in North London in the late 1960s, where we lived near the Caledonian Road, near the Copenhagen Arms (a pub now shut down), in N7. I grew up in Hertfordshire. That doesn’t account for our differences, but it occurs to me that his pride was not misplaced. We are a big club, we have class, we conduct our affairs with dignity and we have a history of winning trophies, and we have been massively consistent, 95 seasons in the top flight, promoted from the old second division in 1919, and never looked back.
Still, I am puzzled by his anger. He is a sibling, and I believed he would be more like minded . We don’t speak that often, but his views surprise me nevertheless. They are straight out of Le Grove, whose author is younger, and attract a younger crowd. I try to reconcile these views with my own early pre Wenger history with Arsenal, watching the 3 cup FA Cup finals 1978, 1979, 1980, the George Graham era, very successful from 1987 to 1994. For the 1980 to 1986 period, I am too young, and did not follow Arsenal with the kind of obsessiveness that we probably all do now, to notice any discontent, although I do recall the trophy win in the league cup in 1987 that punctuated an end to a trophyless period, and was welcomed.
Is this a revisionist view of history then? Was Arsenal so successful before that the current period is unacceptable? The data does not suggest it. It would be easy for me to trot out statistics to cover several barrenless periods in our history where no trophy was forthcoming. Using the numbers alone, the argument is overwhelming. Like arguing that a 10 to 15 year period of hot summers does not make for global warming in the context of the earth’s history of climate, it is very easy to argue that our current form fits a model of trophy success that comes in cycles. We are currently in the unsuccessful, trophyless period.
But presenting that argument today is not easy. One is accused of sophistry and trying to pull the wool over peoples eyes. It is not about what we did or didn’t do from 1980-1986, or in the 1950s. It is about what we do now, and what we are now. My brother’s pride, quite rightly, is reflected in the opinion’s of a lot of Arsenal fans, who, I have to admit, like myself, cannot stomach failure. I am as gutted as the next supporter to see the chavs put 4 past us, or see the overwhelming ease at which we have been beaten by the mancs in recent years. Gutted and devastated. Always in a latent bad mood after the game. Pondering the reasons for defeat. Going into media lockdown, afraid to listen to the radio, ignoring the sports pages, going offline. Outraged at criticism.
Of course, some fans reactions manifest themselves in other ways. As well as some of the above, they will direct that criticism and anger at the club, particularly at Wenger, some at Gazidis and the board. Before Gazidis, it was Edelman. The groundswell of that discontent has it’s origins mainly from 2005, although some with sharper memories than myself may go back beyond that, and tell us of other periods in history. What has caused this dissatisfaction? Is it discontent stemming from seeing an Arsenal that is radically different, and more successful, placed in a wider historical context ? Or is it discontent when compared with the GG era ? Or, simply, just discontent from observing the failure to win a trophy whilst our west london neighbours and other enemies are enjoying success? It would be easy for me to dismiss all of these reasons and state that the Wenger period from 1997-2004 as the reason for all of this. 3 premiership wins and 5 2nd places, 4 FA Cups, 1 final of the UEFA cup and 1 final of the CL, fueling expectations which have not been exceeded since.
But it is not enough for a lot of fans to say that just because we enjoyed a successful 8 year period, that we should accept the bad times as well. It is not enough for a lot of fans, to tell them about cycles, and troughs, and periods of our history where we did very little, and ground out boring 0-0 draws, where our ex manager took a bung. It is not enough to recall the 1950s, as a lot of us were probably dead then (older fans excepted), and who cares? The time is now, and after I wake up to an 8-2 stuffing by that insufferable manc club, I want too, to be dead.
So where do we go from here? Is criticism of the club actually due? A lot of people we say it is. Whether we like it or not, as positive fans, a lot of the criticism is heartfelt and not malicious, just the other side of wanting the club to do well. Of course, a lot of it is hysterical, ignorant and bonkers. Some of it is personally opportunistic. Take Stewart Robson for example. I assume most gooners are united in thinking the guy is a bitter buffoon, rightly sacked for mouthing off on Arsenal TV. But dismissing all criticism out of hand is dangerous, because it fosters accusations of AKB and “blind support”, and offends many fans who have an emotional attachment to the club, and don’t want to see what they see as valid concerns, dismissed for being inconsequential.
The obvious criticisms are of course, the lack of trophies from 2005-2013. Arsene Wenger himself , for a multitude of sins, including intransigence, omnipotence, tactical naivety, indecisiveness and stubbornness. The greed and incompetence of the board, who are too old, consisting of 4 directors who over 70 and not welcome to new ideas, lacking in strategic direction. The incompetence of the club management who are accused of unprofessionalism and a shambolic failure in securing transfers so far this summer, and operate in the shadow ofWenger, who has total control, with Gazidis having to tread carefully in the domain of football matters that directors of football in Europe and increasingly in the UK have control over.
The most significant event in the last 8 years, was the the stadium move, which was supposed to be the catalyst for more success. The argument was, and still is, that it was a necessary move to gain more revenue, to enable to us to compete financially with the big boys. In some quarters the stadium move is viewed with regret. Nostalgic preference for Highbury is murmured, but more worrying is the view that we have been hamstrung by it’s debt, and the ironic financial consequence of less money being available for transfers. For me the stadium is the elephant in the room, not because I don’t believe it was necessary, but because of the PR coming out of the club for a number of years following the move. I believe that many of the criticisms stem from the expectation level set by the stadium move. It is very difficult to defend the accusation that if we made the stadium move in order to compete, we should have been competing within an 8 year period. Part of the problem is no timetable has ever been set following the stadium move for success. Nobody can look into a crystal ball.
Wouldn’t it have been better for the club to say – “Period of austerity ahead. Not much money. Have faith in the manager.”. They may have said that privately to people, I don’t know. They may have even said that publically at the time, but I didn’t hear it. The defence, naturally, is to say that if you do put a message out like that, you are admitting defeat, players won’t come to the club, the fan-base will dwindle, you have admitted you can’t compete. Wenger though, at the start of every season since 2005, is always confident, infuriating the hordes who see him as being totally delusional, saying – “We have the squad to compete”. Even the most red tinted AKB, looks at this statement, and thinks, surely he most know our chances of success with the limited funds available, are slim? But perhaps Wenger’s comments are pure professionalism. You don’t tell the world that your squad is short, no matter what. What message does that send out? Hey guys, our squad is shit, and we’ve got no chance. Can you imagine the headlines? “Wenger admits failure”. He would be roasted in the press. He does not have the luxury of Pellegrini and Mourinho as they can go out and spend £100 million each pre-season and light a fat cigar. So his loyalty in this context surely has to be praised as he has never uttered any public criticism of the board, nor complains about the resources at his disposal.
So what of the first criticism? No trophies in the last 8 years. There is no getting out of this one. This is a humiliating statement which is incremented by a year, each year. If you are an all or nothing person, then this is just flat out failure. A disaster. You cannot defend the indefensible. The press wield this like a big stick, “no trophy for 8 years”, “8 years without a trophy”. It makes my stomach churn, but not mainly for the reason that I am actually pissed off with not winning a trophy for 8 years, but more because the statement belies some of the good football we have played in the last 8 years, not least, in the champions league when we reached the final. But then, there have been some atrocious and shocking defeats as well. I am reminded of defeats to Blackburn and Bradford last season. The 2010 Birmingham defeat in the league cup. Some of the capitulations to the Mancs and Chavs in recent years. The title capitulation in 2008. The cruel quarter final CL defeat to Liverpool in 2008, where we were 5 minutes away from going through, after the goal from lazy, but embarrassingly surrender after 2 late goals, although there was penalty controversy over those 2 legs. On a positive note, the away wins against Bayern Munich, AC Milan and Real Madrid. The home win against Barcelona, who were the best team in the world. There has been some scintillating football as well through that period.
As a result of this period the consensus amongst critics is that we are too soft. After the loss of Vieira, we don’t have an enforcer. We are brittle, too easy to kick and too nice. We try to walk the ball into the net. We play beautiful football, but it is not ugly enough, lacks defensive shape. More worryingly, we lack winners. I hear these accusations always with the face of a man who has swallowed a wasp. It is as if the criticism is directed at me personally. Is this true? Are we a bunch of serial losers with no grit and determination? Is this really my football club? With the weight of evidence, it is difficult to counter these accusations without being branded delusional. I believe that certain defeats were indefensible. The Birmingham 2010 cup defeat being one. We had the better team, and after all, this was a team that was relegated. I cannot explain the defeat. I have no answer. The league capitulation in 2008? There are some answers there, the Eduardo leg break, other player injuries. Ditto 2010. Appalling injuries which have baffled us all, for we’ve never really got to the bottom of them. The expectation at least, and it cannot be denied, is that we should won at least a single trophy in the last 8 years. If Swansea, for example, can do it, then so should we. I believe the heavier defeats to stronger teams were more forgivable, because of their resources. Losing 4-1 to a team that cost over £300 million to assemble, for example, in the Chelsea home defeat in May 2009, is explicable, but no less palatable for us.
What of the criticisms about our style? We are too brittle etc? I think that this is something that we have improved in the last couple of years. But the context of this criticism for me is that when we had Vieira, Petit, Adams and co, we could not be pushed around. On other hand, and I’m going on the defensive here, what was our champions league record between 1996 and 2004? I cannot recall reaching the semi-finals during this period, and I seem to remember being soundly beaten by technically superior teams, including Barcelona, during this period. We had all the muscle in the world, but our champions league record, perversely, in the 1st 8 years of Wenger’s tenure, is not as good as the 2nd 8 years. This may explain why Wenger started to sign and acquire, smaller, technical, ball playing players – Hleb, Reyes, Rosicky, Denilson, Fabregas, Eduardo. But whilst these players may have been better equipped to handle the passing game in the champions league, they suffered in the premiership against teams prepared to put the boot in. My own view is that there are two mitigating factors to explain why we haven’t been as successful in the premiership during the last 8 years. Bedevilment with injuries is one of them; the best years of Van Persie, Diaby and Rosicky wasted. Constant injuries to other players. The 2nd is the wealth of resources of City and Chelsea. It may be bitter of me to say it, but without their money, we would have won at least 1 premiership and FA Cup during this period.
Of course, the concern is that the mitigating factors that I have put are just excuses. And in some camps, that Wenger is to blame for all of this. He decides the players, decides what we are going to spend. Decides the tactics. Lays the foundation and sets the tone for the club. A man who is all powerful, egotistical, arrogant and out of touch. The persistence with Diaby. Myopic to not see that our shambolic defence should have been shored up many years ago. Myopic to not see that a successor to Lehmann should have been signed. A suicidal tactician, who makes terrible substitutions. Obsessive with the youth project. Too much money and wages spent on dross players, and no money spent on big players, because he doesn’t know how.
How many of these faults then, were actually commented on in 2004? Of course, blogging had just started about then. But I recall the newspapers. They weren’t saying anything like this. It you weren’t aware, the tone was completely different. Wenger was actually a genius credited for revolutionising English football. His methods and techniques were ground breaking . He had set a standard for others to follow. Building a new training facility, playing beautiful football that was just out of this world. But he doesn’t know any more, they say. The rest of the premiership has caught up. Premiership managers are now foreign, they have bought in their continental coaches. His methods are no longer innovative, bringing in dieticians, specialist fitness trainers.
Then there is the argument of being all powerful. Another unheard of charge made after 2004. Well, wasn’t this the case with Alex Ferguson for his entire career? There was no director of football at Manchester United. This goes for David Moyes, when at Everton, as well. A telegraph journalist this week pointed to Manchester Unite’ds constant freshening up of the coaching team, saying that ours is stale by comparison. Ok, that may be a good point. But is there evidence to support that regular churn of the coaching team brings success?
What of the board? What role do they play in the last 8 years? The current board is viewed by the AST as being too old, and not dynamic, lacking in ideas. In general, the tenure of Kroenke was preceded by no overall owner, following the death of Danny Fizman. Arguably, in, the context of public relations, no difference is apparent to Arsenal fans. The board don’t and didn’t say very much, except for the few promptings from the chairman, PHW, viewed as out of touch in some quarters. What is the beef here then? Well, if you are a Wenger supporter, and I am, the beef from my viewpoint is the lack of transparency over the exact amount of transfer funds that Arsene Wenger has had at his disposal. Of course, congratulations should go to the board for the stadium move, and good stewardship, but the real confusion is their role in the allocation of resources to Wenger.
There are other blogs, and other publications that cover the boardroom politics, and our financial situation. I do not know the ins and outs of what happens on the board, and the exact history of Dein and his departure. As a fan, I support the club. What I find difficult to comprehend however, is the lack of transparency there was over funds available. Every transfer window, a fight would break out on the blogs about transfer funds that we had available. The AST would publish a figure, which nearly always was not spent. Wenger meanwhile, would take flak for not spending the full amount supposedly available. The board would say nothing. In recent seasons Gazidis has intervened, being more vocal about our financial power, following improved commercial deals. Some say that he has done this to put pressure on Wenger to spend. But the confusion reigns. Wenger is accused of not spending, but says, in statements as recent as today, that not as much money was available as you think. Who to believe?
When things go well, there is little scrutiny. When things go badly, the insults start to fly, and questions start to be asked. The problem now is that football is 24×7 and we have increased awareness. Fans are just looking at the board, but they are looking at the club strategy, they are questioning the scouting operation, the transfer department, the youth set up. It is not reasonable to tell people to shut up and leave it in the hands of the club. They are concerned that if Chelsea build a transfer team that consists of an international network of deal operators, then why don’t we have one too? If organisations don’t change then they die.
But despite all this, or because of all this, I call for people to be less harsh towards the club. We had a lot of success with Wenger because he had the good fortune in securing the best french players for a generation. He still produced some fantastic players, when operating with less resources, and continues, in my view, to produce and secure very good players. Fans point to the gap with Manchester United and say it is not good enough, but I would argue that the gap is caused by a gulf in resources, and we will catch up. But overall, despite some disappointments in the last 8 years, I think it’s unfair to portray it as a failure. One final, one semi final, 2 quarter finals of the champions league isn’t bad. Because it’s not the European cup proper, people dilute this success, but I don’t see why. We also have held off other teams in the premiership, apart from those with massive resources
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