Arsenal fans are being taken for a ride, and it’s about time it stopped.
Or so might scream the headlines of click-hungry websites, desperate to boost their numbers by appealing to one of the largest on-line fan bases in world football. Cue then a predictable and oft-repeated article about the highest prices, the weaknesses in defence, the absence of a striker, the failure to add a single outfield player last season, the reluctance of Arsene Wenger to spend money and the absent owner’s clear intention to disregard the down-trodden fans and treat the club as his own personal cash cow. I have seen or heard it a thousand times, so relentless is this particular narrative from the BBC, Sky, BT Sport, most of the newspapers and countless blogs and tweets. I sometimes wonder what comes first: the TV view, the newspapers or the grass-root reaction. Maybe they just fuel each other symbiotically, but the end result remains much the same; a large portion of the global fan base is encouraged to think they are being hard-done by, and were it not for the greed, senility and foreignness of Kroenke, Gazidis and Wenger, all die-hard Gooners would once again have something to cheer about. Just how many times do you need to be drip fed the view that your club lacks ambition, that your manager doesn’t do tactics and that your team lacks leaders before you begin to believe it?
I’d be inclined to believe it myself if I hadn’t at some stage in my life been taught to think for myself, and if I hadn’t spent many, many years playing, coaching and watching sport. But just to clear up a few obvious points, signings such as Ozil, Sanchez and Xhaka, the stadium move and the reinvestment in the Colney set-up seem at odds with an unambitious approach, while the claim that a Wenger team is a tactic-free zone is hardly borne out by the most recent season’s second place finish, or indeed, the remarkable and successful consistency of the last 20 years. As for the lack of leadership, I would suggest that few outside the dressing room could know the truth of that, but again the league placing and the recent lengthy cup-run that took in two trophies along the way, not to mention a couple of Community Shields, suggests that at least occasionally one or two players have stood up to be counted and suggested to their team mates that they might care to do the same.
In fact, it is entirely possible to look at the last four years and conclude that they have seen real progress with a brand new squad being assembled and tangible playing success to point to. Indeed, those with some knowledge of the club’s finances might even go so far as to suggest that this progress coincides with the financial burden of affording the new stadium being significantly eased due to new commercial deals and more eclectic off-field revenue streams. I can’t claim to be a typical supporter because I don’t know what you have to be to be typical, but from where I stand the team is doing pretty well and there seems much to look forward to. Having said all of that I found last season frustrating because we didn’t perform as consistently brilliantly as we might have done, but the reasons for that seemed clear to me. And it is those reasons, which I found obvious, and yet which so few seemed to acknowledge, that led me to the conclusion that the fans are being taken for a ride – or taken for idiots by those that control the press.
You see, whenever I watch our games I am struck by what seem to me obvious facts. The first is that in all but a few games we dominate possession, and are frequently faced with packed defences. Finding a way through professional sides set up to defend is not easy, but more often than not we do find a way. But sometimes it requires a bit of luck, or a moment of outrageous skill, or for a defender to make a mistake and give away a penalty. In fact, you might suppose that when so much of the play is focussed on and inside the opposition penalty areas that that might happen fairly often, especially in home games. Leicester, runway winners of the League last season, were awarded 13 penalties, but Arsenal only received 2, neither of which were at home. Supporters of all teams tend to think that their side is on the wrong end of decisions, but it did surprise me that the press and pundits seemed so little interested in this seemingly anomalous statistic. And despite the inevitably biased way I watch The Arsenal I am constantly amazed at how much leeway is given to opponents when it comes to foul play, and how little to our own players – but I am even more amazed at the silence of those paid to give informed opinion on the game when it comes to reviewing the way the games pan out. Easier I suppose to concentrate on a defensive error (which feeds the can’t defend, no spine narrative) or a glaring miss (fuelling the Arsenal need a striker story) than run a feature on the cynical rotational fouling practised on a regular basis against us that blunts momentum and saps the spirit. As I may have mentioned before, tactics based on foul play can only succeed with the collusion of the match officials: swift and appropriate cards awarded quickly nip rotational fouling in the bud. Either referees are being duped, or they are deliberately turning a blind eye, perhaps in the interests of “game management” to preserve the robust and competitive nature of the Premier League. Again, what surprises me is the silence on the issue from the journalists.
If rotational fouling blunts a team’s momentum, then injuries are even more damaging for a side looking to build up a head of steam. Arsenal certainly haven’t had much luck on that front recently, and the season just gone was no exception. While there are some persuasive arguments to imply that the club is in some way culpable for these injuries, there are also valid points of view that suggest liberal officiating also plays its part. But perhaps the strongest argument of all is the one that says given the absence of Cazorla, Gibbs, Coquelin, Rosicky, Arteta, Ramsey, Alexis, Wilshere and Welbeck for significant parts of the season the team did remarkably well to finish second in the league, progress to the knock-out stages of the proper European tournament and the last eight in the FA Cup. Again, my interest is in how little this view is advanced by those supposedly in the know, and I wonder why that is the case. I am not suggesting that excuses be made, but am suggesting that it is disingenuous for press and pundits to claim the side lacks direction, fight and leaders when so many first-choice players have been side-lined. It seems at best a strange oversight, at worst a cynical manipulation of the truth to give a view that the club is somehow clueless.
Throw in other oft-repeated distortions such as the highest ticket prices (some are, most aren’t) and the lack of investment by the owners (really?) and an artificial picture emerges of a complacent and greedy club, a tactically naïve group of pampered players and a manager long-past his sell by date. It is propaganda pure and simple and the sadness is that it spoils the enjoyment of fans who perhaps otherwise might derive great pleasure from seeing their side compete so successively (more times than not) at the very highest level – and also maybe creates an atmosphere of negativity and mistrust among the very supporters who the side most relies on to create the buzzing home atmosphere that is worth several points a season. You only have to compare the relative treatments of Liverpool and Arsenal (although you could easily throw Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs into that equation) by the press to see the difference. Arsenal could (and perhaps should) be held up as a magnificent example of a well-run club that has consistently over-performed over the last 20 years. You might expect all those who care about the game to do just that.
But it isn’t and they don’t. And I am left wondering why.