By David Swaden
This week has been a bad one for Arsenal football club, and yet an all too familiar one as well in terms of the last few years.
An understrength side, hampered by the annual spate of niggling injuries, turned up to Norwich, in Steve Bould’s words “jaded”. We came up against a spirited side full of premiership footballers, and unfortunately there was only going to be one outcome with that combination.
It is the very fact that the premiership is the best league in the world, for excitement, passion and unpredictability, that means our club can attract stars like Cazorla and Podolski. But that also means that when we don’t turn up, we will not be given a “get out of jail free” card and will instead be handed exactly what we deserved, a poor loss.
I can’t remember the last time I went to an Arsenal game almost certain of defeat, but that was certainly the case on Wednesday night. We faced a dynamic Shalke team, on a high from a derby victory, made up of hardworking yet technically gifted players. Arsenal, on the other hand, were relying upon the magic of Cazorla, who was again badly let down by Gervinho ahead of him. Don’t get me wrong, I think the Ivorian is a decent squad player and can have moments of brilliance, but to expect performances from him week in, week out seems foolish at this stage. I was mystified why Giroud didn’t start as we looked tactically inept without a focal front-man.
So when Shalke grabbed a 2-0 win, it was hardly a shock. One thing I have learnt about this side over the years is that it doesn’t deal with setbacks very well. It is as if Arsenal are football’s manic-depressives. Either they are playing sumptuous football that makes Alan Hansen’s wife wonder what she needs to do to elicit that sort of praise, or we are in an inarrestable decline that needs another manic moment to pull us out again. Writing this as I am before the QPR game, that is what I expect may well happen today. If we win by 4 or 5, many will say Arsenal are back, but let’s reflect a moment:
Does this pattern not happen every year? Has history not repeated itself ad nauseum for the last 8 seasons? The simple answer is, yes it has. Every year we have had a point where we have hoped for more, and a point where we have feared less. But every year we have finished in the top four and fallen short in the cup competitions.
Now comes my point. And it is one which I’m sure will provoke a lot of dissent from some. I agree with Wenger – that is an achievement in itself. When you look at it, our spending power is dwarfed by the two super-rich teams and the more established Man U. Outside these three, no other team has come close to our consistency, even Chelsea fell short last year. Spurs have had more false dawns than a transvestite conference, Liverpool are now nowhere and Newcastle and Everton merely flirt with the spotlight on occasion. Wenger, on the other hand, despite losing his stars year in year out to the mega-rich and Barcelonas of the world, has yet to fail.
And so, for all those who suggest that the “Arsene knows” mantra is naive, where is the evidence he does not? Ask yourselves an important question: Would you rather wallow in mid-higher table and suffer the Europa League, but without the periodical an infuriating malaise Wenger’s teams seem to suffer each season, or would you rather Wenger’s way which, somehow, achieves the final result every time?
It’s actually an incredibly interesting choice, and I’m far from convinced that everyone would go the same way, mainly because I myself am in two minds. I’d love to see the team fight tooth and nail every week, even if the football suffered. But then I also love watching the magic of Cazorla and Wilshere, and I do worry that without a chance to face the Barcelonas and Milans of this world, they may not only leave on a regular basis, but stop arriving in the first place. But then one has to ask the point of being in a competition we seem to have no chance whatsoever of winning. Is it good enough to just make up the numbers, hoping against hope that one day we can fluke it like Chelsea or Liverpool managed?
If I had to fall on a side of the fence, I would have to back Wenger. This is despite his infuriating reticence to make changes, between, during or after games. His persistence with clearly substandard performers like Gervinho. His blind faith in unreliable players (injury-wise) like Diaby. His refusal to spend money in case it might “kill” our own players, who are then farmed out to Brazil whilst the ones that got away dominate world football. There is a lot that irks me about the boss.
So why back him? Simple, he does as well as I believe any Premier League club manager outside the big 3 could. I simply don’t accept that we underperform in the league. I think that despite listless performances in the short-term, overall it takes every drop of sweat, every atom of energy, every breath of determination for us to finish where we do. To aspire to finish above those whose transfer budgets go in to 3 figure millions? Well that’s just wishful thinking.
Some bloggers, from their pompous and melodramatic pedestals, will tell you of a manager who was once great but is now lost in his own ego. I flatly reject that suggestion. It completely ignores the emergence of not one, but two oligarch-controlled clubs, something that the double-winning sides did not have to deal with, save a nascent Chelsea who were still finding their feet. It also conveniently forgets the damaging long-term effect that a constrained transfer budget due to stadium financing has had for a number of years. Lastly, it seems to have misplaced the two capitulations in 99 and 03 when, on course for greatness, a slight setback left us in a rut we could not recover from.
That last point is important, because what I believe it shows is that, in the main, it is not the manager, his tactics and ability that have changed for the worse, those faults were there even when we were successful, it is the circumstances around him. The sad financial truth is that we cannot hope to compete at this point at the top of the premiership because we cannot afford a squad who could deliver that. Given what we have, we do very nicely, compared to those teams in and around our level.
Having said that, Wenger is clearly not without his faults and the acid test will come if and when he finally fails to land Champions League football. He has hinted this in the past, that when that day comes, he will know the time is right to end his formidable managerial stint at our club. He will know he has done all he can and perhaps a fresh approach may help us reach a higher level.
Until that day comes, and he continues to lead us to over-achievement, I for one am bowing to pragmatism and realism. I will absolutely reserve the right to moan at poor performances and decisions in the hope that they may become less frequent; blind faith isn’t my thing. But ultimately, in the long term and based on evidence proven time and time again, I will happily accept that most cliched of sayings: “Arsene Knows”