In the context of having to finish above their rivals, the sight of Arsenal players celebrating fourth spot like they’d won the league was just about forgivable. But, as Alex Ferguson’s many triumphs were being celebrated to mark his retirement from the game, it was also more than a little depressing. After all, Arsenal were the club that provided some of Manchester United’s strongest opposition during the Premier League era.
Everyone has an opinion on where it’s gone wrong for Arsenal, regardless of whether or not they support them. I’m not an Arsenal fan, but I can give you two or three simple fixes to help Arsenal become contenders again. So can most other fans, and pretty much every pundit and football journalist.
It must be frustrating for Wenger to be so closely scrutinised by everyone. But, maybe it also works in his Club’s favour, because it maintains their relevance against the reality of gradual decline over the past ten years. Finishing fourth certainly won’t do much to silence Piers Morgan and the Wenger Out brigade, but it might shut them up for a week or so (we can only hope). At least the fans who still believe in Wenger have something to be positive about.
I’ve heard a lot of Arsenal fans talking about their victory in Munich as being a huge turning point in their season. It’s strange that a meaningless result can be given so much significance, because to me that 2-0 victory looked like classic Arsenal of recent years. We witnessed the exact same thing against AC Milan – Arsenal turned up after the main event. But, in the aftermath of the Bayern result, Arsenal finished the season unbeaten, a run that saw them reel in Spurs and pip them for fourth spot.
The more cynically minded observer might point out the teams they played during that unbeaten run, such as QPR, Norwich, Reading, Swansea, Sunderland, Newcastle, and WBA – all teams Arsenal would expect to beat or take points from. The only side of pedigree that Arsenal faced was Manchester United, who had just secured the league title. But, the results in that run had to be earned, and Arsenal approached the end of the season with a sense of purpose that was invisible earlier in the campaign.
Of course, no sooner has the season ended than the focus turns to the transfer window and whether Arsenal will spend the money to– you know the rest. There’s been much talk of Arsenal being the only major club not to break the £20million barrier, as if this is a benchmark for ambition. You only have to look at Anfield to see where that kind of ambition can get you. The problem for Arsenal isn’t so much the lack of £20+million signings, it’s that that £10-15million ones aren’t as good.
The circumstances that delivered Wenger’s best seasons at Arsenal are in the past. The competition has caught up with his scouting i.e. they found out where France is. There isn’t another Thierry Henry waiting to be salvaged, because he’d probably already be at an English club, and it wouldn’t be Arsenal. Arsenal aren’t ahead of the curve anymore, they haven’t been for a while, which leaves Arsene Wenger looking like a once famous magician whose most famous trick was accidentally revealed to the audience.
But, Arsene Wenger will feel, with some justification, that after finishing a mere two points behind Chelsea, he seems to attract a disproportionate amount of criticism. But, that’s kind of the point with Arsenal these days. The season ends, Wenger says, “ha! I told you we’d get fourth, but of course we will look to strengthen…” and then he fails to strengthen, and then we go through the entire saga again next year.
Some of the greatest managers are also incredibly stubborn. United fans were chastising Fergie’s failure to invest in midfield for years. The obvious difference here is that United continued to win titles, but not in Europe, where many of their fans craved further success above anything else. Everyone could see their midfield wasn’t quite good enough to compete with Barcelona’s. Does this mean Fergie was past his best, that he’d gone as far as he could? Good luck making that argument.
Time is most definitely not on Wenger’s side. But, if Arsenal cannot compete financially with United, City and Chelsea – and at present they cannot – then why would they want anyone else? He gives Arsenal a face, an identity. And, with Ferguson gone, Arsenal are now the only major club built in the image of their manager. The three clubs that finished above them will all be starting next season under new management. Mourinho might be welcomed back, but Chelsea are Abramovich’s club; City are starting again after sacking Mancini; and United will probably be in shock for the foreseeable future while they come to terms with life without Fergie.
The next season is a huge one for Wenger. It’s probably the biggest opportunity he has to prove he’s still got it, and to prove that the new core he is developing at Arsenal are good enough. To be fair to him, who knew Koscielny would start to look like one of the better centre-backs in the league? But, he will also need a new striker, central midfielder, and a centre back to play with Koscielny – preferably someone who doesn’t need two to three years of development. And, I’d sign new goal keeper too, an experienced one. Of course, Wenger won’t do any of this. He’ll pursue his own path, and Arsenal will probably finish fourth again.
But, at least in Wenger, Arsenal have someone they know, and who believes in their club. He is Arsenal, for better or for worse. That doesn’t mean Arsenal fans have to back him indefinitely, and one day his time will be up. But, let’s put it another way, if you’re of the same point of view as Piers Morgan, are you really comfortable you’ve made the right choice?