There was something very predictable about the second leg of Arsenal’s last-16 tie against Barcelona. Here was the familiar pattern, Arsenal, when the tie was lost, producing a spell of great promise that, briefly, looked as if it might unexpectedly trouble Barcelona. Ultimately, it came to nothing, but there were signs there of a brighter future. Or, at least, that’s how similar performances have been regarded in the past. Not any more.
Patience is running out. Perhaps it has run out. This was the sixth season in a row in which Arsenal has been eliminated in the last 16 of the Champions League. After last Sunday’s FA Cup defeat to Watford, the league is all that is left for Arsenal to aim for. Supine defeats to Manchester United and Swansea City have left Arsenal 11 points behind the Premier League leader Leicester with a game in hand; a season in which a number of the usual challengers have faltered offered an opportunity, but Arsenal has failed to seize it.
A run of just four wins in the last 15 games has brought frustrations to a head. Dissent has been bubbling for a few years now, a sense that Arsenal as a club is content to finish in the top four, take the Champions League money, make a profit and plod on. Stan Kroenke, the club’s majority shareholder, didn’t exactly allay that suspicion when he spoke at the MIT Sloane Sports Analytics Conference last week. “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved,” he said.
Occasionally that discontent among fans had bubbled over, most notably on the railway station platform at Stoke-on-Trent last season when Wenger was abused by Arsenal fans after a 3-2 defeat. But this feels different. For one thing, the discontent is more widespread now, the atmosphere at the Emirates increasingly sulphurous. And for another, this season has demonstrated what is possible without enormous resources.
Twelve years ago, as Arsenal completed its unbeaten season with a 2-1 victory on the final day over relegated Leicester, who would then have believed that it might be the away side who would be the next of the two to win the league? That May afternoon, as Claudio Ranieri bade his tearful farewells to Stamford Bridge six miles to the southwest, who could have believed that he might win the league title before Wenger?
Perhaps Leicester is a glorious freak, but Tottenham is six points above Arsenal with a notably young team, having made a profit in the transfer market in the two years since Mauricio Pochettino took charge. The economics of the Premier League changed radically when Roman Abramovich arrived in 2003 and there’s no doubt that Arsenal was disadvantaged by that as it paid off the debt on its new stadium, but however valid Wenger’s excuses may have been, Leicester and Tottenham have shown what is possible without an owner with an open wallet.
And yet there is an irony here. Wenger’s mood after his side had lost the first leg of its Champions League last-16 tie against Barcelona was odd. Usually in such circumstances–and he’s had plenty of experience–he looks to take the positives, occasionally letting his disappointment show in irritation directed towards the questioner. That night was different. That night he was angry, not at journalists, but at his team. His players, he said, had been "naïve."
He was right. He has been criticized regularly–and not without justification–over the past decade for being too set in his ways, for not adapting sufficiently to the opposition, for refusing to modify his approach, but in Arsenal’s last three big games, the two legs against Barcelona and the North London derby against Tottenham, he has made tactical tweaks that have had a discernible positive impact on the game only to be undermined by player error.
That, of course, is partly Wenger’s doing. He shaped the squad and one of his duties is to create an atmosphere in which they perform to their utmost, which means not making mistakes, being sharp, being confident, being fit. The complaint of fans that he has not used the money Arsenal has in the bank–there is an estimated £75 million available for transfers–is understandable, particularly given obvious shortfalls in the center of defense, at the back of midfield and at center forward, that that’s not the only problem.
When Wenger first arrived in English football in 1996, his ideas on nutrition were revolutionary–at least in a Premier League context–and his contacts in France gave him a huge advantage in the transfer market. What was radical, then, though, is now standard practice. The game has caught up with Wenger.
Not only that, but his teams of the turn of the millennium featured difficult, awkward personalities, a blend of the blend and the skillful. This present Arsenal seems a bit too nice; it lacks edge and spark. It’s as though Wenger, as Brian Clough did in his final decade at Nottingham Forest, has lost the energy to deal with bad boys. So good football, neat passing and neat hair, becomes an end in itself, a sense of moral superiority replacing the desire to battle for silverware.
The chaos that has followed Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from Manchester United perhaps serves as a warning of what can happen when a long-term manager departs, but at the same time this sense of drift cannot go on forever. Wenger’s tactical fiddling perhaps offers some hope that he is modifying his template, but at the moment it feels there is something stagnant in the culture of the club. Given his control over the football side, Wenger is responsible for that.
If Arsenal can put a run together, if it can win, say, seven of its last nine games beginning at Everton on Saturday, perhaps it can still put pressure on a Leicester side that is beginning to look nervous. The league title is not wholly out of reach. But fruitless late rallies are an Arsenal meme; another one may not be enough to quell the mutinous voices.