They were at it again. I watched Arsenal lose at home to Swansea, another game where the Gunners dominated, passing the opposition to death. They lost to a late goal. A little murmur went up, just a faint anti-Wenger comment or two. At the Emirates, freedom of speech is not encouraged when it comes to the manager. In another age, nobody would have even remotely considered a complaint about a leader who has never finished below fourth in his long career with the club. But the frustration felt by some Arsenal fans is a reflection of our time, an era where fourth is no good when there’s first, second and third above you. Consistently.
Arsenal are loved by the neutral, but the cult of the universal fan is dying. We’re all partisan these days. They are loved by the media – there’s scarcely a day goes by when a fawning journalist does not pass comment on the Wenger syndrome. And the Gunners are certainly the favoured club of North London’s sun-dried tomato set.
They have become the club of the cognoscenti, although that has brought with it a certain smugness and self-righteousness that irritates some people. “We do it the right way…we are not Chelsea, it’s easy to defend…and by the way, stand up if you hate Tottenham”.
Arsenal 2004-2015 are given as many garlands as the Tottenham teams of 1951 (“Push and run, my boy. That was the way to play”) and 1961. To the cynic, they are the modern day West Ham United. A strange comparison? Let’s say they are a more successful version of the West Ham that used to collect plaudits for their attempt at puritanical football in the late 1960s and 1970s. The difference is West Ham didn’t always have the players to achieve their objectives. That said, West Ham 1964-1975 won as many prizes as Wenger’s Arsenal in a comparative period.
Arsenal’s football can delight, but until they sign a striker in the mould of Aguero, Costa or Suarez, they will always be an Armani suit paired with a Marks & Spencer shirt. You cannot say they haven’t had the money, because they spent more than £70m on Ozil and Sanchez, the latter an outstanding player who is great to watch. The fact is, if Arsenal wanted to, they could change their approach and undoubtedly become more successful.
On May 30, they can relieve some of the pressure – which all but Wenger seem to acknowledge – by retaining the FA Cup. Down the decades, certain clubs have made their reputation from winning cup competitions: Bolton in the 1920s, Newcastle in the 1950s, Manchester City in the 1960s, Chelsea and Tottenham in the 1970s. But for a club like 21st century Arsenal, cup competitions – Europe aside – are not at the top of the menu. There are many people, myself included, who would welcome a return to the days when there were three (or four) cups up for grabs and if you won one of them it was job done. The benchmark for the “bulge bracket” of clubs now is Champions League qualification and a stab at the title. FA Cups and League Cups provide a little furry trim for the season, but they do not define a club in 2015. It’s wrong, but that’s the way it is.
Arsenal got away with it last season, ending a barren run with some much-needed silverware. It could so easily have gone wrong as Hull raced ahead. Nevertheless, if Arsenal lose to Aston Villa – and they have too much quality for that to be a strong chance – the old doubts will resurface about Wenger and his methods. It’s true that the Gunners have added a little more cutting edge to their play this season, especially since the turn of the year, but they are still some way off a title bid. Another FA Cup will keep some of the critics quiet, but as Albert Einstein said: “You can’t keep doing the same thing over and over again and expect different results.”