Twelve months ago – almost to the day – Arsenal travelled to Bournemouth’s Vitality stadium and sleepwalked their way to a 3-0 deficit before salvaging a point thanks to three goals in the final 20 minutes. Afterwards Arsène Wenger praised his players for their “resilience and mental strength”. Alexis Sanchez pulled off his gloves, threw them on the ground and expressed the frustration that comes when a player feels he’s part of a team he no longer believes in.
In a sense, there was a nice bit of symmetry about their 2-1 defeat to the Cherries on Sunday. The same managers were present, the same players, but instead of fighting back to salvage something from the game late on, they opted to crumble this time instead. With Alexis left behind ‘on standby’ as he and his agents engineer a move away from North London, it was the travelling fans leaving the ground having lost belief in their once promising squad.
Physically fragile, structurally awkward, forced to endure long spells of passive possession before getting caught on the counter at every turnover – it was a performance to be proud of in the final chapter of Wenger quarterly. 21 years not out. A club and manager famed for their uniformity have slowly seen it become their downfall and the best is yet to come.
The numbers don’t make for pretty reading either. Since January 2017, the Gunners have conceded three goals away from home against Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, West Brom and Crystal Palace, in addition to Bournemouth. It’s also the first time the club have conceded three goals in four consecutive away games since Septemeber 1929 (88 years). Take a step back and you’ll find that Arsenal have won just 22 points from a possible 66 on their travels, and are currently closer to 19th place than they are to Pep Guardiola’s City side in first.
After years of putting out fires in the nick of time, reinventing himself on an imbalanced playing field has proven too much for the Frenchman. Younger managers have now come to England and focused on playing exciting football, whilst remaining tactically astute and pragmatic as well. Away from the typical ‘big five’, Burnley and Leicester could even make surprise charges for Europe, while Arsenal regress alarmingly. Nothing seems to be working anymore and the form table depicts that perfectly.
There are obvious perks to a lengthy managerial reign, such as consistency, familiarity and stability, but those same perks can also become enemies of progress. Watching different players make the same mistakes, collapse at almost identical points every season and succumb to injury just as things start to look promising has become tedious. Ask fans during the summer to guess how their season will unfold and it’s rare that you’ll receive many contrasting answers. Football should never be stale or easy to predict, but that’s exactly what has happened here. Supporting your team every weekend should transport you to a different world for 90 minutes as you leave your troubles behind. Rows of empty seats at the Emirates indicate otherwise.
Arsenal simply lack any form of identity. There is no longer a philosophy to abide by, or an end-goal to unite behind and that attitude starts at the top before filtering down. Manchester City have Pep Guardiola and a plethora of talented youngsters, Chelsea have Antonio Conte and the togetherness he offers, Liverpool have Jurgen Klopp who simply understands what it means to manage the club and Tottenham have Mauricio Pochettino who is a strong tactician who knows how to get the best out of his players. Wenger can’t even convince himself that he’s the right man for the job anymore.
A successful past is something we should all look back on with great fondness, but no matter how much he may feel like part of the furniture, you cannot look at what’s happening on the pitch and conclude that this is a ‘difficult moment’ which can be salvaged. The constant is him, and sadly, for 18 months, that will remain the case. The longer this goes on, the blurrier his legacy becomes.