“As long as you don’t win everything it’s never enough. When we didn’t win anything they said you didn’t even win the FA Cup. People always want more” – Arsene Wenger, March 12.
Wenger was right; the FA Cup wouldn’t have been enough. Such were the cash reserves available to improve his squad and such was Wenger’s insistence that he had sufficient strength at his disposal, this failure was all on him. Victory at Wembley in May would have been enjoyable, but unsatisfactory. It would have been something.
Now, Arsenal are relying on making up eight points in nine league games to avoid a ninth trophyless season in their last 11. A campaign that promised so much is ending in disarray, just as Wenger promised it wouldn’t. Just as we all knew it would.
In previous matches it was Arsenal’s central midfield that has looked most suspect, with Francis Coquelin’s ill-discipline and Mathieu Flamini’s spectacularly obvious flaws both exposed. Against Watford it was the turn of central defence to put on the slapstick show. Gabriel continues to look prone to lapses in concentration, positioning and intelligent thought. The Brazilian’s two-footed lunge on Troy Deeney was matched only for incompetence by Andre Marriner’s refusal to even award a free-kick. Gabriel took advantage of his reprieve by playing Goldilocks, first getting too close to Odion Ighalo (and thus allowing him to turn and score the first goal) and then not close enough. Neither Gabriel and Per Mertesacker ever got it just right.
Again, Arsenal have fallen flat on their faces at the precise time when it matters most. They are a fair weather club, capable of majestic football when the sun is shining and the pressure is off, but liable to disappear like candy floss in a rainstorm when the pressure is on. Wenger’s own protestations to the contrary look increasingly like wilful naivety.
Since the FA Cup third round victory over Sunderland in January, their record reads: Won 4, Drew 5, Lost 5. The only teams beaten are Championship Hull, Championship Burnley, Bournemouth and ten-man Leicester. Arsenal have lost three straight home games for the first time since November 2002.
It’s a line we have used plenty of times before, but the basic task of a manager is to make a team perform equivalent to the sum of its parts. Good managers makes the whole perform greater the component sum, while the greatest do so for an extended period of time, creating not just one but several of these teams. For a while, that was Wenger.
Not any longer. Arsenal’s manager has impressive individuals at his disposal, but all are under-performing. The exception is Mesut Ozil, and you wonder just how long the German will hang around under a smog of ineptitude. There were times when players were lucky to play for Arsenal, but the opposite is now true. Supporters are told that they should be thankful for previous successes enjoyed under Wenger, but gratitude for the past is not mutually exclusive to major concerns about the here and now.
So entrenched is Arsenal’s behaviour patterns that the short-term future is easy to predict. Arsenal will lose to Barcelona but rally in the league, providing a meaningful but ultimately unsuccessful title challenge. If Leicester win the league, Arsenal players and manager will remark that many big clubs have missed an opportunity. This will be a collective failure.
Throw in the odd compliment from Wenger over the club’s mental strength to overcome the adversity of February and March, and you have the ingredients for the perfect cake to celebrate Champions League qualification. As if that is a reasonable ceiling for ambition.
“We want to make the impossible possible in Barcelona,” Wenger said in his post-match press conference, to the groans of a million supporters. You’re treating them like idiots, Arsene.
Therein lies the manager’s problem; he’s entirely missing the point. Wenger’s remit is no longer to make the impossible possible, just stop the possible becoming so damn improbable every year. He’s failed on that front again.