Tiresome Arsenal Fans Should Be Careful What They Wish for

James Dudko@@JamesDudkoFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2014

ST ALBANS, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 25:  Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal looks on during an Arsenal training session, ahead of the UEFA Champions League Group D match against Borussia Dortmund, at London Colney on November 25, 2014 in St Albans, England.  (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Ian Walton/Getty Images

Arsenal fans who want Arsene Wenger gone just might get their wish. In fact, they almost certainly will since the tide seems to have turned irreversibly against the club's greatest-ever manager.

But those fans, particularly the increasingly tiresome anti-Wenger brigade, should be careful what they wish for. Because if they believe dismissing Wenger is all that separates Arsenal from perennial top-four residents to Premier League and UEFA Champions League winners, they are wrong. They are as wrong as it gets.

Not that a pesky thing like the club's future prospects matters to what seems to be a growing number of dissatisfied Arsenal fans. These are the fans who treat every defeat, regardless of context, as the death knell of Wenger's career.

They are the same fans who unfurl banners or engage in criticism on social media even when their team has won. That's the real proof that Wenger's relationship with sections of the club's support has reached the point of no return.

The nadir came after the recent 3-2 away defeat to Stoke City. As he boarded the train to leave the Potteries, Wenger was barracked with abuse from certain fans, per Mirror reporter Paul Gorst.

I'll simply leave it to BBC pundit Gary Lineker to sum up the depressingly distasteful episode:

Gary Lineker @GaryLineker

Just saw the Wenger abuse video. Disgustingly disrespectful and totally inexcusable, regardless of any bloody football results.

For a club supposed to be imbued with core values of dignity and respect, too many Arsenal fans are showing little evidence of either. Instead, they are growing increasingly tiresome in their attempts to react to regular participation in the Champions League as though it were relegation.

These are the fans who won't allow for the fact that it's possible to be critical of Wenger, to believe he should've won more but also still have faith that he's the right man for the job.

He is, by the way.

Is one domestic cup in nine years acceptable? Of course not. Is one final and two semi-final appearances from nearly two decades worth of Champions League campaigns acceptable? Of course it isn't.

But is it equally right to applaud the continuity and consistency of staying in the hunt for major trophies every season and remaining in the top four? Absolutely.

Are you allowed to think Arsenal wouldn't have state-of-the-art training facilities and one of the most opulent stadiums in Europe without Wenger's influence and vision? You certainly are.

If it's all brass tacks, how about more acknowledgement and respect for the three Premier League titles and five FA Cups Wenger has won with Arsenal? How about some appreciation and pride for the 2003/04 unbeaten season, a quite brilliant achievement now guaranteed to stretch into a second decade of longevity.

Wenger deserves a much more gracious exit than the one he seems destined for.
Wenger deserves a much more gracious exit than the one he seems destined for.LAWRENCE LUSTIG/Associated Press

That was assured when the supposedly all-conquering Chelsea were swept aside by Newcastle United. This came after a limp 0-0 draw at Sunderland.

Blues boss Jose Mourinho, who won nothing last season, is lucky he's not at Arsenal. Otherwise a banner would be coming to a stadium near him soon.

Of course, football can often be a "what have you done for me lately" culture. That is somewhat understandable. Try as he might, Wenger cannot gloss over the fact his last league title came almost 11 years ago.

But the instant-gratification view that is intrinsic in the psyche of modern football often lacks perspective.

Wenger's growing number of lean years have been portrayed by many as some sort of apocalyptic period in the club's history. Despite never finishing lower than fourth and regularly reaching within touching distance of trophies, Wenger is condemned as though he's presided over a prolonged disaster.

The Gunners have finished in the top four every year since 2005. They were in the thick of title races in 2007/08, 2009/10 and 2010/11.

During that span, Arsenal also reached two League Cup finals and made another two semi-finals. The club won an FA Cup and made another semi-final. The Gunners reached a Champions League final, their best European run in history, as well as appearing in another semi-final.

Arsenal have stayed competitive in the hunt for major prizes every year since 2006.
Arsenal have stayed competitive in the hunt for major prizes every year since 2006.Shaun Botterill/Getty Images

Wenger has kept Arsenal competitive against the backdrop of numerous mega-money foreign owners pumping unlimited resources into the coffers of his immediate rivals. He has done it despite losing key players almost every summer since 2005, many of them being snaffled up by those same immediate rivals.

How many other managers could've maintained Arsenal's status within the top echelons of the Premier League and European competition when their best players routinely jumped ship?

You don't have to hypothesise to see the alternative. Liverpool couldn't do it. Losing Fernando Torres, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano coincided with a five-year period out of Europe's premier competition.

All it took was Sir Alex Ferguson's retirement for Manchester United to drop out of the top four.

United were out of the top four one season after Ferguson walked away.
United were out of the top four one season after Ferguson walked away.Jon Super/Associated Press

But Wenger has kept Arsenal in there despite frequently being forced into regeneration, into rebuilding on the fly. How many clubs would trade places with Arsenal?

Those who regularly fight against the threat of relegation or remain mired in mid-table mediocrity certainly would. But so would the likes of Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool.

Yet some Arsenal fans respond to such consistency with scorn and increasingly audible contempt. Frankly, that's embarrassing.

Does that mean regular fourth-placed finishes should be rejoiced or fans are not permitted to expect more? Of course it doesn't.

But the growing disparity between reality and expectation among sections of Arsenal's support speaks to an appallingly eschewed sense of entitlement. If you're thinking you missed the bulletin that said Arsenal have the right to win at least the Premier League or Champions League every season, go easy on yourself. There wasn't one.

Yet even without that right, the sense of entitlement at Arsenal extends beyond merely winning trophies. Games and prizes must always be claimed playing wonderfully fluid and dominant attacking football.

That was obvious after the Gunners recent 1-0 win over Southampton. Despite the Saints being one of the form teams of the season and entering the game third in the league, Arsenal's gritty win was dismissed by many.

Leading the chorus of discontent was Piers Morgan, who appears to have appointed himself the official voice of change:

Piers Morgan @piersmorgan

Lucky win against a good Southampton team. Performance thoroughly mediocre though. #afc

How can the performance be mediocre when, per BBC Sport's chief football writer Phil McNulty, the opposition goalkeeper, Fraser Forster, makes seven saves? The ex-Celtic stopper was named Man of the Match. Strange that he'd be called into so much action if Arsenal were "mediocre."

More pertinently, why, when they are so often criticised for not being able to win ugly, are Wenger's Gunners not praised when they grind out a result with the pressure on?

The implication is that Wenger's team must win every game 4-0 while playing a brand of stylish football the likes of which the game has never seen. There is the great irony of much of the anti-Wenger sentiment.

Many fans only have such high expectations because of Wenger. He created them when his teams were making short but exhilarating work of so many opponents back in the 2000s.

Those squads that captured two league titles and three FA Cups in four seasons set standards for quality football this club had never reached before. Producing more attractive attacking play than anyone else became a badge of honour.

But it's one emblazoned by Wenger alone. Fans certainly didn't acquire their taste for stylistics by watching George Graham's successful but ruthlessly functional and pragmatic teams.

The style has come from Wenger's philosophy and principles. That's why it's always so ironic when critics call for managers like Jurgen Klopp and Roberto Martinez to replace him.

Suggesting Klopp as Wenger's replacement strikes a strange note of irony.
Suggesting Klopp as Wenger's replacement strikes a strange note of irony.Jamie McDonald/Getty Images

Every time you hear a pundit or read a columnist railing against Wenger's supposed tactical naivety, lack of a plan B and defensive shortcomings, then suggesting Klopp or Martinez as a successor, you're duty-bound to roll your eyes.

Roll them because there's absolutely no difference between Klopp, Martinez and Wenger. The former pair are just younger versions of the great man himself. Only they have yet to reach his heights.

Klopp's Dortmund play the same way every game. No matter how it's dressed up, Dortmund press high and in bunches whether home or away.

Dortmund's position, just one point and two places above the bottom three, could indicate many Bundesliga clubs have sussed Klopp's methods, the same way supposedly so many in the Premier League have with Wenger.

Well, at least 16 teams don't seem to get it right season after season.

As for Martinez, he could easily be dubbed "Wenger-lite." He plays split centre-backs, believes deeply in pushing his full-backs forward and preaches possession and attack.

But Everton have conceded 23 goals this season, per PremierLeague.com. And you thought Arsenal's defensive problems were bad.

It's ironic that two managers who equally embody Wenger's noted positives and faults are so often touted as his perfect replacements. A true anti-Wenger believer should endorse a different type of manager, a more defensive-minded strategist. That fan should be calling for Diego Simeone, Laurent Blanc or Rafa Benitez.

Morgan, who has bizarrely regularly called for Klopp, took his view a step further after the defeat at Stoke:

Piers Morgan @piersmorgan

Who could replace Wenger? I believe 'Anybody' is currently available. #afc

Really Piers? "Anybody?" Let's take a cursory look at some of the available names with Premier League experience.

How about Tony Pulis? Or perhaps Alan Curbishley? Iain Dowie? They each satisfy the criteria of being "anybody."

Believing Wenger merits, let alone deserves, this level of criticism is an alarming act of self-deception. It's the same deception that has fans booing when Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is substituted.

The supremely talented but sometimes lazy winger was taken off during the win over Southampton. Despite what had been a dire performance, some supporters still howled in derision at the change.

Thankfully, Bleacher Report writer James McNicholas soon succinctly settled this particular example of misguided discontent in an article for the Mirror:

The reality is that Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn’t playing particularly well, and essentially admitted as much to BT Sport’s cameras after the game.

The stats back up his own assessment: for all his bluster, he did not create a single goalscoring opportunity.

Arsenal’s front three were struggling to find their fluidity, and Oxlade-Chamberlain was arguably the guiltiest party: according to Opta, he had the lowest pass completion of any of his team-mates at just 77 percent.

Yet the reaction to Chamberlain being hooked is another one of the great ironies about the anti-Wenger movement. It was Wenger who fought off competition from Manchester United to sign Chamberlain in 2011.

The Gunners only have a potential young star thanks to Wenger's efforts. But that's not how the deal was viewed at the time. Take a look at some of the comments expressing dissatisfaction with the signing from this article by Daily Mail reporter Sami Mokbel.

Yet fast-forward three and a half seasons later and Chamberlain can do no wrong, despite a questionable work rate. Yet Wenger's contribution in signing and trying to develop him is conveniently forgotten.

Wenger isn't given credit for signing players many of his harshest critics now adore.
Wenger isn't given credit for signing players many of his harshest critics now adore.Michael Regan/Getty Images

Nowhere is this hypocrisy more obvious than in the case of Joel Campbell. Very few, if any, had even heard of the young Costa Rica forward before Wenger scouted and signed him for just £900,000 in 2011.

Gunners fans certainly weren't buzzing about landing "yet another" prospect during the same summer Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri lobbied for pastures new. They were probably just as perturbed when Campbell spent his first three seasons on loan due to issues securing a work permit.

Campbell would once have been the poster boy for everything fans hate about Wenger's transfer policies. But all it has taken is a single standout performance at the 2014 FIFA World Cup and Campbell is treated as though he's the missing link between a disastrous season and one presumably ending by lifting the Champions League trophy.

Where is the balance in such a view? Certain fans desperately need a reality check: The majority of them wouldn't even know who Campbell is if it weren't for Wenger.

But these are probably the same fans who laud Laurent Koscielny as the embodiment of the perfect defender. Yet they never praise Wenger for rolling the dice on the player who had just one season of top-flight experience in France back in 2010.

Speaking of Koscielny, it was his absence that coincided with the defensive collapse at Stoke. Prior to that game, the Gunners had kept three-straight clean sheets.

Koscielny was certainly missed at Stoke, but needed to be rested.
Koscielny was certainly missed at Stoke, but needed to be rested.Bogdan Maran/Associated Press

So what exactly happened in Staffordshire? The Wenger Out mob would likely have you believe the "tactically clueless" manager told his team to ignore defending and play wide open.

At the same time, assistant manager Steve Bould was desperately trying to break free after being chained to the storage room door and silenced from making any input. Because in the current climate, every time Arsenal concede, it's because Wenger won't let Bould work, yet every time they keep a clean sheet, it's because Bould has got free long enough to work his magic.

Back in the land of the living, the real reason for the defensive collapse was two-fold: Arsenal have a fragile psyche at the Britannia, the hostile venue of so many painful memories. More specifically, Koscielny was rested since he's only just back from a prolonged absence due to an Achilles problem.

Youngster Hector Bellerin was thrust into the lineup at full-back because Kieran Gibbs and Nacho Monreal remain less than fully fit and Mathieu Debuchy is still sidelined. It's almost as if injuries are having an impact on Arsenal's season.

But even with those issues, the Gunners didn't tamely surrender at Stoke, the way many would have you believe. Anybody who argues they did watched a different game to the one I saw.

Instead, Arsenal reacted to a 3-0 half-time deficit, one for which the hosts deserved credit, and pulled the game back to 3-2. Even with 10 men in the latter stages, the Gunners, led by the keenly committed Santi Cazorla, still pushed forward and left Stoke hanging on.

Effort wasn't Arsenal's problem at Stoke.
Effort wasn't Arsenal's problem at Stoke.Clive Mason/Getty Images

Being 3-0 down and getting things back to 3-2 can't possibly be a surrender. In fact, the only justifiable criticism is that Arsenal couldn't find an equaliser and winner with around 25 minutes remaining.

But the commitment of this team was certainly there. Rarely have they attacked with such purpose and menace at the Britannia Stadium. That was made obvious by Arsenal's dominance of possession, per Sky Sports.

The difference, as it's so often been this season, was a failure to use that possession ruthlessly and efficiently. Olivier Giroud's inexplicable missed header in the first half was one of those moments that changes a game.

His inability to instinctively and quickly pounce on a pair of delightful Cazorla through passes also added to Arsenal's frustration. So did some diabolical crossing from wide areas.

When this much application isn't matched by the requisite quality, it's proof that it just wasn't Arsenal's day going forward. That's not meant to offer comfort or excuse a defeat, but it does mean that the loss isn't the symbol of a dreadful season or a condemnation of Wenger's career.

But that level of understanding isn't likely to be shared by a wider audience. The balance has shifted too far away from Wenger.

In this context, the Gunners could win 10 straight and then lose 1-0 away to Real Madrid, courtesy of two harsh red cards and an erroneous penalty call. Even if the referee responsible for these gaffes admitted to taking a bribe before the game, certain Arsenal's fans would still view the defeat as an indictment of Wenger.

Things have gotten that out of hand, as Camden New Journal writer Richard Osley noted after the Southampton game:

And yet here is the Arsenal support knifing Professor W in full view. Booing is just about okay, when you’ve paid £50 for a ticket and you're chasing a home match against Hull. 

But a big banner, demanding divorce from the club’s greatest manager of all time, lacks the class that sets Arsenal apart from most clubs. It was Wenger Out at 88 minutes against Southampton. At 89 minutes, it was Wenger In. It’s getting silly.

Ultimately, the naysayers will get their wish. But they should be careful once they've helped get Wenger shoved through the exit door or simply convinced him to walk though it under his own power.

Once he's gone, they might just realise Wenger's performed a minor miracle keeping Arsenal afloat at the top end of European football all these years after all.


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