“Playing with the handbrake on”. It is the most ubiquitous example of ‘Wenglish’- Arsene Wenger’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the English language. But the tragedy comes in the realisation that the handbrake Wenger speaks of so often, the retardant force holding Arsenal in place while rivals catch up or accelerate past, is Wenger himself.
There can be no pleasure derived from seeing a once great man being disassembled, his legacy stripped back like paint flaking off a decaying window frame with every fresh storm. But the longer Wenger stays at Arsenal, the longer he suffers nights like Wednesday against Swansea City, the more diminished he becomes.
There has been a proliferation of low moments in the second half of Wenger’s reign, from the point marking the idealistic but bungled transition from the 'Invincibles' to the young squadron who were supposed to replace them, but never could. Since an FA Cup win in 2005, their subsequent victories in 2014 and 2015 notwithstanding, Arsenal fans have been educated in the full spectrum of disappointment. And Wednesday night’s defeat to Swansea was a particularly galling example of the nature of the late Wenger era.
Arsenal players including Arsenal's French striker Olivier Giroud (R) and Arsenal's German midfielder Mesut Ozil (2R) wait to restart after Swansea scored their second goal during the English Premier League football match between Arsenal and Swansea City
Image credit: AFP
Leading 1-0 on a night when Tottenham and Manchester City both lost, and after Leicester drew with West Brom 24 hours before, this should have been Arsenal’s chance to restate their title credentials after the insipid loss to Manchester United at the weekend. Instead they conceded twice, hit the woodwork three times and, at the final whistle, their distraught players collapsed to the floor, strewn about like battleground casualties, limbs bent in despair.
It was a febrile atmosphere in Islington. Wenger was harangued and loudly booed for taking off Joel Campbell just after the hour mark - understandably so, given he was Arsenal’s best and most dangerous player - and the jeers at the full-time whistle were only not quite as cacophonous as they might have been because so many supporters had already left the ground, giving up completely on Arsenal’s chances of nicking a late goal. The dissent felt significant.
This troubling cocktail of anger and disaffection is symptomatic of a club drifting along without clear direction or a convincing source of propulsion. There could be many more nights like it if Wenger stays and, if he signs a new two-year contract in the summer; the explosions of anger could grow ever more defeaning.
That it has come to this is genuinely sad. But the brilliant manager who changed English football history and went a season unbeaten didn't take his chance to make a dignified exit. Departing with the 2014 or 2015 FA Cup in hand, the cheers of supporters in his ears, might have been a fitting way to end it. But Wenger continued, bolstered by the validation these second-tier trophies gave to his methods, leaving Arsenal trapped in a time-loop of disappointment.
Wenger's Arsenal certainly have an uncanny ability to experience exactly the same season every season: finish third or fourth, scrape through the Champions League group, get knocked out at the last-16. Rinse. Repeat. With Arsenal four games away from winning a third FA Cup In a row, you could even extend this to winning England’s oldest cup competition. This might be enough for an arch traditionalist, and Wenger’s six wins in the tournament are not to be underplayed, but for the kind of club which Arsenal aspire to be, it is not.
Winning the FA Cup does not make you the best team in English football, it is the league championship which confers such a status. There was even a time when Arsenal challenged for them regularly, when Wenger and his players thrived under the pressure that battling for the Premier League imparts at crucial junctures of the season. Things haven't always been this bad.
Cast your minds back nearly 20 years, in fact, and you can just about recall that Wenger joined Arsenal at a time of great transformation, with a cultural revolution in process.
“Time to change,” the fresh-faced leader of the opposition, Tony Blair, told the Labour conference in 1996, setting the wheels in motion for one of the biggest electoral landslides in history the following year. In Manchester United’s opening game of the 1996-97 season, meanwhile, a young midfielder named David Beckham launched his campaign for global domination with a goal against Wimbledon from the halfway line. Coincidentally, the number one song that week was ‘Wannabe’, the debut single from a new girl group called the Spice Girls.
French manager Arsene Wenger smiles during a press conference after becoming manager of Arsenal football club September 22.
Image credit: Reuters
The celebrity epoch had begun and the British establishment was transforming. In football terms, Wenger was at the vanguard too. The little-known, professorial French coach from Japan triggered his own cultural revolution in the Premier League, introducing new dietary and preparatory techniques and employing more extensive scouting intelligence to exploit opportunities in the transfer market - Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka prime amongst them - which others did not.
The results were spectacular: three league trophies in eight seasons, and some of the best football ever played on these shores by some of the best players ever to play here. But innovation quickly becomes the status quo, and it wasn't long before everyone else cottoned on to steamed chicken and stretching. Arsenal were caught up; Wenger lost his edge and he has never regained it.
Now Newcastle and Aston Villa, admittedly with varying degrees of success, can build a recruitment strategy around plundering Ligue 1, and all clubs have access to Prozone and dieticians and all the structures which help ensure a competitive edge. Even a once parochial club like Swansea City – playing in the old Division Three when Wenger arrived in London - have sleep pods installed at their training ground and drones filming their sessions. Innovation is everywhere.
After losing to Swansea, Arsenal are trundling along at 1.82 points per game, which over the course of a 38-game season equates to 69 points. If that scenario comes to pass, it would be their worst tally since 2011-12 (68) and before that 2006-07 (67). The only other full season in which Wenger has dipped below 70 points was in 2005-06 (67).
Arsenal's Danny Welbeck, Aaron Ramsey and Nacho Monreal look dejected after the game
Image credit: Reuters
The particular context of this season amplifies Arsenal’s struggles, though, with none of the club’s expected league rivals able to construct a convincing title challenge. This season, more than any other, was ripe with hope; pregnant with possibility. But what should have been Wenger’s glorious return to the pinnacle of English football could end up being his most traumatising campaign yet.
One firewall Wenger has always maintained in the face of growing discontent is his undoubted superiority over Tottenham. It is one of the most curious Premier League facts that since Wenger’s arrival in England, Spurs have finished higher in the table than every other club bar Arsenal. St Totteringham’s Day has become an annual event. Tottenham have come close – the width of a poorly-cooked lasagna close – but Arsenal, however bad things have got, have always had local supremacy to fall back on.
And yet, this could be the season that finally changes. Tottenham are three points ahead and, despite losing to West Ham on Wednesday, approach the weekend’s North London derby in far better shape. Mauricio Pochettino’s side had won six in a row in the Premier League before that reversal at Upton Park and can be expected to pull themselves together again fairly quickly; Arsenal are contending with a full-blown existential crisis after three successive defeats in all competitions and are without the injured Petr Cech and Laurent Koscielny.
Saturday will be one of the most important matches of Wenger’s reign in one of the most important seasons: lose, and they will have to make up six points in nine games to prevent Spurs from not only finishing above them but also possibly winning the league – their first since 1961. This is the great quality of the 2015-16 season – its historic unpredictability – and there may not be another like it in a generation when the league opens up so completely. But so flawed are Arsenal, they cannot take advantage.
Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino celebrates with Erik Lamela after the game as Eric Dier looks on
Image credit: Reuters
It is also a season which has exploded a myth which has helped to sustain Wenger in the lean years since the club started squirelling money away to pay for the new stadium: the myth that the financial realities of the Premier League mean oligarchs and ‘financial dopers’ are unassailable. Leicester and Spurs have smashed through this glass ceiling. It has helped that Chelsea and Manchester City have been so wretched, but in the season where money does not count for everything, Arsenal have still found themselves bound by the constraints of their own ineptitude.
And it comes from the manager. It has to. Wenger probably has more power and influence than any manager will ever have again in football. In a culture where sackings are becoming ever more frequent, clubs cannot afford to hand over untrammeled power to a man who might only be in place for two years; managers simply won’t be in place long enough to accumulate the kind of omnipotent oversight that Wenger enjoys. And the last of the autocrats has touched every aspect of the club: from the composition of the squad to the scouting network to even the shape and size of the dressing rooms at Emirates Stadium.
It is a club built entirely in Wenger’s own image, and Arsenal’s fortunes on the pitch cannot be unpicked from the predilections of their manager. He has redesigned the club from top to bottom; the teams successes are his success, and the team’s failures his failures.
And the sad truth is that Arsenal have become a very conservative club. Wenger was once one of football’s great progressives, playing football from the future, but after almost 20 years in charge that streak has been steadily eroded. The adherence to entertaining football remains, but there’s nothing much new. Arsenal have stopped being hammered by better teams and they’ve shown more of an inclination to play on the counter – the 2-0 home win over Bayern Munich in the Champions League this season being the best example – but at heart they stick to what they know, what Wenger knows, even if it propels them headlong into fourth place most seasons.
Arsenal's Olivier Giroud rues a missed chance
Image credit: PA Photos
There is well-established conservatism when it comes to the transfer market too. Given their recent struggles to eke a goal out of Olivier Giroud, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez, it looks even more ridiculous that Wenger was the only manager in Europe’s top five leagues who decided against buying a single outfield player last summer, when everyone was clamouring for a new striker.
Most of all, there is conservatism in the boardroom, where finishing fourth and reaching the last-16 of the Champions League is all that Stan Kroenke requires to keep the money rolling in. Why, based on this logic, would he ever sack a manager who guarantees those landmarks every season, but nothing else?
What has created a geyser of supporter anger, now in danger of spilling over, is the realisation that Arsenal should be capable of so much more. Thanks in large part to Wenger himself, they pack full a 60,000-seater stadium every other week; they have a squad of technically proficient players, some of whom are genuinely excellent talents; they have the global recognition and reach of a super club; they are located in desirable London; and, yes, they could reveal as much as £250m in cash sitting in the bank in their next round of financial reports.
Everything is in place for Arsenal to find another gear. They just need to take the handbrake off.