So, a little while ago in the illustrious “If OA Members were football players” thread, @AbouCuellar likened me to Mathieu Flamini, for the flattering reason:
“Shies away from real contribution, loves to shit on his colleagues with forceful hand gestures/posts, and loves himself a hammer/eliminator.”
Harsh, perhaps, but astute in most respects. In recent years on OA, if I’m being totally honest with myself, I have indeed shied away from “real contribution.” The reasons for this, I’d like to think, are completely fair. In the last few years I have started a new and very demanding career, my free time is at a premium, especially as on my weekends I look after my daughter who has complex needs. Many times, I’ve felt the urge to join in with full throated debates on OA and have held off, knowing that in all likelihood I lack the time and energy to do it properly and because I would therefore get blown away by the intelligence and perceptiveness of many of our posters.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not a @Trion – style “I’ve got better things to do with my life so up yours you sad internet wankers” flip off. I still very much enjoy and care about OA, and for anyone hoping these opening paragraphs were a prelude to my departure, better luck next time . Certainly I post nowhere near as often as I used to and the content of my posts is nowhere near as thorough, but at least in my role as a moderator I get to do my bit to make sure that this place remains an awesome place to talk about all things Arsenal.
Nonetheless, I will gladly admit that Cuellar’s “shies away from real contribution” has been at the back of my mind for a few weeks. Like all jabs that refuse to go away, it’s undoubtedly because of the sore tinge of truth to those words. Mixed in with the emotion and disappointment of last night at Bayern Munich, I feel the time has come to show that I can indeed still contribute with the best of them, so here goes:
(And as this is “real contribution” if you like your forum reading short, and simple to digest, this probably won’t be for you)
When I’m asked to pick out my favourite moments as an Arsenal fan, it always reminds me that no matter the frustrations of the present generation, I have had some truly wonderful experiences as a supporter. To be able to call to mind the joys of an unbeaten title winning season, or a championship secured at the home of our most bitter rivals (take that to mean White Hart Lane or Old Trafford as you prefer because guess what – we’ve done both!) is a rare privilege and even now in my 30s I sometimes still like to dig those videos out like I did when I was a schoolboy and relive the exultation.
Even when you step away from the trophies, there have been wonderful moments. I will never forget that last day at Highbury, when having trailed Spurs for a Champions League spot all season, back when that was something we still cared about, we snatched their cherished victory from them amid a storm of Henry brilliance and ill-prepared lasagne. The raw triumph of that moment when the news that West Ham had gone 2-1 up as Bergkamp took to the Highbury turf for his final appearance produced a rush I can honestly say I’ve never experienced in non-footballing life.
And yet, if asked to pick a favourite, I would still pick what in some people’s mind would be a relic, half forgotten in a sea of supposedly greater triumphs since. I posted only recently about it actually. In May 1994, an Arsenal side shorn of its best players through injury and suspension battled through to victory against the might of Parma in the European Cup Winner’s Cup Final. I won’t now rehash my post from @Drayton ‘s marvellous “A season I will never forget” thread, which you can find if you’re so inclined. Sufficed to say, that that night, and the tension filled European nights which led to it were the making of me as a football fan, and I’ve dearly loved watching Arsenal in so many of those nights since.
It occurred to me that my selection of that night, after all these years, as my favourite makes me quite unusual among the younger half of Arsenal’s fans. It means my ultimate Arsenal moment comes from before Arsene Wenger’s reign as manager. In theory, that should give me the sense of perspective that many of our younger fans lack – the knowledge that there most certainly was an Arsenal Football Club before Arsene Wenger and there most certainly will still be one when he leaves.
However, it just doesn’t work that way. Try as I might, in light of the repeated and crushing disappointments of the last 10 or more seasons, I can’t help but feel the same loyalty to him now as when he led us to 49 unbeaten matches. I cannot join in with the vitriol and abuse that is directed at him, because I still remember the look on Alex Ferguson’s face in 2002, when he was asked, having seen Wenger’s Arsenal win the league in his stadium, whether Arsenal were worthy champions.
So, before I say what comes next, let me say this: Arsene Wenger is the greatest Arsenal manager of all time. 10 years of scrapping for fourth doesn’t change that. There’s very little that ever could. He delivered titles and cups, a first ever European Cup final, he changed not only our club, but the sport of football – certainly in England and very probably beyond it as well. He played a critical role in building an Arsenal Football Club that in all likelihood will now always be a massive club in English football.
And yet, his time has passed. His time has clearly, and obviously passed. Arsene Wenger was a great innovator of the sport of football. He changed what being a footballer meant in terms of fitness, conditioning and professionalism and he did so for the immeasurable benefit of those who love the game. Yet now his ideas have become the status quo, taken for granted, and a new generation of innovation has left him, and Arsenal behind.
For the last year or so, I’ve been in an unfamiliar frame of mind as an Arsenal fan. Like all of us, I’ve been tired of the same old story playing out, but there’s a new dimension, and that is anger. Real, palpable anger whenever I watch us play that we can’t perform like a professional side. I’ve felt it in the stadium, and at home watching on TV. Our results this season might be disappointing, but in actuality they have disguised a far greater weakness than our opponents have actually exposed. Up until last night anyway.
Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have become incapable of handling opponents across a wide variety of quality. That’s why we can find ourselves trying to claw back huge deficits against Bournemouth and Bayern Munich alike. Don’t get me wrong, the individual talent of our players has dug us out of some of those spots, but there’s a simple truth: we don’t play like a professional team anymore, and the reason for that is that the ideas that govern our approach, our tactics and our mentality are old, out of date and increasingly easy for modern teams to nullify.
It’s easy to see why Arsenal have stuck with Arsene Wenger this long, even when you look past the evident contentment of the club’s leadership with the status quo. Sacking the most successful manager in a club like Arsenal’s history is a huge call, no matter when it comes. Not only that, but as the Arseblog correctly articulated, the very way our club is structured means that change when it comes is going to be very hard to make work.
From being an innovative and cutting edge club that played football in a new, fast and powerful way and led the field in other ways like building a new stadium for a new footballing reality, Arsenal as a club are now archaic. When a new manager comes in, they will inherit a club that doesn’t know how to operate with a modern type of head-coach and has a distinct lack of footballing knowledge in the board room because that is what Arsene Wenger has been for over the last decade.
Those believing that Wenger’s departure will herald an immediate revitalisation are likely to be disappointed, no matter who the new man is. There is every possibility there are years leaner than any we’ve known under Arsene Wenger ahead as the club makes the adjustment. Maybe it will be easier to live with than the frustration of a club whose ambitions are only slightly, tantalisingly out of reach, but there could be a huge struggle to even retain the club’s current status as near-contenders.
But here’s the thing: That’s not going to change if we wait to make the switch. It doesn’t change the fact that as much as I respect and admire Arsene Wenger for all he’s done, renewing his contract now would be the most catastrophic error this club could make. The longer we stagnate in the status quo, the harder it will be for this club to find its way back to the top of English football, and the more engrained the culture of not being quite good enough will become.
In the years following the move to the Emirates, Arsene Wenger performed minor miracles in keeping the club in the Champions League, he tried in the midst of immense constraint to build a side that could keep the club at the top of the game. He’s always been a man with a clear vision of what he wants for Arsenal’s future. He must himself know that now, in order to do that, that Arsenal have to change in a way he simply can’t deliver.
And selfishly, as a fan, I want the excitement back. The unpredictability that comes with a team and a club that is capable of achieving anything, and even the danger that comes with dramatic change. On those European nights, when we’re lucky enough to have them, I want that gut-wrenching tension back, not the dull certainty that we just can’t do it anymore. Arsene Wenger made those things possible once, but that time is most certainly gone now.
Arsene, thanks for the memories, but it’s time to say goodbye.
And there you go. I have contributed.