Some thoughts on Wenger

So it’s Wenger until 2019 – the least surprising surprise since Surprisey McSurpriseFace jumped out of the wardrobe and shouted, “surprise!”

Those making the decision couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate moment to announce it if they’d tried – the warm afterglow of a fantastic performance and result in the FA Cup.

If you took this decision based on the last 9 or 10 games alone, the logic would be undeniable to be honest. It would be mean-spirited not to give credit to Wenger for the way he hauled us out of a very bad place indeed and made a success of a very average season.

If only things were that simple though, because if you look at the last decade you see a team that hasn’t got close enough to the business end of a title challenge, and you see a side that has been routinely embarrassed in the Champions League; most recently shipping ten to Bayern. That wider view, rather than the shorter-term burst of form and the heady bliss of Wembley, is why this decision will not, to put it diplomatically, be universally popular.

The weight of history would suggest that we’re in for more of the same – fourth or thereabouts – with Wenger at the helm.

So changing that is the challenge, and it’s huge. Because while the board and Wenger are saying all the right things, as you’d expect them to, the big question remains: What will he or can he do differently to bridge the 10 – 20 point gap that has come between us and the champions for the last nine years?

What needs to slot into place to give him a fighting chance? To break the mould? And the answer is probably – ‘a lot’.

An admission that things went wrong

That things will be freshened up to shake the club out of complacency. To come out and admit that things went stale and that we have fallen behind, and that we’re going to do something about it, structurally or with a change of staff. Because for all the glory of three FA Cups in four years, in the league we have fallen behind.

Some serious ambition

Back up the words with actions. Stan the investor needs to at least give the impression that he intends to be Stan the winner (I hear the hollow laughter at the back – detention for you!) Remember how it felt to sign Ozil? We need a statement of intent and of power play like that, because big names coming in aren’t just a case of buying for the sake of buying – they give you a better chance of winning. And Wenger tells us he wants to win the league. So Arsenal need to be prepared to spend big and to hit the ground running. To make swift decisions, to move fast. Not to just talk about it, but to do it.

To keep our big players

There’s long been talk that Alexis wants out and Ozil won’t sign, and that Ox is mulling over his future. Getting rid of any of them would send out all the wrong messages and would leave Wenger under the cosh and on the back foot before the season’s even started. I can’t see this part of his summer challenge ending well, to be honest, and I worry that we’ll spend too much of the next three months reacting rather than proacting.

To change the mentality… for good

You could argue the move to the back three has helped with this, but Arsenal need to be that committed for an entire season before we can say it was a success, rather than simply a nine-game upturn. Wenger needs to shake things up more often if needed. Hell, he might even consider making a substitution before the 68th minute… Will he change? We’ll find out, won’t we. But… yeah.

All the best

So good luck Arsène – I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Given the last few seasons, with the splits, the apathy, the frustration and the anger, and given the increasing strength and financial firepower of our rivals, you will need it.

I watch football to have fun and to see some great performances and, occasionally, to have a crack at winning things, so I’d like nothing more than for the next two years to be some kind of sunlit uplands. To be a bit more ‘cup final’ and a bit less ‘Watford at home’.

I don’t want to spend the next two years with furrowed brows, because life’s too short. So I’m going to be positive about it and see the FA Cup as a springboard (another springboard…)

Every year I give into hope and offer myself a tantalising thought that it might just be different this time round.

And I’d rather look at it that way, to be honest. Off we go again.

I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

That warmed the Coquelins

Stoke City 1-4 Arsenal

Fourth is on – until it’s off again.

From the rubble of a north London derby no-show, we’ve dusted ourselves down to win three on the bounce and revive our annual race for fourth. What’s more, we’re cranking up the style with yesterday’s thumping of Stoke (it’s been so long since we’ve won there that I think ‘thumping’ passes muster) being our best performance in some time.

Solid as a rock

Ah, fourth, my old friend. As Jonathan Northcroft says in today’s Sunday Times, “If only this team pursued league titles with such a sense of destiny and irrepressible vigour” as it does the final Champions League place.

But you take what comes your way, don’t you, and yesterday was a lovely pre-season-ticket-renewal reminder of what Arsenal can really be all about: solid defending when needed, poise in midfield, some beautiful, carving attacking play and graceful finishing. No, I don’t know what happened to it between December and May either.

Holding out for a hero

So, to yesterday, when the back three worked again, with Holding (better than Cannavaro, don’t you know), Koscielny and Mustafi all good. Is this the back three for next season? Could well be. With respect to Mustafi and Koscielny, Holding’s the exciting one here. He started the season well then disappeared, before Wenger’s desperate change to a back three opened a door for him. How’s he’s grasped it, and it’s always nice to see a young English player plucked from nowhere make a good start to his Arsenal career. Long may it last.

So Nacho

Nacho could have had a goal or two himself, and a bit of game time acted as a dose of WD-40 for Bellerin’s early rustiness too – he got two assists.

Love Xhak

Yesterday, I made an extra effort to study Xhaka, who’s had a lot of recent accolades but who for a long time looked too slow and clumsy to me. It’s funny, because you know how you notice some players more than you notice others when you’re watching a game live? Well he’s not really one of them – but watching him yesterday, you can see him growing into his role. He’s a midfielder in the Steve Williams or Paul Davis mould; quietly effective but not obviously stand-out.

Olivier’s army

Giroud, who I cursed under my breath until he scored, before lauding him to the heavens (sort of sums him up), notched a brace to make it 16 this term. Not bad, let’s be honest, and at 104 minutes per goal, also the most lethal of all our strikers. Statistics, eh.

You can call me Al

Finally to Alexis and Ozil, our stardust players. I’ve been so frustrated with Ozil at times this season, to the point where doubling his wages seems insane (it still does), but when he plays like he played yesterday you’re reminded why he’s so good. In that sense he personifies Arsenal: stylish and lethal when good, a passenger when bad. His goal was calmly taken, and his passing in general was pinpoint.

As for Alexis, what can you say? That pass to Ozil was 100% through-ball-porn, and he finished the game by scoring with his only operational leg, before tapping the crest on his shirt and giving me hope (damn you, hope) that all might not be lost between him and Arsenal.

So overall, a performance that warmed the Coquelins. The cynics among you – says he, deflecting his own cynicism adroitly – will tell you that disappointment is only round the corner in one form or other. It probably is, but playing well is nice and that is all that matters right now.

Superstition

A final thought about how nuts humans are. Take a look at the Arsenal team emerging from the tunnel and you’ll see all manner of nervous, superstitious tics. Coquelin hops on his right leg, Bellerin picks up some grass then crosses himself, Xhaka hops then bounces, before Ozil does his own hop.

Hopping mad, the lot of them.

So are we for investing some much emotion in this nonsense. Damn you, football, you cruel mistress!

Arsenal revert to type in supine derby defeat

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal

Remember that second half at Wembley, when we looked like we had a plan and worked our socks off to execute it? There was always the danger that it was the outlier in a season that began to implode in December and has barely come up for air since.

The Leicester game on Wednesday – the first of our seven ‘cup finals’, apparently – was slow and predictable, with Arsenal’s inability to outmanoeuvre defensive teams all too apparent.

Then yesterday. Another ‘cup final’; another day when our impressive array of weaknesses were there for all to see. Weak at the back? Tick. Blunt up front? You got it! Overrun in midfield? Natch. Incapable of keeping the ball? Not a problem. A team lacking motivation and direction? Yep. Compare that with our hosts, who could so easily have won by more if it wasn’t for Cech’s excellence. It’s a painful comparison but you cannot ignore it.

Arsenal’s decline – and it is a decline, albeit a relative one, but let’s not sugarcoat it – has been slow-cooking for some time and you cannot now avoid the smell coming from the oven (with humble apologies to all hard-working metaphors out there). Depending where you are on the Gloom-o-meter, you could trace it all the way back to 2006 and the breakup of the Invincibles. Or maybe 2008, when Eduardo’s leg break derailed our title challenge. You might, if your glass is fuller, merely say that after coming second last season the real decline only began at around Christmas when we lost in quick succession to Everton and Manchester City.

The truth, as ever, is somewhere in-between. But right now, Arsenal are in a big old rut, playing stale football, and the only realistic way I see of addressing it – for there will be no boardroom coup – is by calling an end to Wenger’s 21-year reign.

There are some players who need to move on, but by and large I think this squad is decent – it’s just spectacularly underachieving. It’s time for someone else take them on and shake them up.

By some strange coincidence, Wenger’s recent contract renewal dates have coincided with FA Cup finals. Last time, in 2014, felt like a good time for him to sign off on a winning note, but in the euphoria of our first trophy since 2005 he signed up for more. I don’t remember the dissent being especially strong back then.

This year, the same opportunity presents itself. This time, three years on, the dissent and apathy is more acute. But should Wenger win the cup for an astonishing seventh time – and it’s a tough assignment – then it feels very much like the right time, and perhaps the best opportunity he will now get, to go out on a high.