Read my match report. It’s two days late and still no good.

Arsenal 2-0 Chelsea

In this era of on-the-whistle posts and hot-off-the-press post-match podcasts, I’ve decided to  develop a niche around commenting fluffily about a game at least two days after it happened. It never harmed people in the olden days when they’d hear of news in far off lands weeks later, and it won’t harm people now. Maybe, just maybe, people scooped up so much simultaneously-published content after the match that it all garbled into one? And that they need a refresher now? That’s what I’m clinging onto.

Anyway, the match. Just when he needed a result, along came a re-invigorated Arsenal and a strikerless Chelsea. Perfect timing! How we needed that.

Fire the starting gun

It’s funny how the first 30 seconds or minute of a game can often tell you all you need to know about the game that’s about to unfold. When the game kicked off the week before, at West Ham, I distinctly remember an Arsenal player getting the ball within seconds and just standing there, almost motionless, not quite knowing what to do and under no pressure to do anything in any rush. Fast forward a week to the game against Chelsea and we were out of the blocks like the clappers. It set the tone for a superb first half that won us the game.

Better and brighter men than me (that doesn’t really narrow it down) will know more about the psychology behind that. How can two performances be so different? Was it the opponent? Some words of admonition from Unai? Change of formation and line-up? All of the above and more? Let’s just hope we don’t go full circle and start so timidly on Friday night, as I’m not entirely sure that will end well.

Laca verging (on the brilliant)

Hands up in the class who likes Lacazette? While I wouldn’t advocate the smattering – counted in the low seconds – of booing that appeared to accompany his substitution, it is a bit baffling, because he really is a hell of a player. Sure, he has fewer goals than Aubameyang, but his range is wider, and when he scores goals that combine silky skills with brute force, as he did on Saturday, my admiration for his overall excellence, hard work and team play goes up a notch or two.

Just be Kos

It was a fabulous performance from Koscielny, who looks like he’s edging back to his imperious best. And with him marshalling things, Sokratis looks more comfortable too. With all my fingers crossed and double-crossed, we really need to keep those two fit until the end of the season. They might not be perfect, and they’re certainly not the long-term solution – the former is in the autumn of his career, and the latter still gets a little too tight to people for my liking – but as a unit, on this performance at least, they’re the best we’ve got. Please stay fit.

Knee bother

I’m not one for conspiracy theories as a rule, but what with the moon landings definitely being fake, and the Earth being as flat as a pancake, I’m beginning to worry about our injuries this year. It seems incredibly bad luck to me to have two substantial knee injuries in one year, especially as both Bellerin and Holding were arguably two of our most improved players this season under Emery. Is it the way we train, or just bad luck? Add Welbz into the mix and you’ve got a rum old situation that’s clearly some kind of government cover-up. But I’m not one for conspiracy theories, as I said. So good luck Bellerin and Holding. Please no more long-term injuries. Thanks.

Not the crackliest

Obviously, all atmosphere analysis now uses the Spurs game as a benchmark, because that was right up there with the best in recent times. So given it was a 5:30 kick-off (some drink tends to help pep up the noise) and a Saturday, I must say I was expecting things to be a bit more raucous than they were. Perhaps there were gnawing nerves given some of our recent performances. There also weren’t the same circumstances that sparked up the derby. But still – just me or was it a bit subdued?

Right, that’s your lot in this first and probably last two-day-old match report.

Solidarity with all the part-time bloggers like me who can’t quite be bothered. Power to the idle.

Plenty to ponder as Arsenal self-destruct

Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal

It’s not lost on me that since it all came together so spectacularly against our old friends up the road on 2nd December, cracks have started to appear. Yesterday, those cracks became giant fissures, as all of our failings of yore came back to dance a merry jig.

For all of Liverpool’s excellence (they’re not top and flying by chance), all five of their goals were avoidable from a defensive point of view, and that’s the grim truth of it. I fired off this tweet at the end of the game last night:

No club that considers itself one of those capable of challenging for the big honours should let five goals in. It ought to be a once-a-generation brain freeze, but in seven years (not including the League Cup) we’ve shipped eight goals once, six goals twice and five goals four times (that I can think of – there are probably more). Wenger’s late-era teams were weak, and for it to happen again under a new man suggests to me that a lot of those weaknesses are still there.

I also lobbed this tweet out there too. It wasn’t universally popular – it’s a bit black-and-white / binary I know, so lacks a bit of context – but it did resonate with many:

They’re not be set up / organised properly yet – that seems pretty clear – and solving that would put a different light on some of these players. Some of them would also look better when paired with better players. But even with that, I don’t think any of the above is defensively consistent enough or fit/quick enough (Kolasinac, however, is incredibly dangerous going forward) to get into the teams of any of our rivals, and that’s the essence of the problem. We either need a miracle structural cure, which has not been forthcoming yet, or we need a serious injection of quality if we want to step up.

So fix it, yeah

Easier said than done I’m aware, because we all know Kroenke’s not going to wave a £75m magic wand for a defender – and that might really only get you one exceptional defender these days, however wrong that is – even if there was one available in January.

In the context of this urgent need to improve, some of the other things going down across the club make a bit more sense. Selling Ramsey (again – rightly or wrongly) in January would raise some money, if they can make it happen. I’d wager that some of the defenders above – if there were takers and if there are replacements – should be looking over their shoulder too. Sokratis seems a good squad option and I like his attitude, but Mustafi? It might also explain the Ozil situation, though that’s possibly harder to resolve. Put bluntly, to spend money we need to have money, and that requires some ruthlessness that will be well received by some but not by others.

On the plus side

Some positives, while we’re at it. I thought Maitland-Niles, who’s something of a travelling salesman in this team, made a real impression early on from his berth on the right. Iwobi did well in the early part of the game too. Overall, to have gone 22 games unbeaten is admirable, and I’m enjoying the team edging towards being a team that presses better, stands up for each other and is developing – albeit with glitches in the matrix – more resilience.

But to have let 30 goals in tells you where we can improve the most. Emery knows only too well that his job depends on making rapid improvements, getting into the Champions League, and winning things, and he can’t afford to let transfer windows pass by in the way Wenger could, whose power came from  early success and latter-day patronage. Emery has neither of those things and there’s no time like the present.

So I think some stuff will happen in January. We’re still there or thereabouts, and we need something to help steady the ship and push us on.

Emery fires up Arsenal in demolition derby

Arsenal 4-2 Spurs

What a shot in the arm. I’ve been to many crackling, memorable matches at the Emirates, but there’s not much that’s got close to how yesterday felt. It was breathlessly exciting: absolutely relentless and exhausting. If this is the stamp of Emery, then quite honestly, it’s been worth waiting for. I’m sold.

Not many players grow up near the club they end up playing for these days, which can lead to the accusation they just don’t ‘get’ what a rivalry like this means for the club and fans. As accusations go, it’s always been nonsense, as yesterday proved. It was clear that Emery had wound his team up into a frenzy for his first north London derby, and throughout, they didn’t let up.

We started like a train, and weren’t derailed when two preventable goals turned the tables on us. It’s funny, because while Aubameyang’s equaliser was an obvious turning point as the game swung back into our favour, I actually think the sense of injustice fuelled by the ‘shhh’ and the penalty was the thing that made this game so fierce. We felt slighted, and with that in our mind, helped by two judicious substitutions, we completely blew them away in the second half.

Au-boom-eyang

Aubameyang’s second was the best technical goal by some distance. A beautiful pass from Bellerin, the gentlest of lay-offs from Ramsey, then a first-time, curving rip-snorter of a strike that left their keeper rooted to his spot. Pandemonium on the terraces. An inch-perfect precision strike. With ten goals, he’s the top scorer in the league, and he doesn’t always play in his best position. Not bad…

Lacazette’s was especially fun for dribbling in, but then came my favourite, as man of the match and all-round pocket dynamo Lucas Torreira turned his man and slotted it home. When a football match gives you this kind of emotional high, it’s genuinely like a drug. Just wonderful. Feed me more.

Talking of Torreira, he’s so obviously the blueprint for what Emery is trying to achieve. Tenacious, energetic and technically excellent, he’s pretty much the first man on the teamsheet now. If you can’t play like he plays, which is how Emery wants his team to play, do you have a future at Arsenal? This is not a coded slight to Ozil or indeed anyone else, because everyone is different, but it’s just reality. Some players suit some systems and can adapt, others can’t. I suspect January and next summer will be very, very busy.

You do run, Aaron

Bring in the conciliation teams. Get everyone together in a room with beer. Invite the unions. Provide cake. There’s got to be a way to keep Aaron Ramsey, because yesterday’s performance showed what he gives, and to me, he’s got the energy and guile for this system. Of course he’s a bit injury-prone, but would you want to see him at City, or United, because it’s not impossible and it seems a bit mad to me.

Smoke and standing

I know there are good health and safety reasons for flares not being allowed, just as there are for not standing in seated areas, but both things added to the atmosphere yesterday, which was the best by some distance for some years. It was everything a football atmosphere should be. Nobody sat down for a second at our end, so for me, the sooner we stop pretending that this isn’t happening, and find a solution to it, the better. Sometimes, people want just to stand.

What a great game. Onto Wednesday, though with no Xhaka. Now I never thought that would bother me, but…

 

Are you a no wins in November or more of an unbeaten in 16?

I think my blogging absence may have rendered me incapable of writing a decent headline. Or maybe I never was any good at writing decent headlines? There’s one to ponder.

What I meant by it – and the very fact that I’m having to explain it suggests that, yes, I do need to go back to the drawing board – is that while we’ve been doing pretty well under Emery, at least it appears that way through my own bespectacled eyes, we’ve not exactly made huge strides reinventing ourselves just yet. Things are good, but they’re not perfect.

Disentangling yourself from something that you’ve been doing for a long time isn’t that easy, it turns out. If only there was a contemporary parallel I could use as a metaphor. I’ll give it some thought.

But overall, as I suspected I would, I’m enjoying not being judgmental about progress, and I’m loving an atmosphere that’s liberatingly rancour-free and devoid of judgment. It lets you concentrate on watching the incremental changes that sum up this first half-season. Playing from the back, a bit more structure and rigour, wacky substitution times, Torreira being Torreira, and the numerous variants of rearranging £150m of talent into the top end of the squad.

Stats life

I’ve tried, I promise I’ve tried. But every time I try to get into stats, as all the football hipsters and brainy people are, my mind gets lost in the numbers. I’ve just about got my head round xG, but simultaneously not really, because anytime I look at a wedge of numbers in any format, my mind goes to goo. This might explain why Excel brings me out in hives. I don’t know what a macro is and those little code things you put in cells to make magic happen are not designed for brains like mine. Have you tried writing in Excel? It’s truly horrible. The words disappear. Then they wedge themselves in the wrong cell. Excel makes me want to cry: I once saw a spreadsheet so complex I had an on-the-spot existential crisis.

It’s got more nested menus than your average human being can even comprehend. So I’m going to leave stats to the Excel fans, you’ll be glad to hear. Why do I mention this? Because I read something to do with our xG being lower than the goals we’ve actually been scoring, which means that we’ve been overachieving, which means we might expect a regression to the xG, so brace yourselves people, though I wasn’t possibly concentrating on it enough to be fair and may be recounting the details in the wrong order.

I should also add, in this spirit of honest confession, that I’m not very good with formations either. I mostly put this down to sitting just eight rows from the hallowed turf since 1994, which has somewhat blurred my strategic vision. But it’s also got something to do with me not paying much attention to things that should be staring me in the face. It’s not unknown for us to be chewing over the game in the pub afterwards and for me to congratulate our back four for a job well done, only for someone to point out we’d been playing three at the back for two years.

Anyway, glad to be of service with the whole numbers and formations stuff. If you want a new columnist who can cut through the chaff, you know where I am.

Vim and vigour at the Vitality

We lost at Bournemouth last season, which won’t surprise anyone given how we turned on-the-road defeats an artform. This season, over the last month, we’ve drawn at Palace when we should really have won, we played well against Liverpool but drew, then we stank the place out against Wolves but also drew. So on Sunday we need to stick two fingers up to the xG by getting a win (I’ve no idea what our xG for Sunday is, or, as previously mentioned, what it really means, but I’m just saying that as a rallying cry.)

Koscielny’s back soon though, right?

Out of the frying pan…

The god of fixtures really did get out of bed on the wrong side when he insisted that we should start this season – the one with the biggest change at the club since 1996 – with two of the hardest matches of the season. It’s certainly been a baptism of fire for the new man.

If you pick your team based on form (form after one game – is that form?), then I think we’ll see Lacazette start today, as he really was up for the fight on Sunday. I’d also be inclined to play Lichtsteiner at left-back. We had several undercooked players on Sunday (Xhaka being a good example, but not the only one), so having another in Monreal might be too risky. Our new Swiss spring chicken added a spikiness and nous to the game, even if it came to naught, and personally I’d be happy to see him retain his place.

I think we might see Torreira ahead of Guendouzi too. More caution away from home was largely anathema to Wenger, but Emery is (by all accounts) a more tactical manager, and he may opt for a more cautious approach. Adding Torreira to the midfield may stifle creativity, but it should also tighten us up.

I’m not sure what I expect from this game, other than to see some players come into better form, and to see the system Emery wants a percentage point or two more effective. It’s a tough ask, but this is the very beginning, so expectations, while not lower, may be different.

Patience really is a virtue

I listened to the Arsecast yesterday, in which the issue of early criticism / patience came up. It seems extraordinary to even be talking about it now, but it bears repeating: nothing happens immediately in the aftermath of a wave of the managerial wand. This is especially true given the previous spell lasted 22 years.

I think Emery should be judged after one year at the earliest, at which point we should be able to see if his blueprint is beginning to work. But preferably, he should be judged after two years, at which point the players will be more his, and the plan will be more settled. Anything sooner than that – barring a complete collapse – serves no real purpose.

Being there on Sunday was a salient reminder not only of how good City are (and they really are superb: powerful, quick, organised and ruthless) but also of how much work needs to be done at Arsenal. There’s so much to do. It’s going to be fascinating watching Emery try to make his mark, which is why as well as being a bit heart-in-the-mouth stuff at times, even if playing out the back is as a bit Keystone Cops for several months it’s worth persevering with. We all cried out for something different. That’s what we’re getting, that makes it exciting, and as the players become more comfortable with it, it will become clearer and more natural.

Right, into the fire we go…

 

Up for the Emery era

Like Arsène Wenger, I’ve almost certainly been going on too long, but I’ve convinced myself that I’ll be honest enough to bow out gracefully when I’m no longer delivering the goods. Except here I am, having another tilt at this blogging lark.

Decent metaphor, except that Wenger had a really successful first period, and was one of the greats of the game *checks stats, coughs, shuffles off*.

Well, anyway, here I am again. Blogging season number 16.

Out with the old

This time though, Groundhog Arsenal has been consigned to history – or so we hope. With Emery, we have a fresh start, and whether it turns out to be the start of another golden age or a difficult second album is neither here nor there to some degree. It’s just something different, and something different is good enough for me.

It would have been an interesting A/B test to have started Emery’s first season with exactly the same squad as Wenger’s last, just to see whether what many of us suspected – that things had gone stale and the existing squad was underachieving – was true.

But of course football doesn’t work that way, and with Arsenal last year it wasn’t simply a case of the players underachieving: it was also true that the squad was, man for man, poorer than those that finished above it.

In with the new

Which would explain why instead of standing still – Wenger tried that one summer when only Cech came in, and look what happened there – Arsenal have been busy from the get-go. Cover at right-back, an experienced centre-back, a new keeper, a holding midfielder and a ‘prospect’ in the shape of Gwen Doozy. Who if he goes on the lash is Gwen Doozy’s boozy do. Who if he goes on the lash at a square dance is Gwen Doozy’s boozy do do-se-do. But anyway, I digress.

Where was I? Ah yes, gaps have been filled.

Whether this is enough is of course a moot point, and certainly when you compare it to this summer’s transfer pacesetters Liverpool, you could argue that it’s not. But we’ve also got two £50m strikers whose careers at Arsenal are pretty new, so it’s an ongoing rebuild. And we don’t have £120m from the sale of one of our players burning a hole in our pocket either.

Whilst I’m sanguine about the forthcoming season, I’ve watched pre-season with the required detachment – it just doesn’t mean that much, some players aren’t here, match fitness is short, and overall whether we win or lose it’s hardly a reliable harbinger of things to come. The crunch will come soon enough – just a week now – and we couldn’t ask for a more daunting challenge than Man City.

What do I expect from this season? As I said, just something different. A commitment to ironing out the endemic issues that plagued Arsenal for years. A desire to go head-to-head tactically and beliefistically with the teams above us – against whom we’ve got a poor recent record.

It’s something new, and that’s exciting. The Guardian has us down for fifth, and while I don’t agree with everything the article says (I don’t think there’ll be any people questioning the wisdom of getting rid of Wenger, for example, even if results aren’t what we’d like), I’d say the position is about right. We have new players to bed in, a new manager trying to make changes at somewhere that hasn’t really changed much for years, and we have old players who need teaching new tricks – all  these things need to happen at the same time.

A kick up the chops

But for me, it’s less about the final position and more about reinvigorating a team that had run out of ideas and had become too predictable. And – because of course it’s all about me – it’s also about invigorating myself. I’d got a bit too cynical and a bit too disengaged, and while the fun is as much in the going as it is in the winning, taking a leap into the unknown after 22 years of being cuddled up in the Wenger comfort blanket feels exciting.

I can’t wait for it to begin again and I’m not the kind of reactionary who’ll be all #EmeryOut by September if things don’t work out. These things require patience.

Of course, if things haven’t picked up by October there’ll be hell to pay 🙂

Bring on the new era.

Arsenal send Arsène off in style

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Arsenal 5-0 Burnley

A perfect ending. The sun set on Wenger’s tenure at the Emirates, with the team on the one hand lashing five past Burnley, and the club on the other getting the tone spot on in a goodbye that gave Le Boss the farewell he’s earned and deserved.

It was an emotional day – one for reflection but also for thanks and for looking forward – and the mood was bubbly and celebratory throughout. “Why can’t the atmosphere be like this every game?”, asked my brother. A fair point – it was certainly raucous for most of the match, with numerous, throaty renditions of ‘One Arsène Wenger’, paeans to Per Mertesacker and plenty of other Wenger-era songs that have been gathering dust in the attic brought out for a Sunday drive.

The match was irrelevant, to some degree, though of course had we ended up seventh we’d have had to start our Europa League campaign about three weeks ago, so it was good to put that piece of time travel to bed. Needless to say, there were some lovely performances and some beautiful goals under the May sunshine. As Wenger said after the match, this team is team is better than many people think, and though there’s plenty of evidence to dispute that, on a day like yesterday you can see that the next man to take to the touchline will have some fantastic tools to work with. It’s a plum job, alright.

Sent off in style

And so to the end. In a sea of red, two floating sausages emerged (no caviar was available, but that’s OK because we haven’t been so used to that recently), one with Wenger’s face draped beneath it, the other with his trophy roll-call, and the party began. Bob Wilson and Pat Rice were the perfect compères, Wenger was awarded the gold Premier League trophy for going unbeaten, he then said some measured but lovely words before lapping up the adulation as he walked round the pitch, and that was that.

As I said, it couldn’t have been better pitched. I took my two boys along, who won’t forget an occasion like that in a hurry, and nor will I. I dread to think how much and how often I’ve thought about Arsène and his teams over the years – every day, repeatedly, is probably the honest answer – but now it’s over, and the next time I go to the Emirates there’ll be a different man on the touchline, almost certainly quite a few new faces on the pitch, and a new era will begin. I’m looking forward to that, and I have been for a while.

But I’m also proud that we saw Wenger off in a way I always knew we would. With class.

 

Au revoir Arsène, and thank you

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In the end, the announcement came out of the blue, pushed onto the Arsenal website and social channels with the simple words: Merci Arsène.

That’s it, it’s over. Wenger finally pulled the plug on his 22-year reign with delicately chosen timing. There’s long enough to think, to weigh it all up, and to soak in some of the extraordinary memories he created. There’s time to give him the send-off he deserves, to find someone new, and to focus on ending his final season at Arsenal with a final hurrah in Europe.

So yes, thank you Arsène. Thank you for transforming our club, for building those teams of grace, power and panache, and for going head to head with the best teams in the land, for the biggest trophies there are. Any history of his reign will be nuanced, some would argue chipped around the edges, thanks to the latter half of his tenure, where in league and European terms at least he presided over a slow decline, but as time goes by I have no doubt he’ll be remembered for what he is: one of the best managers, if not the best manager, in Arsenal’s history.

The good, the bad. The mostly good.

Some legacy. The results, trophies and near misses – three titles, seven FA Cups, one Champions League final, one Uefa Cup final, a few League Cup finals and just the one FA Cup final defeat – are just a part of it. Beyond that there are the well-documented changes to things like player nutrition and diet. There’s the rapier-fast, ruthless football that changed Arsenal’s tune completely. There’s his role in the move to the Emirates Stadium, there’s his intelligence, good grace and social conscience. His humour and ability to delve into deeper societal issues. The way he trusts and defends his players, even at times when, quite frankly, they don’t deserve it. OK, in the interest of balance there’s his stubbornness too, and his myopia. But how many managers aren’t a bit like that?

So that’s Wenger the manager; Wenger the man. But for me, as for most Arsenal fans, it’s more complicated than that. His astonishingly long tenure means there are Arsenal fans out there in their mid-to-late twenties who’ve known nobody else at the helm of their club.

The end of an era

I’m a bit longer in the tooth, but I was 25 when he took over. It’s heading towards half my life ago. I look back at 1996, and it genuinely feels like another time. A different world, a different England and a different me. So as I’ve grown up, moved jobs, got married, had kids and experienced all of life’s peaks and troughs, there’s Arsène Wenger, a constant, there or thereabouts, a big part of my life. And there’s me, there or thereabouts, experiencing all of Wenger’s peaks and troughs with him.

That’s why I’m in a bit of turmoil, because memories blur into one and it’s made me more emotional than I thought it would. I’ve advocated a change for several years now, and I’m glad (for the direction of the club) that it’s happened. It’s the right time. I’m also genuinely excited at what next season and beyond holds. But at the exact same time, I feel sad, a little nostalgic and sentimental.

To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club. My love and support for ever”.

Well, that tipped me right over.

So thanks Arsène, thanks a million. For a long while you gave us the best football we’re ever likely to see.

Au revoir, and good luck.

Europa League: the last shot at a European trophy for Wenger?

I’m still here, just about – much like Arsenal this season.

Moving on up

Last time I posted here, about a month ago, I pretty much couldn’t see anything other than a summer exit for Wenger. Things felt bleak: it’s been a season that has careered from one statistical zinger to another. The stats still don’t paint a pretty picture, but it comes as no real surprise that things have picked up since then (won four, lost one since sinking in the snow to Man City in a half-empty Emirates).

Why? Well, it was clear we were playing below our capabilities, for starters. But also, this is Wenger: a man who’s mastered the art of conjuring good finales to disappointing seasons. Here he is again, attempting to sing his signature tune – qualification for the Champions League. And he’s five games away from doing it via the back door.

Moving on out

It doesn’t change the fact that many – most – would like him to bow out gracefully in the summer, but it might persuade the majority owner, if indeed he needs persuading, that Wenger’s the man for another year. But anyway, that’s a circular argument nobody is going to win right now. We’ll find out soon enough.

Time to break free

In idle moments, I do wonder how Wenger’s European record will be judged. Accentuating the positives, you’d say perennial qualification for the Champions League was pretty good, and there was one memorable run to the Champions League final – the first time we’d ever been there in our history. There were also two Uefa Cup finals – one with Arsenal and one with Monaco. But on the flipside, the last seven years in Europe’s leading competition have been wasted, and it doesn’t really feel like we ever got to grips with it. We look further away from truly competing in it now than ever.

Nothing can stop me

Wenger’s never won a European trophy. So for a leading coach – and he has been that – his European record is not that great, especially if you judge success by lifting cups, as you should. Nor indeed is Arsenal’s European record that great as a club, to be honest. One Fairs Cup, one Cup Winners’ Cup.

But here Wenger is, facing Moscow in the rarefied atmosphere of a Europa League quarter-final. Of course we have a chance. And how many more chances will Wenger have to win a European trophy? I’d say this is probably his last realistic chance. If he doesn’t win the Europa League this year, it makes the argument for his departure almost impossible to ignore. He could move to another club that offers European football, but he’d only have a few years, in all likelihood, to have another crack at winning in Europe, and that’s a tough ask indeed.

And if he does win it this year and stays at Arsenal, what chance does he have next season – which we can assume really *will* be his last – of winning the Champions League? Given Arsenal’s historical record in it, and given Wenger’s own painful maulings in recent years, I’d say it’s zilch.

So this year’s Europa League really is it. This could be your last realistic chance, Arsene.

 

This time, it really feels like the end

Arsenal 0-3 Manchester City

The thing about saying “it feels like Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal reign has reached its end” is that I’ve definitely said it before, at various points over the last five years. And it never has been the end of Wenger’s reign, because – remarkably – he’s been the one who decides his own fate, and he has always found a way, to date, of changing the narrative or convincing himself he’s still the man for the job.

And that’s the thing: he still thinks he can do it. He said it again last night. After Sunday’s game, he called for “perspective”, but with seven defeats in 2018 already, just three away wins in the league all season, a dismal away record against the top six (just two wins in over 20 games stretching back to 2013-14), and a European record at the knockout stage that over the last seven years has been an embarrassment, the bigger picture tells its own story.

But it does feel different now. Over the years, Wenger’s made an art of turning things round just when they seemed to be smothering him – those recent FA Cup are a classic example – but even that skill appears to have deserted him now. We’ve had one or two excellent performances this season, but they’re very isolated. The real consistency can be found in the mistakes we keep making: the sames mistakes we’ve made for years.

And many fans see it for what it is: a team that, in league terms, has been at best treading water and at worst in slow decline for a long time.

Last night was just no surprise. A team that is laced with attacking talent will only get so far if you don’t supply it with chances, if it can’t reliably and consistently defend, or if structurally it loses its way mid-match so readily.

The changes haven’t worked

It’s not that he hasn’t tried to do something about it – just that it’s not working. Rather than sticking with what we had, the club twisted in the summer and then again in the January transfer window, breaking our transfer record twice. We offloaded our three top scorers from last season and brought in fresh faces to kick-start something new. Now, I wouldn’t want to equate the quality of our recent transfer moves to the last signings George Graham made (Kiwomya, Hartson) but both cases, it now seems clear, were last throws of the dice.

It didn’t work for George Graham and it looks unlikely to work now for Wenger. The squad is unbalanced and has lost its way. It’s miles off where it needs to be, both in terms of personnel, and when it comes to mentality and organisation. The need for change has been clear for a while, the players needs reinvigorating, the way we play needs a total overhaul and the fans need it too. The empty seats or fans leaving in droves mid-match is a sign that something’s very broken.

And so to the finale

A fairytale ending – as much as there is one – would be for him to announce he’s leaving then for us to go on and win the Europa League. But the prospect of a European trophy seems incredibly remote at the moment, especially as two-legged ties require concentration, tactical maturity and defensive nous. This is not a smooth-running machine, right now.

The sad reality is that, Europa League or not, Wenger’s course is surely now run.

There are people saying he should go now, but I’d hate for it to end that way. I want to send Wenger off as he deserves to be sent off – with respect, and with thanks for a remarkable and at times quite brilliant tenure – at the end of the season.

It’s time for a fresh beginning.