It’s hard to decide what to discuss first following City’s dismantling of Arsenal last night; the shocking nature of the defeat that was inflicted on the Gunners, or the sense of inevitability about it all.
During the pre-game build up in the Sky Sports studio, Jamie Carragher and Thierry Henry were asked:
“Can Arsenal get anything out of the game?”
Let’s take a step back and absorb the sheer incredulity of that statement.
Can Arsenal get a result at the Emirates at home to Manchester City?
A newcomer to the game would be forgiven for thinking that this was a David Vs. Goliath FA Cup tie, akin to Tottenham and Rochdale, who battled it out at Wembley the night before in a fourth round replay. Instead, we are talking about Arsenal Football Club here; one of the country’s largest, most well supported teams. Their history speaks volumes about the size of the club they are – only Manchester United, Liverpool and to a certain extent Chelsea can proclaim to be bigger than them in England – so to ask if they can pull out a miraculous result against runaway leaders at home should have been met with ridicule by the two pundits.
Except it wasn’t, and nor should it be either. The fact the question was even posed to them, let alone that Carragher and Henry both answered sincerely, reveals the depths that this club has fallen to.
Their 3-0 defeat at Wembley last weekend in the League Cup final was embarrassing enough, and perfectly summed up by Gary Neville during the live commentary.
But last night was on a whole new level.
Firstly, barely half of the fans bothered to show up. Arsenal tried to claim that the official attendance was just over 58,000, but they weren’t fooling anyone. One look from the television cameras shows that they’d be lucky to count 40,000 fans, maybe even less.
Quite why the reason for the mass no-show is anyone’s guess. Gary Neville tried to claim that it was an act of defiance by the home fans, a silent protest of sorts. But in fairness to those that didn’t attend, London has been in the unrelenting grip of the beast from the east this week, with temperatures plummeting into the minus and snow falling like it’s going out of fashion. Travel and commuting has been unforgiven all week, so it’s understandable that the Emirates wasn’t packed out on a freezing Thursday night. Nonetheless, it’s a sad state of affairs when a showcase Premier League tie such as Arsenal and Manchester City cannot attract a full house.
On the field, the supporters’ anguish was mirrored by the players. Cry all you want about the supposed lack of conviction by manager Arsene Wenger, but the players need to take a long, hard look at themselves.
This is an Arsenal team that featured four players purchased for over £35m – Granit Xhaka, Henrikh Mkhitaryan (a part exchange with Alex Sanchez who was valued at £35m by the club), Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang and Mesut Ozil. Also playing was a multiple Premier League winner in Petr Cech, and seasoned internationals in the form of Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Sead Kolasinac. Combined, they played like an atrocious, hungover Sunday League side.
City were 3-0 up inside 35 minutes and cruising. Yes, they were sublime and simply unplayable at times, but Arsenal didn’t look interested. Once the first goal went in – a brilliant finish by Bernardo Silva after equally stunning play by Leroy Sane – that was it. Game over. Arsenal looked like they wanted to head home early and sink themselves into a warm bath.
This brings us onto the management. For as much as I’ve lambasted the squad, the buck, as it always does in football, stops at the manager. Step forward, Monsieur Wenger.
When he first arrived on these shores over 20 years ago, the Frenchman bought with him a fresh, forward thinking approach. His tactical prowess and revolutionary habits off the field forced Sir Alex Ferguson and his great Manchester United sides to step it up another level or two to remain top dogs. For three seasons in his opening 8 years, Arsenal were the best side in England, picking up league titles in 1998, 2002 and 2005. They should’ve won the Champions League a year later in Paris, only for a Henrik Larsson-inspired Barcelona to snatch the victory.
Fast forward a decade, and Arsenal are a shambles, the victim of Premier League supporters’ collective fun. A new stadium and an influx of cash beyond their wildest dreams thanks to mammoth television deals, Arsenal should be routine title challengers and Champions League contenders. Instead, they find themselves in 6th place, losing at home to small Swedish sides, and where a successful summer depends on not losing their best player to a domestic rival.
Arsene Wenger needs to take a sizeable portion of the blame here. His consistent ‘it isn’t our fault’ approach that he’s adopted since taking the Arsenal job, where he’s famously not seen countless decisions made in favour of his side, and lambasted the countless ones that have to the point of suspension, has seeped through into the players.
Put simply, there’s no blame placed on anyone after a defeat. The players look feckless, the management know there will be no repercussions from above, and the board are happy simply because their financial sheets are a deep shade of black every year.
And why would Wenger walk away? He’s sitting on a cosy £10m a year contract, with the requirement of finishing 4th hardly needing a miracle. This year marked the first in a generation where Arsenal didn’t qualify for the Champions League; this year is almost certainly going to be a second in a row where they miss out on Europe’s top table.
That is going to be the end of Wenger: the damage he is starting to inflict on the balance sheets. If yesterday was not a one-off and the fans continue to stay away in their droves, and if the club fail to make the top 4 this season, and therefore once again miss out on the millions that the Champions League brings in the form of performance and television money, Arsene Wenger will be in a very precarious decision.
When all is said and done, the man’s achievements at the Emirates should not be dismissed. He’s arguably the club’s greatest ever manager, and bar Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, he’s the best coach to have graced the Premier League. The last ten years have not been pretty, but don’t let that tarnish a brilliant legacy.
It’s time to go, Arsene.