It wasn’t the first time Arsenal fans have booed their team off the pitch. It wasn’t even the first time it’s happened this month. Supporters turning on their own is always unsavory, but after Arsenal’s 3-1 home loss to Aston Villa on opening day, the first of its kind for 20 years, the reaction was at the very least understandable.
The consensus is that Arsenal, perennial Champions League competitors with stated title aspirations, shouldn’t be dropping points at home to the likes of Villa, one of last season’s relegation battlers. Still, such is football. Big clubs, if Arsenal can still be described as such, lose games.
Fans boo. Business as usual.
The most novel aspect of Arsenal fans’ discomfort, and perhaps the most worrying , is its context. Saturday’s match provides an apt metaphor. The Gunners began brightly, taking an early lead and giving themselves a solid foundation for further success.
Instead of strengthening their place, they stagnated, allowing their competition to close the deficit and finally overtake them. The feeling of gloom, temporarily dispelled by Arsenal’s preseason win over Manchester City, returned like a descending fog over North London.
The fans’ response on Saturday, although provoked by a poor result, is indicative of a deep-seated and long-lasting malaise.
Opinions differ, but some fans point to Arsenal’s 2011 Carling Cup Final loss to Birmingham City as the genesis of the current depression. Subsequent disappointments, including a League Cup exit at the hands of Bradford City and the infamous 8-2 drubbing by Manchester United, left many supporters questioning Arsenal’s place in football’s pantheon.
More questions were raised when club captain Robin Van Persie left the club to join the drubbers themselves.
The lack of silverware, the recent sales of club stars, and the subsequent lack of quality replacements have left the club adrift in an increasingly competitive league. Arsenal officials have explained this lack of forward motion in terms of financial responsibility and debt repayment.
This season, however, the message began to change, with chief executive Ivan Gazidis heralding new-found financial potency Arsenal fans had so patiently waited for.
“This year we are beginning to see something we have been planning for some time,” Gazidis told the BBC in June, “The escalation in our financial firepower.”
Since June, Arsenal have gone on to bring exactly none of that firepower to bear. Despite a reported £70 million war chest, Wenger has failed to significantly strengthen a team who were a single goal away from missing out on the top 4 for the first time in 16 consecutive seasons.
Much of the frustration stems from fans’ perception of just how close Arsenal are to competing for trophies. Arsenal’s much-maligned squad contains quality and fight, evinced by a 10-match unbeaten run at the close of last season. With a responsibly financed super-stadium, a strong starting 11 and a wealth of young talent, much of it notably English, it seems that Arsenal have an excellent foundation.
If only we could sign two or three world class players, fans muse, Arsenal could be in the running.
Whether a handful of signings would turn Arsenal into genuine contenders is debatable. Beyond the question of class, however, the simple question of numbers need to be addressed. Arsenal, via release, loan, or sale, have parted ways with 17 players this summer. They have brought in one.
“We are maybe a bit thin, squad-wise,” Wenger told Arsenal.com, simultaneously acknowledging the lack of depth and putting himself in contention for Understatement of the Year.
Saturday’s match only made things worse. There were reasons to believe, as many Arsenal fans seem to, that the cosmos itself is conspiring to undermine the club’s success. Kieran Gibbs, back to fitness after last year’s injury plagued campaign, was forced off in the first half with a gushing head wound. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, a bright spot in Arsenal’s attack, withdrew at half-time after a freak collision with Antonia Luna; there are fears could be out for months with ligament damage in his knee.
Sagna was lucky to walk away from a horrible fall; the severity of his neck injury is still being assessed.
The league race is a marathon, wisdom tells us, not a sprint. In terms of the league table, the Villa result isn’t as bad as it seems. In terms of Arsenal’s future, however, it just might be catastrophically worse. With Arsenal unable to compete with other superclubs in terms of wages, and with their chances of silverware limited, Champions League football remains their most practical bargaining chip in acquiring new players.
Injuries, damaged confidence, and infighting have created a perfect storm heading into Arsenal’s do-or-die Champions League clash with Fenerbahçe. If Arsenal’s threadbare squad aren’t able to scrape a result in Istanbul, the ramifications of an early Champions League exit could last for years to come.
Arsenal, not for the first time, are on the verge of crisis. Cosmic conspiracy or wild misfortune notwithstanding, Arsenal’s current position is due in large part to Wenger’s lack of foresight, a surprising statement given his erstwhile reputation for innovation. Wenger’s poor vision, at one time comically limited to controversial refereeing decisions, seems to have spread, and one wonders how Arsene’s other senses are holding up:
Beneath the jeers and catcalls that punctuated Saturday’s final whistle, Arsene may have heard a much more disquieting sound: the ominous creak of turning screws.