By Liam Twomey at Villa Park
If you believe everything you read, no club lurches from unbridled optimism to shrieking despair quite as quickly or frequently as Arsenal.
One moment, they are building an exciting young team. The next, their best player has been sold. Then Arsene Wenger has unearthed another gem. But the squad has been plagued by injuries. It’s zero or 10, boom or bust. Any success is achieved against a backdrop of perennial crisis.
It is, of course, a lie. The reality is that nothing changes quickly or often at Arsenal. This is the inevitable result of the stability afforded to a club which employs the same manager for 16 years. The playing and coaching staff are unusually constant, and so is the level of achievement – the Gunners are top-four mainstays and enjoying their 15th consecutive Champions League campaign.
The only thing that does shift rapidly and regularly is media perception. Extremes are the dominant currency of those in the business of football coverage. After all, middle ground does not sell newspapers or generate website traffic. There can only be triumph or crisis, best or worst, hero or villain.
None of this should be surprising or particularly concerning for Wenger. What is worrying, however, is that a significant minority of Gunners fans seem to have been taken in by this simplistic narrative.
On Saturday evening, Aston Villa and Arsenal played out a dull and turgid goalless draw. There were a couple of chances – on another day either side might have stolen an undeserved victory – but not a great deal of football to be seen.
|MATCH FACTS | Aston Villa 0-0 Arsenal
Arsenal were contesting their third game in a week, having beaten Tottenham in the north London derby the previous weekend and booked their place in the Champions League knockout stages with another success over Montpellier on Wednesday, and were without several of their key names.
Moreover, the match was played in constant rain, on a soaking, skiddy pitch which made consistently accurate passing football nigh on impossible. This was always going to be stinker.
Faced with such crushing mediocrity, a scapegoat was required. Some of the travelling Gunners support led the way, chanting ‘You don’t know what you’re doing’ at Wenger as he made his second-half substitutions. On Twitter, disgraced journalist and self-appointed spokesman for the Arsenal fans Piers Morgan liberally promoted the #WengerOut hashtag employed by many others.
At his post-match press conference, the Gunners boss was forced to bat away repeated requests to justify the decisions to introduce Gervinho, Andrey Arshavin and Francis Coquelin while leaving Jack Wilshere on the bench. He did so admirably and with a fair degree of wit, but the message was as firm as it was justified: “I will not explain every decision I make.”
He might instead have indulged the doubters, humouring their ignorance by explaining that, with another tough away trip to Everton on Wednesday in prospect, it was crucial to give his jaded attackers a rest. He might also have reiterated that caution is still the best policy with Wilshere, who endured 14 months out injured after playing 54 games in his breakthrough season as a 19-year-old.
But he did not, because he knew that to do so would set a precedent which would make his job untenable. There has to be an element of trust between a manager and his fans. If some Arsenal supporters have lost that for Wenger then they are highly foolish. Using any degree of perspective he has never steered them wrong, only perhaps not as right as they would have liked.
By what standard is Wenger failing? If Arsenal are indeed suffering as a result of inferior management to their rivals, it is not because of the Frenchman.
He is not the reason why buying a season ticket at the Emirates Stadium requires you to practically re-mortgage your house, why chief executive Ivan Gazidis can enjoy a 24 per cent pay rise during a seventh consecutive trophyless season, or why the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have driven player wages in this country to new and ever more absurd heights.
Undeniably Wenger is not perfect. He is a stubborn man who appears to give short shrift to views which conflict with his own, and his brazen practicality when it comes to comparing Champions League qualification favourably with winning a trophy does not go down well with a Gunners support who long for something tangible to celebrate.
But operating within the constraints he does, who could realistically fare better? The end of the Wenger era would not herald a drastic change in the policies instigated by those above him.
Would Pep Guardiola or Jose Mourinho really be more able to persuade the Arsenal board to commit the transfer funds and wages required to bring an Eden Hazard or Sergio Aguero to north London? Could they themselves even be persuaded to take the job? And if they could, would they boast the same level of understanding of the values and identity of Arsenal Football Club?
It is clear that many of the questions Gunners fans have of Wenger will remain unanswered. But if they drive him away prematurely, the future will be even more uncertain.
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