Like all soap operas that have gone on too long, it seems at Arsenal that you’ve heard every story before. One of the Mitchells has slept with somebody he shouldn’t have. Lassiter’s is under threat. Curly Watts has been unlucky in love. Arsene Wenger hopes he can build on a decent end to the season.
After Saturday’s win over Lincoln, Arsenal are in another FA Cup semi-final, the 11th of Wenger’s time as manager. There is the possibility of an unprecedented seventh success for him. Wenger clearly feels he hasn’t had the credit he deserves for that.
“You have to accept that nothing is good enough,” he said. “You have to live with that.”
And it is perhaps true that there is a relentlessness to football, a sense that all that matters is what happens next.
It’s more than three decades since Brian Clough reflected that nobody ever gives you time to enjoy a victory: the trophy isn’t in the cabinet before the world moves on and asks what the next step is.
In the years since, the treadmill has only sped up. It’s not insignificant that the winners of every major domestic trophy in England last season are all now out of a job. Silverware only intensifies the demand for more.
“The importance of the game has become bigger,” Wenger said. “You cannot escape any more. No matter where a player goes today it’s talked about. You have so many news channels. People talk about it.
Maybe 30 years ago, the guy who lost a game has one journalist who went with the players to the pub and had a beer after. And sometimes two and three, four, five or more.”
Yet at the same time, it’s legitimate to as what it would actually mean were Arsenal to win the FA Cup this season.
They would move back ahead of Manchester United as the most successful side ever in the competition, but it would be hard to make the case that anything had fundamentally changed at the club, that any of the frustrations that caused around 200 fans to march on the ground on Saturday would have been resolved.
That was the narrative in 2014. Then too Arsenal had gone out of the Champions League to Bayern Munich in the last 16, although by a 3-1 aggregate rather than the 10-2 embarrassment of this season. (And the way Wenger persistently brought up that game suggested how it has weighed on his mind; he has, he said, watched the second leg three times since Wednesday, drawing rather different conclusions to almost everybody else by describing the performance as “outstanding”.) Their league form had wobbled badly in the new year. There’d been emphatic away defeats to other members of what was then a big four. But the FA Cup offered hope.
They came from 2-0 down in the final to beat Hull City and claim their first trophy in nine years. Alexis Sanchez arrived that summer to join Mesut Ozil: two big transfers, a sign that, with the repayments on the stadium debt under control, Arsenal could once again compete with the very best.
Three years on, Arsenal have won one more FA Cup. The big four is now a big six, which means missing out on Champions League qualification is a serious threat. Sanchez looks like leaving the club in the summer. Despite an offer reported to be £280,000 a week, Ozil still hasn’t signed a new deal: it’s not clear who else who could afford him would want him, but at the very least it can be said that he isn’t convinced about committing.
Sanchez and Ozil are significant because they were supposed to be emblematic of a new age, but the problems go deeper than that. Granit Xhaka, last summer’s big signing, has struggled: even allowing for the differential in wages, how was he £5m more expensive than N’Golo Kante?
And then there are a host of players – Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Jack Wilshere, Calum Chambers, perhaps even Aaron Ramsey – who after showing huge early promise have for one reason or another not quite developed as they should.
Whether Wenger stays or whether he goes, there is major rebuilding work to be done – and that is true whether Arsenal go out in the semi-final or win the FA Cup for a 13th time. It’s the same old story, spiralling round and round towards stagnation.
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