LONDON – The walk from the security-guarded gate at Selhurst Park to the Arsenal coach is about 15 meters, but to the players beaten 3-0 by relegation-threatened Crystal Palace Monday it must have seemed 150 meters.
Arsenal supporters, whose mood was toxic after witnessing another dire display, chanted “you’re not fit to wear the shirt” at the defeated team.
In some respects, it is the ultimate insult. Fans, who pay a lot of money to follow their team around the country, believed the players were not worthy of wearing the club’s shirt. In public they say they are “disappointed” but it must be hoped their inner feelings were a lot stronger. Supporters who have cheered and hero-worshipped them have turned on the players who have let them down too often. Enough is enough.
Theo Walcott, the Arsenal captain for the night, which underlined the paucity of leaders at Arsene Wenger’s disposal, had said on television that “Palace wanted it more than us . . . you could sense that from the kickoff.” Walcott never explained what the “it” was he referred to, though the natural assumption is that Palace had more will to win than Arsenal, perhaps more stomach for the physical battle that comes with any match at that level.
How any Premier League side comprising highly paid full international players with a top-class management and coaching team to prepare them could possibly not want “it,” whatever this may be, as much as the opposition is the most damning indictment in any sport. The fans were right, they really are not fit to wear the shirt.
The fact is that too often Arsenal has had a soft underbelly, especially away from home. We have seen Arsenal outfought — within the laws — and outmuscled by opponents and too many Gunners disappearing when the going gets tough.
It is why results over the past six years such as Manchester United 8, Arsenal 2; Manchester City 6, Arsenal 3; Liverpool, 5 Arsenal 1; Chelsea 6, Arsenal 1 and what have become regular 5-1 defeats by Bayern Munich no longer surprise.
This will be Arsenal’s 13th year without a league title and we are seeing a Groundhog Day same old, same old season. The only positive at the moment is that on Monday, Arsenal plays a Middlesbrough team which has managed a Premier League-low 22 goals in 31 matches though the game at Emirates Stadium in October was a goal-less draw of numbing tedium.
Arsenal goes into the Easter program in sixth place, its total of 54 points the same as Everton, which has played two matches more. Arsenal is seven points behind fourth-place Manchester City and there is every chance that for the first time in Wenger’s 21-year reign the club will not qualify for the Champions League.
The Arsenal board is aware that most of the club’s supporters do not want Wenger to sign a new contract. If market research showed the majority of those asked about a new soft drink or chocolate bar were against the product, the company would not go forward with the idea.
Football doesn’t work like the real world, though, and it seems Arsenal is willing for Wenger to remain in charge for at least another year, probably two, though any decision will be “mutual.”
The announcement will apparently be made at the end of the season and by then Arsenal could have won the F.A. Cup. This will make little difference to the supporters whose collective vitriol is almost tangible. That Wenger may have to make changes to his coaching setup and have a director of football appointed will not change the darkening mood either. The fans want Wenger out.
Talk to those who follow Arsenal about a possible successor and they say “ABW” — anyone but Wenger. Manchester United found it difficult to replace Sir Alex Ferguson, but Arsenal fans do not think anybody could do worse than the Frenchman.
Wenger’s record demanded that he should have left the club with his head held high, but whenever he departs he has stayed too long and a dignified exit is now impossible. Over the past four seasons Arsenal’s points tally had dropped each year; Wenger’s dealing in the transfer market, which used to be supreme, has become woeful — Borussia Moenchengladbach must still be celebrating that Arsenal paid it £35 million for Granit Xhaka, a midfielder who adds a new dimension to limited.
The reason why Arsenal, in particular major shareholder Stan Kroenke, remains pro-Wenger is that the manager is a financial success. The move from Highbury to the £390 million Emirates Stadium in 2006 was largely financed by Wenger’s transfer dealings and Kroenke, who owns the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Rams, has certainly benefited personally.
Kroenke’s 67 percent shareholding, worth £700 million, would bring him a profit of £300 million on his investment if he sold. No wonder Kroenke says Wenger is “one of my favorite people I have met in the last 20 years.”
All of which is no consolation for fans who pay top dollar to watch a side, indeed a club, that has lost its way. Sir Alex Ferguson once said: “Complacency is a disease, especially for individuals and organizations that have enjoyed success. The question going through my mind during any celebration was: ‘How do we top this?’ “
It is a question that has not been asked at Arsenal for a long time.
Even if Wenger stays, Emirates will be full next season, though the atmosphere will remain negative as most of the crowd has reached the point of no return with the manager. This has passed the careful-what-you-wish-for stage and there is no pleasure sitting in the Emirates press box seeing a man who has done so much for his club and adoptedcountry being abused.
Loyalty is an admirable quality, but at Arsenal it has become misplaced to the point of stubbornness. Supporters no longer see finishing fourth as acceptable, which has led to gallows humor like the fan who tweeted the result of the Masters: 1. Sergio Garcia 2. Justin Rose 3. Charl Schwartzel 4. Arsenal.
If Wenger left this summer it would take the next manager two to three years to make Arsenal a genuine title contender, let alone a real force in Europe. More immediately, Arsenal fans are hoping the players want “it” at least as much as Middlesbrough on Monday.
Pays to be an intermediary
The Football Association published details of how much clubs paid agents between October 2015 and February 2016. It did not specify how much each agent earned, or perhaps “was paid” is more appropriate, only each club’s total outlay.
Wycombe Wanderers of League Two was the lowest payer with just £300 handed to an intermediary, as FIFA prefers to call them. I can say with absolute confidence that the agent involved was not Mino Raiola, who pocketed a reported £25 million for his part in Paul Pogba’s move from Juventus to Manchester United.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.