05 March 2017

And, lo, the scales fell from his eyes, and he regained his sight...

So. It's come to this, at long last. I'm done with Arsène. I've stood by him through some of the leaner times, defended him with by-now battered canards such as "consistency matters" and "Champions League qualification is an achievement", parried his critics by pointing out that he financed a stadium. I've finally reached my limit. I accept what many others have long ago decided: it's time for Arsène to go. It's not even about the result at Anfield. Or the Allianz Arena or Stamford Bridge. Losses at any one of those is understandable, and losses at three might even be acceptable. However, it's how we've lost that's shaken me.

In each match, not only were we outplayed, we were outmanaged. This refers to the product on the pitch—the players, the formations, the tactics—as well as to the product off of it. Yes, Bayern and Chelsea can simply go out and rent mercenaries for a few years, but that's hardly the only explanation for the gaping chasm between us and the world-class clubs. Conte has come into Chelsea and instilled more than tactics or formations; he's inspired and motivated his squad to play to a higher level. Ancelotti's done the same at Bayern (as an interesting side-note, if only to indulge in a bit of cheap schadenfreude, what does this imply about Guardiola at Man City?).

By stark contrast, we've looked listless, dispirited, and out of our depth, and that's just as true at Allianz Arena, Anfield, and Stamford Bridge as it's been at Gander Green Lane...and at the Emirates itself. Most if not all of our players have not shown the kind of dedication or passion that a squad in our situation needs. Having lost four of our last six (with the two wins coming against decidedly smaller sides), one would hope that there would be a collective reckoning. It hasn't happened. It certainly hasn't come from Arsène, not before any of these last six matches and not at halftime, to judge from our performances. To wit, the only time when there was a noticeable surge in our urgency came when the next sacrifical lamb was introduced—I refer to the subbing on of Alexis against Liverpool.

If you go for the click-bait rumours, he didn't start because of a dust-up during training. Something to do with his being overly passionate and therefore critical of this or that. You can now find any number of sites of varying degrees of respectability trashing Alexis for being out of line. Pardon me for going out on a limb here, but, he might very well be the one shouting that the Emperor wears no clothes. Much as it pains me to paint Arsène with such a brush, the paint seems to fit.

Here is a player who wants to win so badly that he'll needlessly risk injury to achieve it. Sadly, only part of that sentence merits a desultory "Arsenal DNA!" remark. For those in the dark, it's the bit about injuries. In other words, there seems to be far too few players in the squad who are hungry—desperate, even—to win. I don't know if I need more than one hand to count the number of players who crave success. The only one who clearly does is now being dragged through the mud for being out of line.

If these stories of a training-ground dust-up are true, well, we're getting a peek at the man behind the curtain. For as much as I've respected and defended Arsène, for as much as I've dumped on Nasri and van Versie and Fàbregas, it's a bit ironic for me to finally come to this realization. After all, those players "owed"  Arsène because he stood by them as they worked to achieve potential. Alexis, by contrast, stands as the antithesis to Arsène's ostensible legacy, that of the manager who finds starlets and turns them into superstars. Alexis may not have been a superstar when he joined Arsenal, but he was hardly the diamond in the rough that Arsène was once famous for finding.

However, he wants to win. Desperately, With an insatiable hunger. To a degree that threatens his well-being. For him to then upend the apple-cart shouldn't come across as sour grapes (sorry to mix the metaphors, as always). He's simply shining a light on a shortcoming that I and too many have long ignored.

All of this, by the way, breaks my heart. I love what Arsène stands for. I love the idea that there is a right way to do things, and sticking to that way matters a great, great deal. I hate the idea that the super-wealthy can play by it not make their own rules (and fully recognize the potential irony of that stance while supporting a club like Arsenal instead of, say, Sutton United). I hate that there are clubs that can spend like they're drunken sailors and park a bus at the same time.

Arsène revolutionized the way that football is played. He brought to the Premier League an aesthetic, a belief that process and product both matter. Sadly, he has hoisted himself on the the first half of that petard, perhaps failing to realize that his players crave the second half. In other words, there's a balance to be struck between principles and pragmatics. His insistence on the former undermines his claim to the latter. He deserves to be remembered for something better. Whether he will depends whether or not he accepts that his time has passed, regardless of how this season turns out.