Ibelieve a big club must have the ambition to win with style ... You know, there is a famous saying, that the only way to deal with your life is to transform it into art, every minute of your life. Football is an art, like dancing is an art – but only when it’s well done does it become an art. If you see me painting, that is not an art. If you see my wife painting, that is art.”
- Arsène Wenger, manager, Arsenal FC
Wise words indeed, from English football’s favourite French pragmatist. Since taking over the Gunners in 1996, he has become the club’s most successful ever manager, picked up 13 major honours and led them, almost single-handedly, into their gleaming Emirates Stadium, built and paid for thanks to a period of immense success.
But for Wenger, it seems, time - and patience - is running out amongst supporters of the North London giants.
Saturday’s 3-2 defeat at Stoke, which saw them go three goals behind, leaves them sixth in the table, a massive 13 points adrift of leaders Chelsea.
A video later emerged of Wenger being abused before boarding the train home. Arsenal fans, in pro and anti-Wenger factions, came to blows outside the Britannia Stadium. How did it come to this?
If, as that old saying goes, there is, indeed, nowt so queer as folk, then there is certainly nowt as fickle as football fans.
But is that a fair condemnation on Arsenal’s fed-up fans, who have seen their side win one trophy - last season’s FA Cup - in the last nine seasons?
Those in favour of ‘Le Professeur’ will argue that life at the Emirates recently hasn’t been all that bad. A long-serving - and living - fan who had watched each of the 92 Arsenal seasons before Wenger’s arrival, would have seen their side finish in the top four just 23 times. Under the Frenchman? Just the 18 times, in 18 seasons.
On Tuesday, they trounced Galatasaray with their place in the last 16 of the Champions League already signed, sealed and delivered, once again - for the 16th time in as many years. But, for fans shelling out £1,014 for the club’s cheapest season ticket, is that enough?
The answer - it seems, for a growing faction of fans - is no. Consistent Champions League qualification and an omnipresent fourth-placed finish may satisfy the Emirates’ balance sheet and shareholders - but, for the paying punters, consistency isn’t enough. In our ever-changing, evolving society, progress is demanded, expected. And can anyone suggest Arsenal, or their almost-eponymous manager, have progressed over the last decade or so? Off the field, sure. But on it, despite the additions of world-class players like Alexis Sanchez, and world-sized statements of intent like signing the overrated Mesut Özil, they have been left behind by the game-changing monetary might of Manchester City and Chelsea. And, as things stand, it is hard to see them ever catching up.
But, in fairness to the man, is any of this Wenger’s fault? Sure, he is stubborn; but his refusal to sanction break-the-bank signings until they were either necessary or fool-proof was borne out of responsibility, not frugality. He points readily at Portsmouth, as an example of what can go wrong.
And true, while Wenger was once hailed as the great revolutionary of English football, his methods and tactics are starting to appear a little archaic. Could that have contributed to the club’s remarkable injury record of late?
His over-reliance on playing the ‘Arsenal Way’, no matter the situation or opposition, has cost them at times. Their record against fellow members of the elite ‘top-four’ club is nothing short of woeful. To be the best, you have to beat the best, and Arsenal are incapable of doing that.
As one member of the Arsenal fans group Black Scarf Movement, known only as Marc, said: “The mood is really split. I’ve never known the fan-base to be so divided.
“There were physical fights among Arsenal fans taking place in the stands after the game against Stoke because the fans are so divided and so passionate about their cause.
“There’s one side who want Wenger gone, there’s one side who are sticking by him and it’s coming to blows, which is ridiculous. But, that’s where we are.”
So while ‘rival’ factions of the same support may not agree that Wenger is part of the problem, it would be interesting to hear whether they believe he is part of the solution.
Wenger, a deeply studious and intelligent man, will be all too aware of the mounting pressure from the home terraces - or rather, the home padded seats. But he is stubborn, too - as all great sportsmen and women have to be - and it is hard to see him walking away.
Recently, he was asked whether Albert Einstein’s famous old quote about insanity - that doing the same thing again and again, and expecting different results, was the ultimate definition of it.
“Without strong beliefs, you do nothing in life,” came the response.
“If you change every day, you go one day right and one day left.”
At least no one could accuse him of not sticking to his beliefs. Wenger remains convinced that he, and his side, can challenge for the title again in the coming years. His side, containing the likes of Sanchez, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and Danny Welbeck, are certainly exciting to watch and, at times, you understand what the manager means about football and art.
Still only 65 - and looking well for it, too - Wenger retains the hunger to make Arsenal a dominant force once again. He saw Sir Alex Ferguson - for years a rival, and now a close friend - twice revive Manchester United’s fortunes, and Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool revolution almost saw them land the Premier League crown last season.
But the pressure is undoubtedly mounting. For the first time since Roman Abramovich’s rubles arrived, Arsenal’s wage bill is set to surpass that of Chelsea; the big-spenders are on course to actually spend less than their perceived-thrifty London cousins. The irony is that the likes of Liverpool, Spurs and Everton - impressive as some of their displays have been over recent years - would give almost anything for a period of ‘failure’ like Arsenal’s.
As Einstein also once said, everything is relative. But that will be of no comfort to the club’s supporters if, as expected, they limp out of the Champions League and comfortably secure another fourth-placed finish.
Wenger, once asked about the difficulty of aligning performance with reward, admitted: “Of course, we also have the responsibility to win games and the difficulty in the job is to combine both.”
At the moment, he is failing in that regard. And the task shows little sign of getting any easier.