Countless articles which state the obvious about the current situation at Arsenal have been written: about how the fans are allegedly more fickle than anyone else in football; about how the club is in a seemingly never-ending cycle of what is deemed to be ‘failure’; about what needs to be done to solve all the team’s problems and why Arsène Wenger must spend hundreds of millions on whichever players are the current flavour of the month. And, of course, there are the endless, repetitive jokes about ‘top four trophies’ and ArsenalFanTV meltdowns.
Most criticisms of Arsenal have become almost cliché. What can be missed by those who don’t belong is how different things feel now to the period between 2006 and 2013, when the cycle was still in full flow and things were much worse, but more interesting.
Everyone remembers the early days of Arsenal’s time at the Emirates Stadium: The results, the players, the embarrassments, the leg breaks, the kicked water bottles, the line-ups, Amaury Bischoff and everything in between. What will stick out in the memories of most Gunners fans is that, in comparison to now, those bizarre days were quite enjoyable.
The best thing about football—and most sports—is that it’s unpredictable. That’s what makes it more exciting than other hobbies and passions. In those days, Arsenal were the epitome of unpredictability. One moment, Emmanuel Adebayor was scoring 30 goals in a season as he led the side towards the top of the table; the next, he was scoring against them for Manchester City and running 90 yards to taunt the fans who had once loved him. One moment, the likes of Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, Tomas Rosicky and Aliaksandr Hleb were putting in midfield masterclasses; the next, Mikaël Silvestre was haplessly trying to keep out Lionel Messi. Absolutely anything was possible—even being 4-0 up didn’t guarantee anything—and it was wildly entertaining.
Arsenal are still erratic, but it’s not as much fun. Perhaps it’s a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Everyone knows how the season will pan out and what kind of results will occur, and that’s boring. What has certainly made things less enjoyable, however, is that the club is in a much better state than it was when the stadium move first happened, and therefore it is much easier to become impatient and unsatisfied when things don’t go to plan.
When any money the club could find was going on paying off the stadium debt and Wenger couldn’t afford to sign top players, reaching the Champions League and, in the final few years of the trophy drought, finishing above Tottenham felt like an achievement. Looking at some of the squads the manager was forced to get the most out of, finishing in the top four was possibly overachieving.
Now, with enough money to buy at least the best players who aren’t at the ‘superclubs’ and Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez in the side, only winning trophies feels like an achievement, even though Arsenal are still doing well to reach Europe’s premier competition every year. ‘Doing well’ isn’t good enough anymore—increased expectations have meant that fans are let down every year; a feeling which, when replicated time and time again, is very unsavoury.
What makes watching Arsenal even less exciting at the moment is that, despite having better players at their disposal, they play worse football than they used to. In the days of Fàbregas, Rosicky, Hleb, Nasri, Robin van Persie and even Andrey Arshavin for a while, Wenger’s teams were unbelievably stylish, even if it meant that they were fragile and easy to intimidate. When the team clicked, it was a joy to behold.
Probably since the 2013-14 season, that style has rarely been on show. There have been plenty of excellent results and easy wins, but there hasn’t been the same beauty that there was before. Ugly wins against good teams are a joy to behold, but edgy 2-0 wins against inferior opposition, usually brought about by individual brilliance instead of the team creating goals together, don’t generate the same thrill. Watching a club famed for its style of play struggling to string passes together in midfield is not pleasant.
What is much worse than the repetitiveness, loss of flair and crushing of expectations is the atmosphere surrounding the club. There have always been fickle and angry fans and in the last ten years there have been plenty of very toxic moments, but nowadays it can be unbearable at times. The pro- and anti-Wenger factions within the club seem to support two different teams—two teams who absolutely despise each other, at that—and Arsenal itself seems to have taken a backseat.
The constant discussion and arguing over one man and one man only is very boring, but what makes it almost upsetting is that the man in question deserves so much better. This is not to say that he should be devoid of all blame and criticism, nor that any criticism of him makes supporting Arsenal less enjoyable; it is the vitriol which is directed towards him which he does not deserve, and a happy ending that he does deserve.
That is the worst part of the repetitive cycle: Arsenal are so predictable that it’s obvious that Wenger is not going to get the last hurrah he merits more than anyone. The man who re-built the club in his own, stylish image and who has watched the advent of sugar-daddy owners and inflated transfer fees destroy his awe-inspiring project will not be remembered as fondly as he should. Whether or not that is his own fault is another matter, but coming to that realisation has not only been unpleasant, but almost distressing for fans.
Football fans care too much about their teams. It is only possible to understand if one ‘belongs’. When supporting a team becomes a chore, a hole in one’s life appears. When supporting a team becomes boring and at the same time pernicious, it eats away at the soul.
A few years ago, José Mourinho accused Arsenal of being ‘boring‘ because they had gone ten years without winning a league title. The point that he missed, probably deliberately, is that those ten years had been incredibly exciting, if not necessarily for the right reasons. Since he made that comment, Arsenal have definitely become ‘boring’, and it has certainly been for all the wrong reasons.