It is often said that the best way to deal with an emotional setback is to talk or write about it. Talking or writing is meant to be therapeutic, and if so, it is a measure of the pain caused by Arsenal’s defeat that I immediately felt the urge to write about it in its aftermath. By delaying that process for a while longer, I only found my repressed emotions about the match had a knock-on effect on other little things that impact one’s mood throughout the day.
Nor is there any cause on this occasion for non-football fans to scorn at the oft-justified lack of perspective that us fans can display about a win or a loss. This loss was about more than a simple match; it was about one man’s legacy, the shame in seeing a fine oeuvre unjustifiably sacrificed by the brittleness of his players, and the pain of knowing it all seems to be heading towards a very unhappy end. Arsene Wenger is no ordinary manager, and just as he is held to a seemingly impossible standard in comparison with managers who have trodden a more familiar career path, so the pain caused by seeing his career come to the type of end suffered by so many in this profession is also unique.
The performance encapsulated the promise and bitter failure of so many post-2006 performances: a rousing first 48 minutes in which Arsenal looked every inch a team with the right balance between flair, steel and cunning, followed by the rest of the second half in which they characteristically threw away all their good work in stunningly naïve fashion. Not even on a school pitch would you see players perform as abjectly as Wenger’s did for him in the moments after Bayern went 2-1 up.
The sense of Wenger as martyr is increased by signs all around him of the necessary, functional ingredients other teams enjoying success have which, for practical or principled reasons, he has been unable or unwilling to acquire. For all their class, Bayern Munich are essentially an unimaginative football team who owe their success to the sense of entitlement that money can buy. While Wenger was being assailed by his fans yet again for lacking tactical nous, Carlo Ancelotti could get away with the respect of football fans the world over despite fielding the same 4-2-3-1 formation Wenger is derided for and owing his champions league trophies (another thing Wenger is derided for) to working with the most brilliant players of their respective periods. Bayern’s arrogance in victory yesterday underlined a sense of entitlement born of riches and access to the best players, which merely heightens the frustration that Arsenal – a team that, despite all their problems, still carried the unique Wenger stamp of free flowing football in patches yesterday – could not be a more consistent match for them and thereby stand in stark contrast as a standard-bearer for the best qualities in football. If Bayern represent the mechanised evolution of football in the era of pressing and mammoth clubs, Wenger’s failure to adapt has at least preserved Arsenal’s status as a club trying to do things the right way on the pitch, committed to a strategy that others would deem foolhardy. For Wenger undoubtedly manages players with lesser talent than many of his opponents; for all the claims that Arsenal match up on paper to the best in the Premier League, they are far below what Chelsea or Bayern can boast.
In this age of mechanised football, it is impossible to totally rule out the suspicion that Wenger is missing one more ingredient which has distanced the gap between Arsenal and the rest: drugs. The stats will show Bayern ran as much as Arsenal yesterday, but Arsenal consistently look outpaced and slower in 50-50 challenges compared to their immediate rivals (not to mention suffering injuries on a far more believably human level than the Clark Kents at other clubs). While giving football the benefit of the doubt, the history in German football of doping, the lack of thorough testing in football, and the history of other sports means it would be foolish to take everything we see at face value.
For all these reasons – finances, the players at his disposal, the injuries he has suffered and, above all, the manager he has been and the man he is – there is no way this blog will come even close to adding to the vitriol now being poured on his head.
Instead, the fans should turn their attention to the players towards whom he has only been guilty of one fault: affording them his trust and patience for too long. The manner in which they collapsed yesterday made it clear that it did not directly emanate from the dressing room, in the sense of tactical misdirection, but rather from a childlike inability to deal with the disappointment of going a goal down in the second half. From that moment on, Arsenal played with a callowness that is unbecoming of professional players and indicative of a subconscious complacency which has taken advantage of the loyalty of their manager. From the time that Flamini left for AC Milan, Arsenal players have shown a selfish disregard for the idealism and vision of their manager to create a unique project at Arsenal. This applies to the dumpers like Fabregas, Nasri and Van Persie and, perhaps on a lesser scale, to those who have not developed to the level which would have been expected of them by now, and even to those such as Sanchez who have sometimes shown a tendency to hog the ball on the pitch in a manner antithetical to Wenger’s vision of dazzling, collective attacks. The sense now that he is approaching the end on his own, with a storm raging all around him, is galling to those to whom he has meant so much over the years.