An Up and Down Relationship, in that Order
Now that the “Arsene Out” cry has finally become reality, it’s impossible not to think of the relationship between Arsenal and Arsene Wenger as a beautiful, young couple who got married many years ago, quickly embarking upon a perfectly blissful togetherness, forming brilliant memories never to be forgotten. But in middle age, things started to go awry. The pair tried to keep it under wraps, but the angst was hidden in plain sight, for everybody else to see. They thought about blowing it up and separating. Instead stubbornly refusing to face the truth staring themselves in the mirror, they stayed together, armed with the usual excuses:
- the money situation is great;
- it may not be perfect like it once was, but it’s still fairly comfortable;
- change is risky;
- we don’t want to hurt the kids;
- things used to be so great, we just need to recharge and go away in the summer, then we can get the magic back!
For so long, they were schizophrenically simultaneously excited to get back out there and date again, while also completely terrified of being alone. So they waited... and pondered... and kicked it around some more, as fear and inertia won out. The unease built, but nothing happened. The kids were telling the parents that they were better off alone, that everybody would be o.k. in the end. Meanwhile, the couple looked on as other relationships around them ended quickly, without all of the hand-wringing, seemingly out of nowhere. While some of the new couples didn’t turn out so well, several of the fresh pairings looked awfully beautiful and happy. More than that, a few were even downright sexy!
Finally, unable to take it any longer, they pulled the trigger and cut the cord. And everybody shrugged. Family, friends and colleagues could only offer a lukewarm hug, along with a whisper, “Um, yeah, I feel sad for you, but what took you so long? Why put us all through the practically never-ending ordeal?”
A lot of Hay, and then the Final Straw
Thierry Henry. Ashley Cole. Kolo Toure. Gael Clichy. Cesc Fabregas. Samir Nasri. Alex Song. Robin van Persie. Bacary Sagna. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Alexis Sanchez. The list of Gunners who have departed Wenger and Arsenal in recent years searching for trophies (generally successfully) is pretty gosh darn damning.
Despite losing top players, however, defenders of Wenger were always quick to point out his ability to refresh with new talent. Santi Cazorla. Lukas Podolski. Mesut Ozil. Petr Cech. Alexandre Lacazette. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang.
What’s more, connoisseurs could take solace in Arsenal’s style of beautiful football, arguing that dazzling Premier League soccer just couldn’t win the league or go far in the Champions League any more, but it was worth the trade-off for the sake of appreciation. After all, in the prior three seasons, defensive-minded Chelsea won the title twice, and a counter-attacking Leicester City shocked the world in between.
However, in 2017/18, Liverpool and Manchester City have run that argument into the ground. It is, in fact, possible to play both aesthetically delightful and ruthlessly successful football.
The Odd Mathematics of Four and Six
We all recall the days of the Premier League, not so long ago, when it was ruled by four teams: Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United. Then Manchester City entered the picture. And then Tottenham Hotspur photobombed the selfie. Yet there are only four spots in the Champions League for Premier League teams (or five if another wins the Europa League). It’s impossible for any of the “Big Six” teams to get too comfortable.
In fact, recent seasons have shown truly insane highs and lows, particularly from Chelsea. The Blues won the Premier League title in 2014/15, then plummeted to 10th in 2015/16. Not surprisingly, Jose Mourinho felt the axe. Antonio Conte took the crown in his first season of 2016/17, but now seated in fifth place, the team risks missing out on Champions League next campaign. Manchester City and Liverpool, of course, have endured their share of ups and downs, but Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp clearly have put their trains back on the right track.
After finishing fifth in 2016/17, Arsenal currently sits in sixth, with Europa League its only real shot at getting into Champions League. In sum, four divided by six equals pain for the outliers, and two seasons in a row as an outlier is one too long.
The Fluid State of the Premier League Manager
Sir Alex Ferguson managed Manchester United from 1986 to 2013. When Ferguson retired after winning the 2012/13 title, David Moyes stepped in. Moyes himself had led Everton from 2002-2013, and the thought was that he could continue the Ferguson tradition with a long spell at Old Trafford. Unfortunately, what happened instead was a harbinger of things to come across the Premiership.
United fell all the way down to the 7th spot, and Moyes was unceremoniously dumped. Louis van Gaal moved the team up to fourth place in 2014/15, but fell to fifth in 2015/16 and was canned. Now Jose Mourinho, following two fairly brief spells at Chelsea, is in his second season at United, and despite moving the team up to second place at the moment, does not seem extremely comfortable.
Arsene Wenger started at Arsenal in 1996, and leaves now as the last of the long-tenured Premier League managers. It’s possible that Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pocchetino, and/or someone(s) else will stay on for a long time and re-establish the trend of the veteran overseer. For now, though, both successful and failed skippers tend to move on or move out, respectively, in somewhat short order.
Where Does This Leave Arsenal?
If Wenger had been sacked or resigned in recent years, could Arsenal have attracted someone such as Klopp, Pocchettino, or Guardiola? Perhaps, but impossible to say. If so, would they have been better off now? Probably, but again, unknowable for certain. Perhaps they would have paired with Jose Mourinho or someone else, and in that case, maybe they would be worse off, much like United with Moyes and Van Gaal. Can anybody be sure? No, of course not.
Arsenal were hopeful, Wenger was stubborn, and that combination turned out poorly. Just as we couldn’t be certain that Wenger wouldn’t turn things around, we can’t know for sure that they would have gotten Pep and that the Gunners would be rolling to the title instead of the Citizens. Similarly, we don’t know what’s in store for the future. Who will they hire? How will things turn out? I have no idea, but I can’t wait to find out.
For now, there are a few questions, starting with, How will the rest of this season play out, and what are the fantasy implications? First off, the big surprise to me is that Wenger sounds like he’s going to play his first string Europa League team against West Ham on Sunday in advance of Thursday’s game against Atletico Madrid, rather than giving some key players rest. In doing so, he may actually bench his most dangerous offensive player, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, since the Borussia Dortmund import is cup tied and thus ineligible to feature in European competition.
Another question is, How is the team going to respond? Will they daydream, dilly dally or play as individuals rather than as a unified squad under their lame duck manager? Or shall they pull together and give the living legend a proper send-off? I’m betting on the latter.
And finally, What about the fans? Will they come out and boo, or will they cheer on the lads and show appreciation for Wenger? Again, I expect the second scenario. Arsenal fans have always been conflicted concerning their feelings regarding Wenger, but now that the decision that they’ve long been advocating has been made, I really don’t see why they wouldn’t show appreciation all around.
For all of Arsenal’s woes this campaign, the Gunners have been terrific at the Emirates. So go ahead and load up on Arsenal stars (other than PEA) this weekend against West Ham. After that, unfortunately the Gunners play a tough one at Old Trafford in between the pair of vital games against Atletico Madrid. Then an exhausted side welcomes Burnley three days later, followed shortly thereafter by a trip to Leicester City, and we know how bad Arsenal has been on the road. Wenger may have one or two last days in the sun, but ultimately he may not get the send-off that he always so desperately wanted. But that’s usually what happens with hubris, isn’t it?
What is your reaction to Wenger’s departure? Are you offloading your Arsenal stars, doubling down or even expanding the use of Gunner assets for your fantasy teams? Let us know in the comments below!