At some point in the last month or so, along with countless tuneless renditions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, non-stop Mariah Carey being played in retail stores, and several dreadful attempts at Christmas-related puns from football pundits and commentators alike, you will probably have heard someone say that “Christmas is a time for reflection”. Whilst this is something of a platitude, it provides a useful segue to reflect on life without Arsène Wenger.
Enough boring takes have been made about Wenger’s departure and Unai Emery’s start under the new structure at Arsenal. In fact, there seems to be accord amongst fans the like of which was never seen during the civil war days of the last few seasons. There is a renewed sense of optimism at the club.
For the most part, supporters seem to be relatively happy. Results have been adequate; some of last season’s weaknesses have been expunged; there have even been a few big game results which have allowed Emery to endear himself to his new fans. Pundits have been complimentary, too. In fact, there seems to be very little criticism of the Spaniard on all fronts. In the last five years, Wenger could only have wished for the sense of harmony which is currently around the Emirates.
There is a risk, however, that this joy is bordering on delusion. From the very start of the season, there has been a narrative which—it seems—will not be altered. Questionable selection choices, such as consistently leaving Aaron Ramsey on the bench or the likes of Mesut Özil and Lucas Torreira out of the squad earlier on in the season, are heralded as Emery “being tough“, even if they have an adverse effect on the team’s ability to attack and defend. Poor performances, in which Arsenal have barely scraped past weaker opposition, have been excused, too. In truth, the old cliché that winning whilst playing badly is “the sign of champions” only holds true if that is coupled with a majority of good performances. That has not been the case so far.
The 22-game unbeaten run was promising, but fans and pundits have run the risk of getting a touch over-excited. In truth, the matches against Liverpool, Tottenham, and Manchester United were the only three in which there would have been any excuse to lose, and the performances against West Ham, Cardiff, Newcastle, Everton, Watford, Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Wolves, and Huddersfield were all thoroughly unconvincing. Added to that the fact that eight of the matches in this run were against Qarabag, Vorskla, Sporting Libson, Brentford, and Blackpool and the context makes this run look much less impressive.
This is not to do down the new coach. The matches against Fulham, Leicester, Liverpool, and Tottenham were all fabulous efforts which bode well for the future. Against Klopp’s side especially, Emery’s men played with a resilience which was genuinely new. What is slightly worrying is that these have been the only four performances—not results—which can be deemed encouraging. When a new manager comes in, the British press tend to obsess over results, but the reality is that without good performances there will be no sustainability over a long period of time (e.g. 22 years).
Thankfully for this current side, last season’s terrible performance in the league has kept the pressure off. People have forgotten Wenger had built a perfectly good, if imbalanced, side which was characteristically strong going forward, and had plenty of potential. The team’s indifference towards away fixtures meant that their tally of 63 points did not tell the whole story. Any team which manages to pick up 50 points out of 57 at home is worth its salt, and the truth is that if the Gunners had simply had a “bad” record away from home instead of an “apocalyptically awful” one, they would have challenged for the top four with ease. This is all in the past now, and the lack of pressure on the team has been beneficial anyway, but it is worth remembering when the narrative of the team “improving” is parroted by all and sundry.
Currently, it is impossible to prove any arguments over whether Emery has made an improvement before a bit more time has elapsed. At this point, it is futile to try to convince people that Arsenal miss Wenger. He has gone. As have, unfortunately, some of the better aspects of his philosophy.
Up until the last few years, where campaigns went by in what felt like a never-ending cycle, following Arsenal was an unpredictable and exciting experience. Between 2006 and 2016, they were just as likely to put teams to the sword as they were to fall on their own. Regardless of how devastating various moments were, they drew supporters in and helped maintain the emotional connection.
Being a football fan is a bit like being in a relationship, and what good is a relationship if it doesn’t make you feel passion? Stability and a more attritional style of play were needed at times, but no one can deny that the lack of any of that made the better moments all the more enjoyable. And so far, life without Arsène Wenger has seemed a bit too steady.
Arsenal are bound to have very successful periods in our lifetimes. Emery himself could very easily end up winning plenty of trophies either this season or in the future. He or someone else might even end up having the same glory days which Wenger had. What will never be the same, however, is the way in which the club makes these memories.
“Le Professeur” is a cavalier, and that meant that whomever Arsenal were playing, he wanted to outplay them. This lead to absolute embarrassment at times, but when things came together the resulting euphoria was unbeatable; as were the team themselves. That charisma and excitement which the club had will never be the same.
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