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Who is to blame for the mess at Arsenal?

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Let’s get into it.

Arsenal v AS Monaco FC - UEFA Champions League Round of 16 Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

First things first: Arsenal are in a position that a lot of teams would envy. They’re financially stable, they’re run without much drama, and despite the form of the last few months, they’re a very consistently good team overall. So when I say something like “who is to blame for the mess at Arsenal?”, I am fully cognizant that “mess” is a relative term, and that, say, Sunderland or Monday’s opponent Middlesbrough would love to be in Arsenal’s kind of mess right now, as opposed to the messes they’re currently in.

That said, though, things aren’t great at Arsenal right now, and since we’ve approached this issue from a bunch of different angles already, rather than rehashing all those arguments, I thought I’d write about it in a slightly different, maybe more...accusational sort of way.

Whose fault is this?

Well, if we accept the premise that there’s not one single factor that caused Arsenal’s current mess, there’s plenty of blame to go around. And we should also accept the premise that there’s no one right answer to the ‘who’s to blame’ question - it’s all a matter of interpretation, and I’m not about to, say, start assigning percentages of blame to each party or to find a “smoking gun” or anything like that. I just think it’s an interesting question that we haven’t really looked at holistically yet, we’ve just focused our anger on the manager and, sometimes, the players.

So let’s go around the horn, shall we?

Arsene Wenger

We all know his arc, his accomplishments, and his legacy by now. What I want to focus on is not so much “how did we get here” as it is why things under his watch are going badly right now, as opposed to when Arsenal were shedding players regularly during the Stadium Birthing Era.

So what’s different now? In short, the game is, and more crucially, he is not. Ever since he started at Arsenal, one of my main critiques of him is that he has no plan B if things go sideways. From 1996 until about five years ago, plan A actually worked well; particularly early in his tenure, when nobody knew what was coming and they weren’t prepared to cope with it, Arsenal ran over everyone.

But then, as sports do, soccer evolved. Teams caught up, both fitness and training wise and tactically, to what Arsenal were doing, and in many cases surpassed them. Meanwhile, Arsene is still wedded to his ideology of “let smart players play and figure things out”, which only works if he’s given his players the tools to figure suboptimal things out. And he clearly has not.

Oh, by the way - the whole “how to beat Arsenal” thing? It’s not exactly a secret. Ask Sam Allardyce, after yesterday’s game, and he’ll tell you:

...defend and frustrate them, keep them playing sideways, then use the space behind the full-backs. Arsenal have been weak defensively, they leave the centre-backs exposed. We won a lot of possession off them.

He is not the first manager to either say things like this, or to actually succeed at doing them against Arsenal. He’s just the latest. And that’s the problem - Arsenal are very much a known quantity at this point. And since Arsene seems to think that his way is the best/only way, that state of affairs won’t change as long as Arsene is in charge.

The Players

No matter how rigid a managerial philosophy, good or bad, the execution of that philosophy is down to the players. And while it’s not as binary as “they do or they don’t”, whether they do or don’t has as much to do with their preparation and mindset as it does their talent and ability.

Arsenal are a ridiculously talented team that, for whatever reason, isn’t playing up to its ability right now, in almost every facet of the game. People have spent thousands of words trying to figure out why; I’m not going to be arrogant enough to think that I can figure out out, because I can’t. All I can do is speculate. But, going back to Arsene’s playing philosophy, one of the knocks on the “go do smart things smartly” way of coaching is that it doesn’t really drill the players on any sort of structured change in approach if things aren’t working right.

Without that, players in a creative sport can get lost quickly. I’m not saying players are dumb - far from it, they’re information processing machines that motor through more decisions in 5 minutes than I do in a day. But, they’re also typically drilled and trained to have a set number of responses to situations, not just a shrug and a “you’re smart, go figure it out”.

Given that lack of instruction, when they are faced with adverse situations, Arsenal players seem to shrink from the situation instead of rising to it - whether that’s down to a lack of on-pitch leadership contributing to the lack of a framework or what, I’m not sure. All I know is that Arsenal all too often have a deer-in-headlights look when they’re in a backs-to-the-wall sort of situation, and it’s really frustrating to watch as a fan because there’s always that nagging suspicion that, like yesterday, they won’t be able to work their way out of it (even if sometimes they do).

The Board

The Arsenal board consists of six people, chaired by Stan Kroenke. Those six men control everything that happens at Arsenal on both the playing and the business sides of the house. They have done an amazing job growing the business side; they built a stadium, they have increased Arsenal’s commercial income exponentially, and they’ve turned Arsenal into, by some measures, the sixth or seventh richest club in the game.

Throughout the years, the Arsenal board have repeatedly said that Arsene can spend more or less what he likes - “what he likes” is, obviously, within realistic limits, but there’s never been a summer when the board has said “you only have £50 million to spend” or whatever. They’re remarkably willing to let Wenger make all the playing staff decisions, and they generally do so without any intervention. Which, to be fair, is exactly what one would want from a board of directors - they’re business experts, not football experts.

Where the board has fallen down, in my view, is in their distinct lack of external pressure on Arsene Wenger. I don’t mean that Sir Chips should come out after every bad result and say ‘THIS IS ARSENE’S NEXT TO LAST CHANCE TO GET IT RIGHT’, or anything; I just mean that, in a lot of business circumstances, boards will leak things to the press about how they’d love to see results improve, while saying the same thing to Arsene to his face, in order to ratchet up the pressure. Not that that’s the best thing to do, really, but it’s a thing that’s done.

But the Arsenal board doesn’t do that. They stay on the sidelines, having put their entire collective faith and trust in Arsene and being willing to ride that horse wherever it takes them, for as long as it can. From the outside, it appears that they have placed a premium on maintaining the status quo, and have not prioritized evolving the club from a playing perspective, and that’s too bad. The board could have a big hand in shaping Arsenal not just based on the successes of the last 20 years but in anticipation of the next 20, when things will by necessity be very, very different at the club.

After all, when Wenger goes, there would realistically have to be more than one person brought in to replace him; the era of one man running everything at a club the size of Arsenal should end when Wenger’s tenure as manager ends, because it’s not realistic in this day and age to have one man control everything. The board’s failure to realize or to act on that last point over the past about five seasons or so is a large part of why we are where we are today.

Stan Kroenke

Yes, I know he’s on the board. But he’s also the owner, and the buck - the pound, whatever, Harry Truman was never president of England - stops with him. But if you think the board is hands-off, well, Kroenke may as well not even have hands, if I can torture that saying a bit. Objectively speaking, Kroenke is exactly what I would want from an owner - a person who doesn’t meddle with the running of the team, doesn’t get involved in needless Twitter beefs with fans and the media (Hi Merritt!), and just generally lets things be things.

The downside to that, of course, is what happens - or doesn’t happen - when things stop being things. When things start turning for the worse, that’s when an owner should step in and at the very least say “what can I do to right this ship”, and maybe throw piles of money at the problem or something. But not Stan. He seems incredibly content to just sit back, take out a few million pounds a year (for which I don’t blame him at all, but someone would have brought it up, so), and let the club do its thing.

As with all things, there’s a balance - I wouldn’t want Stan to all of a sudden think he’s the Magic Fixing Everything Guy and mess things up worse. But as the owner of a significant investment, you’d think he’d be hands-on enough to recognize a problem and order his subordinates to repair the problem ASAP, and for whatever reason, he hasn’t and won’t do that.

The Fans

Who, us? Yes, us. This is a tricky one, though. Because we as a fanbase have very, very limited agency in anything that happens at Arsenal. Despite all the noises players and the club makes about how they love the fans, it’s basically a one way relationship. We give them our time, money, eyeballs, and a large chunk of our psyche, and they give us sports.

We as fans can’t directly influence any club decision as long as we still spend money on the club. So, assuming that people always will, because people always will, what role do the fans have to play in the current problems at Arsenal?

I think that’s kind of the wrong way to approach the question, though. It’s less that than it is “are we as fans making it worse?” I don’t believe that fans always have to be ride or die for the team - when they play badly for a long stretch like this, it’s natural to want to boo or to leave early or whatever. But when you have players going over to the fans after a tough loss to thank the fans for coming, and then those fans are chanting YOU’RE NOT FIT TO WEAR THE SHIRT, that definitely takes a toll.

Players - particularly younger players, who grew up with it more - are definitely on social media. They see what people say about them, even if it’s just their friends saying “hey did you see what people are saying about you”, and over time, the relentless negative vibe would have to wear on them - they’re human, after all. You try doing your job with a dozen people on the other side of the room loudly shouting YOU SUCK at you for 90 minutes and see how well you do.

I’m not for a minute suggesting we all need to Be Behind The Team No Matter What. I know how sports works; I’m not naive. I’m just saying that we play a part; that constant negativity can be draining on players, especially at home where there’d be a reasonable expectation that fans would, in fact, be behind the team.

I think ultimately, all of these factors are playing a part, and I’d be hesitant to say one was worse or more responsible than the others. Arsenal are in a place right now they’ve not been in in more than 20 years, and all we want to do is try to make sense of it in some way.