It didn’t take long for the first extreme knee-jerk reaction of the season – just until around 4.45 on Saturday afternoon in fact.
Arsenal started brightly against Aston Villa, but became sloppy and maybe even complacent. Once Villa had got back in the game with Christian Benteke’s equaliser, Arsenal reverted to the sort of defensive panic which they so often fall into when they suddenly come under pressure.
With tedious predictability, the focus of attention quickly turned on Arsene Wenger, with calls for him to get busy in the remaining weeks of the summer transfer window. But as so often when the game descends into mob thinking, the point was being missed spectacularly.
Wenger took over a very good group of players in 1996, one which had finished 5th in the Premier League the season before. He then improved it to such a degree that they enjoyed the greatest era of success in the club’s history.
The squad which delivered that success gradually broke up, as all squads do. Wenger’s attempts to re-build have been consistently undermined by his best players leaving, none of which he could do anything about.
Throughout it all, he has consistently taken Arsenal into the Champions League (16 years in a row) and then into at least the last 16 of it on an annual basis (13 years in a row). In the last five seasons, they’ve been knocked out of Europe by Manchester United, Barcelona (twice), AC Milan, and Bayern Munich (the eventual winners who only went through on away goals after the Gunners had won 2-0 in the Allianz Arena).
Of course the supporters want more. They want to be winning these competitions. But nobody wants that more than Wenger. And nobody is more aware that if he could bring in better players, there would be more chance of winning those competitions.
And so he has tried to do so. But when it looked like Gonzalo Higuain was on the way in, he decided at the last minute to go to Napoli instead. When he tried to sign Luis Suarez, Liverpool refused to sell.
People throw other names around, without any regard for whether those players’ current clubs would sell them. Or indeed for whether those players would actually improve the team. Are there midfielders available for sale, for example, who are better than Jack Wilshere? Or Santi Cazorla? Or with more promise than Alex Oxlade Chamberlain? If there are, would anyone be more likely to know about them than Wenger?
So what do people want? For Wenger to just go out and buy players for the sake of it? Two years ago, in the wake of the 8-2 thumping at Old Trafford, he made a batch of last-minute signings and was criticised for “panic buying”. People still make that criticism, despite the fact that one of those signings, Mikkel Arteta, went on to be voted Player of the Season by the club’s fans.
It’s the most basic truth of any manager’s life that once he sends his team across the white line, his influence is very limited. So how about a little blame this time, for the players who let themselves and their manager down so badly on Saturday?
Arsenal aren’t where they want to be; very few clubs are. But if supporters’ solutions are to chop and change managers, and over-spend on players who in many cases are no better than what they already have, there’s a club they can look at to see where that gets you. They’re called Liverpool.
Speaking of which, David Peace, who wrote “The Damned United”, will be joining me in studio this Saturday to talk about his fascinating new book on Bill Shankly. We’ll have Newcastle v West Ham as our feature match, and a full look ahead to the big Monday night match between Manchester United and Chelsea. So join me at 2pm this Saturday, on Today FM.