Toby Jupp asks whether Arsène Wenger has won back the fans?
With Arsenal currently sitting second in the Premier League, on 31 points from 14 matches, the opening day shambles against Liverpool seem a distant memory. Unbeaten in major competition since that 4-3 defeat (the CapitalOne Cup is, at best, a second-tier trophy these days), the Gunners have also topped their Champions League group for the first time since 2011; and they have remained unbeaten for the first time since 2006 – that year, Arsenal went on to reach the final against Barcelona. Protests have inevitably grown quieter but are fans really back behind Wenger?
It’s fair to say that we Arsenal fans were one disgruntled people at the start of the season. With gaping holes plain to see at both ends of the pitch failing to be addressed exacerbated by an uninspiring start that left Arsenal with a solitary point from two matches (already five points behind United, City and Chelsea), the atmosphere at the Emirates was as hostile as any away ground Arsene Wenger would have experienced. However, what has followed has been remarkable. Rejuvenated by ‘Alexis the striker’, no side other than Liverpool has scored more goals in the league this season (who have a much worse defensive record) and, away from home, Arsenal are the only side yet to lose. Three summers ago, when Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, Wenger made a big statement of intent. The team still needed strengthening down the spine (Goalkeeper, Centre Back, Centre Midfield and Striker) and, although it has taken frustratingly long, in Petr Cech, Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Alexis Sanchez, Wenger has the resources at his disposal to achieve success.
Indeed, Arsenal’s strength in depth is second to nobody in England; even with Jack Wilshere and Joel Campbell out on loan. Name a side with a more proven striker than Olivier Giroud to call on as a Plan B. Who else has the squad depth to leave out the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Mohamed Elneny on a regular basis, even when Santi Cazorla and Danny Welbeck are injured? In what was Arsenal’s worst performance of the season at Old Trafford, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Giroud (both subs) combined to produce Arsenal’s sole effort on target and clinch a point in the dying minutes. So: strongest squad since the Invincibles (2004), scoring goals at will, two world class players in Sanchez and Ozil, through to the Last 16 as Group Winners and clear contenders for the domestic title – Arsenal fans are delighted, right?
Not exactly. Of Arsenal’s 31 points this season, 17 have come on the road. Arsenal’s home record reads a rather disappointing P7 W4 D2 L1. Of the four wins, three have been mightily close: a last gasp dubious penalty against Southampton to win 2-1, and hanging on against Swansea and Bournemouth to ultimately win 3-2 and 3-1 respectively, with an injury time third in the latter. Whilst a draw with Spurs could be forgiven, the 0-0 stalemate with ‘Boro was hugely disappointing. Another intriguing statistic is the difference in goals; in the last six away games, Arsenal average 3 goals a game compared to 2 per game at home.
It shows that the mood at the Emirates is still so toxic that it is actually an advantage to play away for the players at the moment. There is a confidence which isn’t there at home, the sole exception being the 3-0 win over Chelsea – a game that the fans were always going to be hugely up for. But even in other big matches the performances have been dire, and tensions were tangible at the final whistle of the 2-2 draw with PSG. So are the fans behind Wenger?
The consensus would still appear not. What is important to remember is that all football fans are fickle. If the sides winning, no one complains. The moment there is a defeat – the mood changes. But at Arsenal the situation seems different even now, despite the team winning. We haven’t seen the banners for some time, but there are still those who would frown upon Wenger’s expiring contract being renewed.
Wenger certainly deserves a lot of praise for the season so far. He did, at last, address some key areas of weakness in the transfer window and converting Sanchez to the no.9 position has been a masterstroke, transforming the Arsenal attack from its’ default ‘static Giroud’ focal point. However, his in-game tactics remain a source of bewilderment at times (what on earth was going on at Old Trafford?!) and team selection even more so (Ramsey on the wing…). If Arsenal are to fight a multi-front battle this season the home form must improve but until it’s proven that this side won’t fall away like its predecessors, the jury on Wenger will remain very much out.