The overriding feeling of Arsenal fans leaving Anfield on Sunday afternoon was not one of anger, of sorrow, of anything close to that even. It was empty familiarity.
“I’ve seen this movie before, seen that match before” was how Thierry Henry described the previous 90 minutes in the Sky Sports gantry. Time and again, the Gunners legend has had to put on a brave face and dissect another spineless performance of a team that, when he was part of it, once swept aside all before them in the Premier League.
Far from sweeping aside anyone these days, the Gunners have failed spectacularly to live up to that nickname for around a decade, certainly the last five years or so. They have become, as Graeme Souness once put it, “a team of son-in-laws,” the nice boys that you’re happy for your daughter to go out with safe in the knowledge that they’ll have her back home by 9.30 at the latest after a lovely, largely uneventful evening.
The problem with this, of course, is that they don’t deal with conflict particularly well. In fact, as Sunday proved once more, they are resoundingly terrible at it – a meek, milquetoast collection of players whose only response to the thrashing they were receiving was to pray for that sweet relief of the final whistle afterwards. It’s a small surprise that they didn’t shake Jurgen Klopp’s hand after the match and thank Liverpool for stopping at four.
Sunday wasn’t about Liverpool, not completely. Granted, that front three looked brimming with creativity and penetration, but they could only beat what was in front of them – and what was in front of them offered the resistance of wet kitchen paper. As Gary Neville put it in commentary, “this Arsenal team deserve a battering.”
And, as Henry said, we have been here before. What should be the most alarming aspect of the defeat to the Arsenal board is that this wasn’t a surprise. It’s six years to the day since Manchester United destroyed them 8-2 at Old Trafford – since then they’ve lost 6-0 at Stamford Bridge, 5-1 at Anfield, 6-3 at the Etihad, while the matches against Bayern Munich have tended to be so traumatic that the match programme should include the phone number for some sort of PTSD helpline for fans to phone afterwards.
Sunday had all the usual hallmarks of a bad Arsenal defeat. Alexis Sanchez dropping to his haunches and looking around him for someone to blame, Mesut Ozil nowhere to be seen, Wenger gazing upon the nightmare in front of him but powerless do anything about it.
The words afterwards, from Petr Cech’s usual insistence that the team will keep fighting, to Ozil feeling sorry for himself on Instagram when many had long forgotten that he was even playing. It’s by the numbers and it’s borderline insulting to the fans that followed them to Anfield hoping for (and deserving) better.
Most damningly of all, however, was Wenger’s assertion of the match:
“From the first minute to the last, we were not physically, mentally or technically at the level requested. We were an easy opponent.”
“It is very difficult to answer why straight after the game. There are some reasons, but I do not have too much to say right now.”
At the centre of all of this, saddeningly, is Wenger. The jaded master of a crumbling domain. The decision by manager and club to extend this marriage of convenience, far beyond the point where the spark has gone, has never looked more like the wrong one.
The worry for all involved was that the FA Cup victory in May would simply serve to paper over the cracks, that the euphoria of delivering another trophy would wipe clean the frustrating months before. Finishing fifth and winning the cup might have been seen as a successful season in some quarters (which speaks volumes about their mindset) but even that must surely have been on a once-off basis – any Arsenal fan that says they’d take a repeat of that this season is lying to themselves.
This isn’t about a perceived sense of entitlement from Arsenal fans or anything like that. This is about a club that appears happy to wallow in its own stagnation, and a manager that, for all of his successes in the game, has become stale in his current environment. When Wenger signed that new two-year contract, Ivan Gazidis promised that it would be a “catalyst for change.” Is this what he meant? Dropping the team’s only two summer additions for Danny Welbeck and Rob Holding against a top-four rival? The more things “change”, the more they stay the same.
The thing is, a change of scenery might be good for Wenger; it might give him that fire back that has been quenched in the last ten years. He’d still be a highly sought-after coach should he become available but the worry then might be that he has simply lost his spark, a la Louis van Gaal. That fear is probably what has been keeping him there for so long.
A change at this point would certainly be good for Arsenal themselves, moving away from the influence that Wenger has accrued at the club over the years. There is still a massive club there but for how long should stagnation (or worse, regression) be allowed to continue before someone (Wenger, Gazidis, Kroenke, anyone) does something about it?
The longer Wenger stays where he is, the further he moves away from the legacy he deserves. But, for now, he remains. And here we are again – that foreboding sense of deja vu that Arsenal fans are now on first name terms with has descended on the Emirates once more.