Friday 18 August 2017

Sanchez strikes can't mask supporter apathy

Arsenal 2 Sunderland 0

John O’Shea battles with Olivier Giroud during Arsenal’s victory over Sunderland. Photo: PA
John O’Shea battles with Olivier Giroud during Arsenal’s victory over Sunderland. Photo: PA

Jeremy Wilson

It is barely about the actual managerial record of Arsene Wenger any more.

Fans of just about any club could by now probably recite the various Wenger statistics that are quoted endlessly back and forth. No Premier League title since 2004 but 20 consecutive top-four finishes.

Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson keeps possession ahead of Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Getty Images
Sunderland's Sebastian Larsson keeps possession ahead of Arsenal's Mesut Ozil. Photo: Getty Images

Not past the last 16 of the Champions League in recent memory but six FA Cup wins. The same old defensive fragilities at key moments but some of the most scintillating team goals of the season. Maddening near-misses in the transfer market but a new stadium and bank balance that is the envy of most rivals. On and on it goes. A nuance here. A selective stat there, all depending on what sociologists might call your 'confirmation bias'.

A persuasive case can be selectively constructed on both sides of the Wenger In/Out debate but what cannot be disputed is the apathy that now surrounds the club. The official attendance for last night's win against Sunderland was 59,510 but that was based only on tickets sold. The numbers of people present was perhaps 15,000 fewer. It was a culmination of a decade of unerringly similar seasons of highs, lows and almost identical outcomes.

Those silent swathes of empty seats were actually a far more damning reflection of the current mood than any noisy minority protests. And the accompanying question that will most exercise the club's directors is whether Wenger can ever truly reinvigorate the fans and generate a belief that it can again be different?

They may remember how supporters were even booing last season, at half-time of a costly defeat against Swansea when they were still bookmakers' favourites to win the league, and wonder if anyone can succeed in this environment?

Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez takes a shot. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal's Alexis Sanchez takes a shot. Photo: Getty Images

It was not as if Arsenal had nothing to play for here or are in poor recent form. Six wins in seven league games has given them outside hope of a top-four finish but, while that feat would be celebrated elsewhere among the top six, it now holds little allure for Arsenal fans.

They have seen how the last two Premier League winners have benefited domestically from playing outside Europe's elite and they ask a simple question: why quality for a competition we are highly unlikely to win?

It is why they would largely have been unimpressed by Wenger's complaint of an inbalance of effort this season among Premier League clubs. Yes, he did qualify that by saying Arsenal were above all a victim of their own inconsistencies but the wider counter was surely his team's own away performances against West Bromwich Albion, Crystal Palace and Liverpool.

Truth

Arsenal's Granit Xhaka chases down Sunderland's Fabio Borini. Photo: Getty Images
Arsenal's Granit Xhaka chases down Sunderland's Fabio Borini. Photo: Getty Images

Arsenal themselves looked on the beach then, even at a time when it was closer to the ski season than summer. The simple truth is that Wenger can only now reinvigorate most Arsenal fans by competing seriously to win either the Premier League or Champions League.

It is a huge ask but all the indications are that he wants still to fight on and believes absolutely in his abilities to reinvent the club. If there was some secret decision to part company, and Sunday against Everton was indeed to be the last home game of his 21-year tenure, these is now no logical reason for that not to be made public.

Wenger's future will most likely now hinge on some difficult talks after the FA Cup final about the structures and staffing around him but his planning for next season is already underway. Sead Kolasinac will arrive from Schalke at left-back but the key decisions will surround Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. The settled wisdom for most of the season was that they would be offered parity on new contracts but, even allowing for his tendency to sulk, Sanchez has underlined emphatically over this past month how he is the more valuable asset as he did last night with goals to finally break down a resilient Sunderland.

He remains the best hope around which Wenger might just build a brighter future. And, for all the frustrations this season, he also remains the biggest reason to again fill the seats. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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