Joe Butterfield looks at a once respected man now out of time.
Arsene Wenger is a man who divides opinion, mainly amongst his own club’s fanbase. Whether you’re #WengerIn, taking a sip from your Arsenal licensed water bottle and listening to Clash of the Season (YouTube it) on repeat on your Arsenal licensed headphones, or whether you’re #WengerOut, excessively using the words “blud” and “fam” and constantly telling Robbie you’re tired, he’s definitely leaving a legacy of some sort behind.
Last weekend, Wenger and his Arsenal team took the dreaded trip to what is undoubtedly the stadium nobody wants to visit to play against the team nobody wants to play against. In the run-up to this game, pundits and fans alike, even many Arsenal fans, accepted that a Manchester City victory was inevitable. The scintillating form of Pep’s mesmerising men combined with the soft underbelly of Wenger’s unconvincing underdogs meant there could only be one real outcome to this clash. City fans seldom fall prey to bouts of over-confidence, or confidence of any sort, for fear of “typical City”, yet many of the Etihad faithful went into this game expecting their team to roll over an Arsenal side which has become, at best, an expensive flat-track bully.
The nature of the victory, convincing or otherwise, can be debated, though after a testing mid-week fixture in Naples many Manchester City fans were happy just for the three points, albeit without the luxury of knocking five or more goals past their opposition. The main talking point of the game had been a shocking decision by one of the linesmen when he decided that David Silva was onside in the build up to Arsenal’s third goal. Replays showed that Silva had in fact been a good yard or two offside, a fact that David Silva himself appeared to be well aware of as he automatically looked to the linesman to check passing the ball to Gabriel Jesus, now unmarked by an Arsenal defence doing their best Mannequin Challenge tribute act, was even worth his time.
You’d have thought, then, this would be the obvious controversy Wenger would point to in the aftermath of the game. Poor officiating has cost a team in a big game, something which the entire league is used to seeing on a nearly weekly basis at this point. The entire footballing world was in unanimous agreement that the goal shouldn’t have stood, everybody would have been able to sympathise with Wenger’s displeasure at the decision.
Strangely enough, however, it was not the offside goal which Wenger decided to target in his post-match press rounds. Instead, Wenger decided to point the finger at a penalty decision given for City’s second, as a brilliant pass by Fernandinho saw the ball loop over Arsenal’s defensive line with the kind of ease you’d expect when playing against a Sunday League team. Raheem Sterling, anticipating the move, took his first touch inside the penalty area as Monreal went through him, knocking Sterling over with his shoulder before clearly catching Sterling’s leg and bringing him down completely.
It’s a penalty which many have labelled “soft” but, whether you think it was a penalty or whether you are wrong, there was absolutely contact when Monreal went in on Sterling. Despite this, Arsene Wenger has decided that this didn’t actually happen. In a move which rather ironically supports his typical assertion that he “didn’t see it” whenever asked about a contentious decision, Wenger decided that Raheem Sterling had actually dived to win the penalty. It wasn’t a soft penalty, it wasn’t a poor refereeing decision, Sterling didn’t even make the most of very little contact, instead it was an outright dive.
“I believe it was no penalty,” Wenger told Jonathan Pearce after the game, “it was a provoked penalty by Sterling. We know that he dives well, he does that very well.”
Can we imagine if a manager had come out after a game against Chelsea in Didier Drogba’s peak, having suffered defeat at the hand of one of his famous 10/10 dives, saying “of course he got the penalty, he’s very good at diving”? Or Cristiano Ronaldo? Or Ashley Young? The answer is no, we can’t, because no matter how frustrating these moments are for managers (and they’re well within their rights to come out after a game and tell everybody that there was no contact, especially if there was none) it’s a simple matter of sportsmanship not to accuse the opposition of systematically cheating, however privately they may believe this to be the case. You can scrutinise the legitimacy of individual decisions and instances but never the individual.
However, this is Raheem Sterling we’re talking about, an easy target for fans and media alike. A man who was roundly booed across the entire footballing nation for a whole season because he dared to leave Liverpool for a chance to win trophies, only to follow this up by having a Euro tournament which was no worse than the other ten players he shared the pitch with. The name Raheem Sterling does not sit comfortably with many fans outside of Manchester City and this is something Wenger is all too aware of and ready to use as a smokescreen for his own failings, of which there are many.
If Raheem Sterling were any good at diving then he’d have received at least triple the number of penalties he’s actually won for City since joining. Instead, referees seem almost loathed to give him a penalty on most occasions, including one strong penalty shout in the first half of the very same game against Arsenal, as Kolasinac pushed Sterling when he had only to stretch his leg out to reach the ball in front of an open net. His quickness of movement combined with his low centre of gravity lead to either referees completely missing the contact as he receives it or incorrectly assuming he’s just gone down of his own volition, not exactly the hallmark of an expert diver.
So what could have caused Wenger to have such an uncharacteristic outburst in direct criticism of an opposition player? Could it be the fact that it has been widely reported that he spectacularly failed to get past the enquiry stage in a move for Raheem Sterling last summer, which has left him bitterly disappointed upon seeing the same player play a pivotal role in a game against him less than three months later? Could it be the fact he left his £50m record signing on the bench against the team which is top of the league, a move which was not only stupid to begin with but was then compounded by that same player coming off the bench and scoring the one clear cut chance he was given? Could it be the fact that he had to endure watching his star player, who has openly told both the media and the club that he wants to leave for Manchester City, lose the ball a staggering fifteen times in the game as the rest of his team-mates managed to do so eighteen times combined?
The reality is that Wenger is losing his grip on the game. He’s a man who once commanded respect, an invincible manager with a team as tenacious in mentality as they were physicality. Over the years he’s slowly lost this respect as he’s turned a team of Vieiras, Keowns and Henrys into a team of Ramseys, Coquelins and Iwobis. The rise of Guardiola’s Barcelona saw Wenger change his team into one which focused more on technicality than the physical side of the game in an attempt to emulate this within the Premier League, which also saw his team lose all sense of leadership and character. They’re easy on the eye when they’re going to teams like Norwich but, when they come up against any true tests on a physical or tactical level, they’re shambolic. The manner of their Champions League exits in the last five to six years has solidified just what we’ve known about Arsenal for some time now – they’re more brittle than Jack Wilshere’s ankles.
Ultimately, this all stems from the manager and this is something which fans have been slowly tuning into. Wenger’s attempt at distraction may have worked this time and maybe some Arsenal fans will blame this one on Raheem Sterling, making it their life goal to boo him until the day he retires, but what will the excuse when the next Watford result comes along? What will the excuse be when Spurs, the North London nearly-men who have still managed to surpass Arsenal in the league under Wenger’s tenure, play them off the park after the international break? Wenger’s running out of them and he’s running out fast.
I’m sure some Arsenal fans are still convinced by Arsene’s decisions and still see him as a viable manager to take them forward. These people are probably also still impressed by DVD players and aren’t convinced that the internet is going to catch on, or they have the surname “Kroenke”. If Wenger is to last beyond this season, however, it’s going to take more than another FA Cup to win round the rising number of calls for him to call it a day from both Arsenal fans and neutrals alike.
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