What’s on at Arsenal?

A minute’s silence is held in honour of Remembrance Day ahead of an English Premier League match between Arsenal and Burnley at the Emirates Stadium in London. The season ticket prices at the Emirates are dizzily high.-AP

In a word, Arsenal are fast becoming an antipathetic club in many ways, and one which is being controversially controlled. Though it may seem some kind of sacrilege, I seriously wonder whether Arsene Wenger, the manager since 1996, should have had his contract renewed for another three years at the end of last season, writes BRIAN GLANVILLE.

Before examining Arsenal’s present predicament, let me declare an interest. From the age of about 10 for another ten years — when I elected for neutrality — I was a devoted Arsenal fan. When I first saw them lose, aged 11, on Christmas Day 1942, 5-2 at Stamford Bridge to Chelsea — while a half a dozen of their powerful team were obliged to watch from the stands, committed to playing next day for the Army and the Air Force teams at Cardiff — I burst into tears. Much more recently I wrote their official book, ‘The Arsenal Stadium History’. Which makes me all the more uneasy to perceive what is happening to them now.

In a word, they are fast becoming an antipathetic club in many ways, and one which is being controversially controlled. Though it may seem some kind of sacrilege, I seriously wonder whether Arsene Wenger, the manager since 1996, should have had his contract renewed for another three years at the end of last season. And I am not at all happy with the hegemony of the American billionaire Stan Kroenke, the man who owns the club now and whose company is now reported to have taken GBP3 million out of the club. Moreover for no evident reason he has just placed his son on the board of directors.

Wenger himself has recently made optimistic noises about Arsenal’s prospects in the Premiership. This after a couple of consecutive victories, which were anything but convincing and in the first case scarcely merited. In Brussels, in a European Cup game, it was hard not to remember that old pre-War expression, “Lucky Arsenal”. That the Gunners even survived against a young inexperienced Anderlecht team let alone win the game seemed almost a minor miracle.

For the great majority of it, they were under pressure, somehow holding out against the pressure of a palpably superior team, which late in the game took a fully deserved 1-0 lead. Yet in the closing minutes, Arsenal suddenly and indeed impressively produced a couple of goals to win 2-1. But then when have we thought that football is fair.

After the game, a laudably honest Per Mertesacker, Germany’s World Cup winning centre back, admitted, “We are not at our best. Football wise, we lack a few things. We have to be honest to ourselves and train harder. Everyone knows that it is a difficult start to the season for us, and the confidence is not how we want it… I think we have to do better with our own possession, to put more pressure on them, not to lose so many balls in the middle of the park, to play more in wide areas.” (A major criticism of Wenger’s tactics.)

“I think it’s better to expose them there, instead of playing one-two through the middle. The passing game is not as efficient as last year,” he added. At Anderlecht, he thought that for 85 minutes, Arsenal “lacked a bit of everything” admitting, “For me, it is difficult at the moment because that was really a long season last year., and to come back from the World Cup and get the motivation back: I am nearly back, but you can feel that there is something missing at the moment.”

Three days after Anderlecht there still seemed to be something missing as the Gunners made hard work of beating a Sunderland team still reeling from its 8-0 defeat at Southampton. The Gunners may have won 2-0 but each goal was a defensive fiasco. Wes Brown, the highly experienced Sunderland centre half, ineptly miss-kicked an intended back pass to his goalkeeper, enabling an inspired Sanchez, the Chilean international and undoubtedly an inspired buy, to run on to score. The second goal came when Mannone, once an Arsenal goalkeeper, clumsily failed to kick a ball clear, enabling Sanchez to snap it up and get the second.

So, Wenger is still there: but should he be? No Italian club would last season have kept him in office after three crushing, embarrassing defeats. 6-0 in the London derby against Chelsea, another half dozen conceded at Manchester City and a humiliating defeat at Liverpool. Even the Sunday paper correspondent who wrote such a deferential recent piece about him suggested that during those three extra years, it might not be a bad idea were Wenger to move upstairs in an executive role and allow a younger man to sit on the bench.

The stark fact is that before the Gunners none too convincingly beat Hull City at Wembley in the FA Cup final, it has been nine years since they had won any major trophy. Their play often looks pretty, but when push comes to shove, the major games are lost as are the tournaments themselves. Qualifying year after year for the European Champions League, often in fourth position, is hardly a sufficient achievement for such a major club.

When it was announced that Arsenal were hoping to persuade Kroenke, who had a major sports franchisee in the USA, to take over, the then club Chairman Peter Hill-Wood rose up in arms. He is the scion of a family which took over at Arsenal soon after the First World War and continued in office till after the Second. Peter by then, to be honest, not at the height of his power, but in retrospect, what seemed then an excessive protest, a cry that Kroenke was not the kind of person wanted at Arsenal, seems more relevant.

In the event, Hill-Wood himself was obliged to eat humble pie and fly across the Atlantic to successfully persuade Kroenke to take over. At the recent shareholders’ annual meeting, Kroenke, somewhat typically, had little or nothing to say to them while the new Chairman Sir ‘Chips’ Keswick blatantly said that the board gave Wenger its backing on all football maters “Whether he had a plan or not.” So what’s the point of a board?

Waiting in the wings is Ukrainian billionaire oligarch Asher Usmanov, with some 29 percent of the shares which he bought from David Dein for some GBP70 million. Dein, the man who brought Wenger to Arsenal, is palpably missed for a dynamism the current board doesn’t have and for the way he worked with Wenger. Usmanov may not be everybody’s cup of tea and it is plain that the way to Arsenal is barred to him though somewhat ironically, unlike Kroenke’s company, there is no doubt he would put money into the club rather than take it out. In Russia, he was once sentenced to six years, reduced to four, for alleged embezzlement, but with the fall of the old regime, he was exonerated.

The club has already been criticised for the fact that the sub-contractors who look after the maintenance of the stadium pay their workers less than the minimum wage but Arsenal respond that this is none of their business. In the meantime their season ticket prices are dizzily high. And even Chelsea give pensioners a better deal.