A lot of the frustration of last season among Arsenal fans stemmed from an excellent first half: we were top after 19 games but slumped back to our habitual fourth place by season-end. Despite the not-inconsiderable consolation of an FA Cup, there was a sense of an opportunity missed. Consequently, there was optimism that this season we would push on, reinforced by the acquisition of new players in the summer. We currently sit sixth and the all-too-predictable defeat at Stoke has prompted the sort of vitriol aimed at Arsene Wenger that is normally reserved for Alan Pardew. Next Saturday we host the Toon, fresh from their defeat of Chelsea and level on points with us. Personally, I think the season is looking quite promising, and will continue to do so whatever the result against the barcodes.
Leaving aside paranoid theories about our susceptibility to injuries, the charge-sheet against Wenger is that he didn't reinforce the defence and midfield sufficiently; that his faith in the team's ability to respond to tactical challenges on the field is misplaced; and that we lack experience in the squad. The first charge is justified, but it is perverse to imagine that this was a deliberate ploy by Wenger, determined to prove you can win the league without defenders or a defensive midfielder. The truth, as he repeatedly states, is that there were few players of the required quality available and none ready to do a deal.
Just as his critics imagine that there is a never-ending supply of top-class managers who could replace him (and do so in January), so the assumption is that a club with Arsenal's resources must be able to buy whatever it wants. This is to confuse the market in players with Tesco. The reason why top players cost so much is because they are as rare as old masters. The better metaphor is Sotheby's. To put this into perspective, Chelsea only have three top-quality centre-backs: Cahill, Terry and Ivanovic. After these, you're looking at the 20-year old Kurt Zouma and a couple of teenagers. Our relative shallowness can be over-stated.
The second charge, of tactical naivety, has grown from a criticism of Wenger ("no plan B") to encompass the entire team. There is no secret that Wenger prizes adaptability and initiative on the pitch, rather than relying on a standard formation and predictable moves dictated from the technical area. This isn't because he missed the tactics module when he did his coaching badges, nor is it an aesthetically-driven desire for beautiful football, but a pragmatic decision to maximise the squad's strengths. If a galactico strategy is beyond your means, and if playing like Stoke means you finish where Stoke normally do, then a possession-based game with a fluid attacking line is likely to optimise your points tally over a season where most of your opponents will sit back for 90 minutes. This obviously makes you vulnerable to counter-attacks, and can result in the odd spanking when the team has an off day, but it makes sense over the long-term as Wenger's final standings prove.
If Arsenal are suffering tactically at present, this is more because the midfield, with the exception of Cazorla, has lacked its usual vim, which in turn is as much to do with the gradual integration of Sanchez as the wayward passing of Ramsey or the stop-start season of Wilshere. In fact, Sanchez's destabilising influence, whose positive results have been goals aplenty, indicates that Arsenal are not the amorphous tag-cloud of talent that popular opinion suggests. Watching in the flesh, I've noted not only the expected misunderstandings (which partly explains the waywardness of Ramsey, who is often looking to release Sanchez on the turn), but frequent occasions when the Chilean almost collides with Oxlade-Chamberlain or Welbeck when running off the ball. This will improve with familiarity, plus the return of Walcott should stretch opposing defences and open more channels.
The third charge has some basis in fact, in the sense that we are fielding some novice players, but the appearance of the likes of Martinez and Bellerin is due to circumstance rather than policy, with both starting the season as third choice in their positions. Much of the "experience" gripe is just misplaced nostalgia for the days of Adams, Vieira and other "leaders on the pitch". The very best sides in Europe do not have a single figure of authority because the game is no longer played in a way that can accommodate them. Pressing, high defensive lines and the speed of counter-attacks means that all "departments" of the team have to be able to make decisions independently. Arsenal's experience problem this season is the product of the gradual integration of new players (Chambers, Welbeck, Sanchez), post-World Cup demotivation (Mertesacker, Ozil), patchy form (Ramsey, Wilshere, Szczesny), and a bad run of injuries (too many to list).
My expectation is that all of these will ease, even the level of injuries (a lot are fatigue-related, such as Ozil and Giroud). While last season saw a good autumn, a poor winter and a spring redeemed at Wembley, this season could see real improvement after Christmas. We're through to the second round of the Champions League, and while we could face Bayern or Real Madrid, we could also face PSG or Porto, and I'd fancy our chances there. Whether we buy a centre-back and a defensive midfielder during the coming transfer window is moot. There are unlikely to be many players (if any) of the required calibre available before the summer, and Wenger isn't going to make a political signing just to appease the fans. This could well depend on which teams finish third in the Champions League groups.
What fans want is for Arsenal to employ the best, most experienced players in the world, and for Wenger to be able to dictate the outcome of games from the bench. This is obviously barking mad. Some managers, notably Mourinho, like to give the impression that they can control matches through thorough preparation, clever gameplans and astute substitutions, but the truth (and the beauty of the game) is that their impact is marginal. Results are largely the product of the combined effects of wealth (i.e. squad quality), a team's success in negating their opponents' strengths, the fluctuating form of players, and luck (personified as refereeing decisions). Most of these are outside the direct control of the manager.
The difference between Wenger and Mourinho is that while the Chelsea manager is a "negator" (i.e. Sam Allardyce with a better squad), Wenger has always been a "creator", in the sense of coaching his players to improve what they are good at rather than worrying about the opposition. This is why he commands the personal loyalty of so many of his ex-players, but also why players formed in an earlier, dictatorial era, like Stewart Robson, are less enamoured ("sort it out!"). What Wenger's approach requires is patience. However, that is in increasingly short supply, not just because of the growing intolerance of fans, egged on by the media, but because of the creeping ennui associated with the longevity of his reign.
This is the real message behind the now famous "Thanks for the memories" banner. Contrary to the myth that the Emirates is packed with middle-aged fans (still smarting from the memory of Lee Chapman) or opera-goers who defected from Sadler's Wells, the vocal dissafection mostly comes from younger fans who have been oppressed by the second-hand memory of the Invincibles. Every new book that comes out, and the accompanying media puff-pieces, simply rubs in the feeling that they are in danger of missing out on "their" memories. Rationally, fans know that Arsenal are punching at their weight, but irrationally they want to believe that the club can leapfrog Chelsea and Man City (and Bayern and Real Madrid) through sheer force of will. This is why a "passionate" manager like Jurgen Klopp is attracting admiring glances.
I doubt Wenger intends to stay beyond the end of his current contract in 2017, but I also doubt he'll be forced out before then, not least because I expect the team to improve over the course of this season. My punt is third place in the league, just edging out Manure, and (with a bit of luck in the draw) last eight in Europe. We might even get back to Wembley in the FA Cup. It still won't satisfy the angry crew, but then short of signing Vincent Kompany and Nemanja Matic in January, I'm not sure anything would.