OLIVER HOLT: Arsenal used to stand for class, for dignity, for gravitas - now it's just mediocrity... they slipped out of the Europa League pathetically and they are Super League material in the delusional dreams of Stan Kroenke
It is a close-run thing but the idea that Arsenal gained admittance to the European Super League is even more bitterly funny than the fact Spurs would have been in it, too. And in the couple of weeks everyone has been laughing about it, it never seemed funnier than when Arsenal slipped quietly and pathetically and apologetically out of the Europa League on Thursday evening, vanquished by Villarreal.
I was at El Madrigal 15 years ago when Arsenal played out another 0-0 draw with Villarreal, who had the great Juan Roman Riquelme in their ranks then, but on that occasion, it took them and their manager Arsene Wenger through to the final of the Champions League. Arsenal, with Thierry Henry and Robert Pires in their team, really were part of Europe’s aristocracy then, but so much has changed that that night feels like a relic of a different world.
These days, Arsenal are only Super League material in the dollar-laden delusional dreams of their owner Stan Kroenke and in the desperate schemes of Florentino Perez and Andrea Agnelli. Kroenke does at least possess the brains to realise that when a club are as badly run as his are, buying your way into a closed shop of owners who hate the idea of a meritocracy is the only route to gaining membership of a football elite.
Arsenal don’t qualify by any other metric. They have not been worthy of a place in the Champions League for the last five seasons. This year, they have been so limp under Mikel Arteta that it is unlikely they will even qualify for the Europa League next season. They’ll be lucky if they can be counted among the top 10 in England, let alone Europe.
And so, for the first time in a quarter of a century, it seems Arsenal will not play in European competition next season. The gap between them and the rest of the top clubs in England is getting wider and wider. The only league they really contend in is the one that measures which club rips their fans off the most. They’re near the top of the ticket-price league but that’s where their dominance begins and ends.
Everything else reeks of mediocrity. Arsenal are average in pretty much everything they do. Average manager, average defence, average midfield, average forward line. They are what they are: a classic mid-table team. The Kroenkes and their loyal henchmen at the club are managing decline. Nothing more.
They have some fine players. Kieran Tierney and Bukayo Saka are reasons to be optimistic but they’re balanced out by men like Willian, picking up their pension every week and not doing much else. Emile Smith Rowe and Thomas Partey should be part of the future, too, but at the moment they are struggling to keep their heads above the flotsam and jetsam the tide is bringing in.
Sack Arteta? That would not solve anything. Arteta isn’t the problem. Not really. It goes much higher and much deeper than him. Earn it? The problem is an ownership that doesn’t want to do that and doesn’t know how to. That was why they joined the Super League. The chief executive, Vinai Venkatesham, is supposed to be a personable fellow but he is tainted by his enthusiastic espousal of the ESL and he always will be.
There is no prospect of the mediocrity abating any time soon. It is ingrained. It is systemic. The days are gone when Wenger battled a shrinking budget and still performed the miracle of getting his team into the top four every season.
Those seem like halcyon days now. And for that, he was hounded out by angry fans flying banners from planes and screaming at him as he stood on the touchline.
Things were starting to fall apart before Wenger left. That much is true. Even he could not disguise the malaise that was spreading through the club any longer. But since he left, the owners have no camouflage. Everything is falling apart in plain sight. Semi-interested, semi-committed, semi-competent, Arsenal are a no man’s land of a football club.
They used to stand for class. They used to stand for dignity. They used to stand for gravitas. They used to stand for English football’s proudest traditions. All that has gone.
Glazer's words are empty
The scenes of violence and vandalism at Old Trafford last Sunday can never be condoned and they weakened the case of the protesters who caused Manchester United’s game with Liverpool to be postponed. But within that context, the instinct of some broadcasters to line up behind the establishment was disappointingly, if predictably, supine.
It was only a few days earlier when six of the club owners in this country, including the Glazers, were trying to destroy our game by joining the European Super League. There was only one group of people to blame for instigating what happened at Old Trafford last Sunday and it was not United fans, nor was it Gary Neville: it was the Glazer family.
So forgive me if I suggest that football fans everywhere should treat with the utmost suspicion Friday’s letter from Joel Glazer to the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust. If you believe any of it, you are even more naive and gullible than me and I wasted too much time wanting to think the best of the Liverpool owners, in particular.
The letter from Joel Glazer means nothing. It talks about United and the Glazers wanting to respect their ‘values and traditions’. Really? Like they respected the club’s values and traditions when they tried to destroy the European competition on which so much of United’s history and English football culture is based? That was only last month and suddenly we’re being asked to think they’ve now seen the light?
It is a public relations exercise. Nothing more. It’s a cynical attempt to soothe public anger before the Government review into English football and the European Super League affair reaches its conclusions. It is a transparent ploy to try to take the sting out of the new rules that may be imposed on them if an independent regulator is given wider responsibility for the game.
They’re not interested in dialogue. English football should press ahead with implementing meaningful reforms that will stop people like the Glazers from trying to betray English football again and, until then, the letter should be treated with the disdain it deserves.
Moment that got me off my seat this season
There is a strong case for Ruben Dias and pretty much anyone who plays for Manchester City. For Ilkay Gundogan. And Phil Foden. And Declan Rice has been brilliant for West Ham. And the success of Patrick Bamford at Leeds has been a great story. And Mason Mount has been wonderful to watch at Chelsea.
But the moment that got me off my seat this season was Kevin De Bruyne’s through-ball for Gabriel Jesus against Leicester City at the King Power Stadium. It had Leicester defenders throwing themselves at it as if they were extras in a Laurel and Hardy feature and they still couldn’t get anywhere near it.
De Bruyne conjures passes like that on a regular basis. He’s the player who has brought me the most joy this season and that’s why I voted for him to be the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year.
English fans criticised for arrogance
It was interesting how quickly some began to accuse English fans of being arrogant for suggesting it might be sensible to move the Champions League final from Istanbul to England.
These were the same English fans lionised, correctly, for helping to thwart the European Super League but now they were labelled xenophobic and jingoistic for thinking it might be safer, while Covid still rages in other parts of the world, to stop thousands of English fans travelling to the other side of Europe and back and hold the final in the UK.
Now that Turkey is on the Government’s red list, the point is moot anyway, but it was instructive how quickly some forgot the debt we owe our supporters.