If he’s celebrating with the Premier League trophy in May, Arsene Wenger’s attempts to head off another bout of abuse will seem reasonable.
“Let’s not go overboard,” the Arsenal manager cautioned after failing again to win at Manchester United.
Despite Sunday’s 3-2 loss, Arsenal remains third in the Premier League, Leicester is only five points in front and there are still 33 points to play for.
“I cannot fault our commitment and spirit and desire,” Wenger said of his players.
In reality, they lack the fighting spirit and doggedness to grind out the wins required to end a 12-year-old title drought.
In the 20th anniversary year of his appointment, Wenger is fast running out of excuses, particularly when the teams above Arsenal are Leicester and Tottenham.
Leader Leicester has never won the league. Tottenham, whose last title came in 1961, hosts Arsenal in the north London derby on Saturday.
Not even Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the ensuing disarray under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal has enabled Arsenal to end its Old Trafford hoodoo.
Arsenal last won at United in the league in September 2006. Since then lesser teams – from Norwich to Swansea – have all emerged victorious at a ground that was renowned as a fortress under Ferguson.
Arsenal has rarely been presented with a better chance to win at the record 20-time champions than on Sunday. It was a patched-up United defense and injuries up front forced Van Gaal into handing Marcus Rashford his first Premier League appearance in place of the sidelined Wayne Rooney.
It’s too early to declare Rashford a teen sensation. But the 18-year-old academy graduate followed up his debut double in the Europa League on Thursday with another brace on Sunday. Rashford’s emergence highlighted Arsenal’s deficiencies developing talent within in its own youth system.
But Arsenal did boast a front four of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck which cost more than 100 million pounds ($140 million) to assemble.
They still came out second best in a team lacking leadership.
For a striker bought in 2014 for 35 million pounds (then $60 million), Sanchez has failed to live up to his price tag this season. The Chile forward scored six times in three games across September and October in the league. He hasn’t scored since then in the competition, with just three cup goals to his name.
Once Wenger blamed the financial advantage of rivals while Arsenal was funding the move to the Emirates Stadium over the last decade. Even an end to austerity has only produced a couple of successes in the FA Cup, a prize with an increasingly diminished status in England.
In the build-up to the United game, Wenger resorted to moaning about players who are “tapped up to go somewhere else” – reinforcing the manager’s failure to hold onto talent such as Cesc Fabregas.
What irritates Arsenal fans who have seen only one outfield player added to the squad in the last two transfer windows is the club’s cash balance: 159.4 million pounds ($221.6 million) in the latest accounts published on Friday.
But Arsenal’s revenue rose to 160 million pounds ($222.4 million) in the six months to November 30. And the club’s main commercial backer, kit maker Puma, is relaxed about Arsenal’s failure to win the Premier League since 2004 or challenge for a first Champions League title since reaching the 2006 final. Arsenal heads to Barcelona next month trailing 2-0 in the round of 16.
“Anytime you have a partner who can be focused on doing cool things, yes it makes some of those other things less important,” Puma global marketing director Adam Petrick told The Associated Press when asked the importance of winning the Premier League and Champions League.
“We want everybody to be successful absolutely in every aspect of what they are doing. But it’s not only about winning. It’s also about having a good time.”
Recently, the anguish has eclipsed rare moments of euphoria for fans of a club which has become adept at tossing away chances of winning the title. Arsenal has collected nine points from a possible 21 in the last seven games.
“They have been very successful in the past,” Petrick said earlier this month in London. “They have a tremendous winning tradition.”
Wenger has relied on past glory to remain the Premier League’s longest-serving current manager, with the last of three title triumphs in 2004.
With Chelsea’s woeful title defense leaving it stranded in the bottom half of the standings and United erratic under Van Gaal, Wenger has never had a better chance to lift the trophy again.
At Arsenal, they constantly talk about potential in the team. The players have 11 games to fulfil it. Don’t count on it.