If I were to argue that England were the Arsenal of international football, who would I be insulting? On face value it’s Arsenal right? Some may say England. The answer is neither, despite the negative connotations associated with both teams.
Perhaps it’s best to start with the positives, of which there are many to be found.
Both are great teams, with dedicated supporters that tend to expect a little more than they seem capable of delivering when it comes to the final hurdle. They consistently qualify for the largest competitions but tend to fall short when it comes to the games they have to win.
Arsenal seem obsessed with winning the right way, while England seem incapable of winning at all when it comes to tournament football itself. Both have amazing stadia fit for the modern game, but the sheen of the new corporate layout leaves some fans pining for the fortresses of old.
The Gunners qualify for the Champions League every year, and they’re still on course to do so after a topsy-turvy season. It’s a testament to their consistency, but this time it might not be enough to sate the fans. Leicester deserve respect, but it could, and probably should, have been Arsenal’s year.
They may still win the league but they’re no longer the masters of their own destiny, looking to others to drop points in the title race. They have a better overall squad than the international side, but that’s understandable considering the ever dwindling pool of English players in the Premier League.
Arsenal are some way off the top considering it’s early April. Worse still is the fact that Tottenham are sitting comfortably ahead of them, meaning that St. Totteringham’s day might not come to pass this season.
Meanwhile, England won all ten of their qualifying games for Euro 2016, with a goal difference of +28. It may sound like they’re in swashbuckling form, but it’s worth noting that they were also unbeaten in their ten-game qualifying group for the 2014 World Cup. If you’ve blocked out the memory, they crashed and burned after an embarrassing display that ended with just one point from Group D.
Then there’s the personnel. Arsenal have shed many of their French trappings, and there’s an English core found throughout the team. In fact, Arsène Wenger said it was no coincidence back in 2012 after Carl Jenkinson made his debut against Sweden: “We look first at quality. If the quality is local, it is of course even better because it gives you more guarantee of stability because the players who are English who play for Arsenal are more likely to stay for a longer term than foreign players.”
A British core of players has featured in dominant English sides of the past decade, so it makes sense that Wenger may be attempting to emulate his own past success, as well as that of others. From Mourinho’s Chelsea to Ferguson’s Manchester United, the blueprint for success in the league seems to stem from supplementing the spine of the team with English players, but this crop has failed to come good for the Arsenal manager so far. Probably because they lack the requisite quality.
Both squads are still struggling to express themselves under the spotlight, with former sides drawing the attention, even if it’s for widely different reasons. England’s previous (golden) generation refused to leave gracefully and underperformed for nearly a decade, while Arsenal will struggle to put out a squad that will match the heroics of the Invincibles for a long time.
It’s both a blessing and a curse, but it’s started to weigh heavy on Wenger and his squad. The recent FA Cup wins have alleviated some of the pain but it just doesn’t compare to the league triumph that the fans crave.
Both teams want to emulate their previous success and the desperation gets worse with every year that passes. Baddiel and Skinner sung about 30 years of hurt in 1996, so half a century is a lot of time for contempt and resentment to be bred. There’s only so many false dawns a supporter can take. At least international football is broken up, giving supporters time to bury the hatchet with the team. The unrelenting nature of league football means that you’re never far away from a reminder of failures on the pitch.
Theo Walcott is the latest player to face the wrath of Arsenal fans after failing to fulfil his perceived potential, while he’s also struggled to perform consistently for England. At 27, he’s notched 230 Premier League appearances for the Gunners, winning just two FA Cups and a Community Shield in a decade with the club.
Considering Arsenal’s success in the past, it’s fair to say that it’s a poor showing and that he’s the physical embodiment of their failure to push on to the next level. A hat-trick against Croatia in 2008 is probably his most memorable moment in an England shirt, but it’s looking increasingly likely that he may never reach those heady heights again.
Danny Welbeck signed from Manchester United in 2014 and he’s helped to revitalise the Arsenal attack since his recovery from a long-term knee injury. The £16 million fee was reasonable business as Wenger promised to improve the striker as he matured.
Welbeck is in contention for a spot in France and the signing fits into Wenger’s earlier ethos regarding British talent. The thing is, he does have a solid crop of English players at Arsenal, despite the injuries and failure to sustain their form. Nevertheless, any personal improvement hasn’t translated to form on the pitch or the trophies that come with a sustained charge to the top.
• • • •
Read | The disputed genius of Arsène Wenger
• • • •
So, are they good enough to win the league this year? Wenger still seems to think so, although a number of fans remain unconvinced.
What about the managers? The manner of their respective appointments couldn’t be more different. Arsène Wenger arrived via Japan in 1996 after winning the French league with AS Monaco and he looked to be one for the future, whereas Roy Hodgson was seen as a safe bet when it came to finding the next England manager in 2012.
Both are respected by past and present players and they’re seen as dignified statesmen in the game. They may have followed different paths to differing levels of success but they’re nearing the same point in their career. They draw ever closer to their 70s, and it’s unlikely they’ll have many major appointments left after leaving their current roles in England.
Wenger – and Arsenal themselves – are infinitely more successful than England in terms of past honours but they’ve seen silverware dry up in the last decade. It’s true that circumstances, such as the rise of new money clubs, were out of his control but that’s no excuse for not adding outfield players to a team that tends to be injured more often than not – at a higher rate than their rivals, at the very least. If the lack of recruitment worked he would’ve been labelled as a genius once again, but his faith is unlikely to pay off this season.
Failure could signal the end for both managers, with the goalposts are constantly changing. England’s logical expectations are so low for Euro 2016 that it’s a wonder they’re even bothering to get on the plane, but there are quiet murmurs about the younger stars and their potential to make an impact on the tournament. Nobody realistically expects them to win; Roy Hodgson will have to wait until Euro 2016 is complete before he can discuss a new deal.
For once, top four won’t be enough for Arsenal, but in truth it’s been a long time coming.
Going out to Barcelona in the Champions League once again highlights Arsenal’s status just below the elite, but they did give Barcelona a good game in the second leg. Both England and Arsenal have the ability to match the best on their day, but it’s arguable that their managers have taken them as far as they possibly can.
Hodgson will be out of contract after the tournament, while the #WengerOut brigade are getting more adamant in their protestations. Winning silverware will silence any doubters, while securing their status in the history books. If only it were that easy.
As it is, their fates could be more entwined than many care to imagine. If Walcott manages to help both club and country to victory, Wenger can feel vindicated in sticking with him for the last decade, but there aren’t many people out there placing their bets on England or Arsenal at the moment. There’s even a chance that he could miss the cut for the Euros.
Both managers have their favourites and they seem to have similar tastes when it comes to players. For now, Wayne Rooney is the elephant in the room for England, while Walcott’s wages are astronomical considering the fact he’s achieved next to nothing on the pitch. Better alternatives lurk in the shadows, although there’s still an opportunity for them to come good. Given the loyalty shown, they’re both likely to get more chances.
Perhaps the media should be blamed for the way Walcott was hyped since being picked for England back in 2006, when he became the youngest player to play for England at the age of 17. He was just 19 when he became the youngest player to score a hat-trick for the Three Lions. Wenger is the one who has stuck with him over the years and he’s received next to nothing for his loyalty so far. He plans to keep the faith for now: “Ten years here, that shows as well that he loves Arsenal and I’m convinced he will give us much more in the next five years than the last five because he is a player who is always moving forward and trying to do better. He has a very positive attitude.”
He’s not the only one with a positive attitude, and he’s not the only one to keep faith with players.
This adherence to the tried and tested has failed to produce success in the past for both teams and in some ways it sums up England’s obsession with Wayne Rooney, despite his latest injury crisis. Roy Hodgson essentially gave him a free pass to come along to Euro 2016 whatever his form: “He might not have recovered to the best of his ability, or we might want to use different players or play a different way. But he’s our captain. He knows that, if I think others are better or the right men to play in a particular way, he’ll accept that because he’s a footballer, our leader and our captain. If he’s fit, he’ll go. But not as an automatic starter.”
So Rooney will get a spot in the squad even if he plays no football, despite having a history of needing a run of games to regain his match fitness. It doesn’t sound like a recipe for success.
The Invincibles are a major part of the history at Arsenal but the supporters are ready to usher in a new era of supremacy. Their shiny stadium is complete and their team has the potential to win titles.
If Wenger wants to silence his detractors, success needs to come soon, unless they truly want to be considered also-rans in the league. Consistency is said to be the last refuge of the unimaginative, and it rings true when you consider that they would be having a successful season in any other year.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, but it’s also the only way to improve. It’s known as practising.
Both Arsenal and England are capable of winning it all but they face deficiencies that will have to be addressed in the long run. José Mourinho labelled Wenger’s tenure over the last decade as a failure, but there’s still a chance to pull back from the brink. If the other big clubs are willing to write off this season, is it really that unreasonable to give Wenger one last chance?
By James Milin-Ashmore. Follow @jamoashmore