For Manchester United fans weekends over the last three and a half years have far too often brought disappointment, prompting an ongoing quest on social media and in real life to find solace and pleasure elsewhere.
When your own team isn’t winning, even defeats for your rivals result in precious little schadenfreude. Losses for one team, however, have provided a wonderful opportunity to cheer one’s self up, even in the darkest times for United: Arsenal. There are a number of reasons for this, not least because however desperate times are at Old Trafford we can always point to Wenger’s Gunners, their 12 years without a Premier League title, weak mentality and ability to collapse when the chips are down. Every season is Groundhog Day for Arsenal and their fans and their extended period of relative mediocrity has even greater meaning for those who remember the poisonous rivalry between the two clubs from the early Wenger and George Graham eras. However bad it has got for United we can point towards North London (and Merseyside) and console ourselves with the fact that for fans of those clubs their years in the wilderness total a lot more than ours.
Taking pleasure in the results of others can only cheer us up so much however. Sometimes we need a good belly laugh to lighten the mood and it is this area that Arsenal and their fans excel, even if it is unintentional. Most fan groups have YouTube channels, but none is as entertaining as Arsenal Fan TV, with its rogue’s gallery of regulars, whose post-defeat meltdowns carry the power to persuade even the most depressed rival fan that their own malaise is nowhere near as bad as it seems. There are plenty of characters to laugh at, such as Ty, the man who owns and wears pretty much every Arsenal branded item sold on Planet Earth, all at the same time. But none are as entertaining as Claude, the old timer whose anti-Wenger post-defeat rants are a thing of beauty. His reactions are, of course, so amusing because they are so animated, but many football fans can relate to his frustrations. Most, however, do not manifest them in quite the same way as he and others on the Channel do.
It is easy to laugh at Claude. Very, very easy. It is also a natural instinct to dismiss his anger and pain as ridiculously exaggerated and reactionary, the rantings of the sort of modern day supporter we like to think only inhabits the Internet. And yet if you listen to his words and think about the bigger picture his fury is not as misguided as it may seem. I would argue that it is not just the characters who provides us with an incentive to watch Arsenal Fan TV clips. We also watch to make ourselves feel better, to provide that affirmation that we are not the only team perpetually under-performing. We want to hear from fans of a club who are even more frustrated than us and Arsenal fans have every right to be tearing their hair out on an annual basis. Claude’s rants appear to be over the top, but here is a man who has watched the same season on repeat for over a decade, a team which fails in the exact same way every season, with a manager unable to solve issues of mentality and weaknesses in the side.
For Claude and every other Arsenal fan this last week had the potential to tip even the most level-headed soul over the edge. The Gunners have possibly their most talented and best balanced squad since they last won the Premier League and have played some scintillating football at times this year. They had kept themselves involved at the top of the table and appeared, in a particularly open season, to have every chance of breaking their duck. They may still, but as they enter the Christmas period things are starting to look far less rosy and far more familiar. On the pitch Arsenal visited Everton and Manchester City, dominated the first halves and took a one goal lead. However, they emerged from those early spells a different team and games they appeared to be strolling through instead descended into a familiar collapse. The defeat at City was all the more galling because it was just another loss away from home against a direct rival in a long sequence of underperformance on the road against such opponents. When the chips are down and teams play with intensity and physicality Wenger’s Arsenal often wilt, and from being neck and neck with the Premier League pace-setters they now find themselves 9 points behind relentless Chelsea. That it is Conte’s Blues who lead the way must be particularly galling, a functional, highly efficient unit who grind out victories with the sort of regularity that wins titles. The antithesis of Wenger’s Arsenal over the last decade.
Those two defeats at Goodison and The Etihad came shortly after the Champions League draw had pitted Arsenal against Bayern Munich in the Round of 16. The Gunners have progressed past the 1/4 finals once since reaching the final in 2006 and have not won a knockout tie over two legs since 2010. In recent years they have fallen to defeat against the first elite side they have faced. Repeated failures are hard to take given the way in which the club and their manager laud annual Champions League participation, as if it is football’s ultimate goal, rather than as a means to enter and ultimately win the biggest club competition in Europe. The fans could be forgiven for wondering why they bother to strive for qualification when they are rarely competitive at the highest level. The suspicion that it is money rather than sporting glory which drives the annual pilgrimage for a top four spot is rarely far from the minds of many Gooners. The draw with Bayern in this year’s competition is cruel, but many could be forgiven for feeling a sense of resignation.
The consistent failure to compete and win domestically and at home as well as a relatively parsimonious attitude to transfers and wages has also had a knock-on effect on the club’s ability to retain its best players and the fans have grown used to the likes of Robin Van Persie, Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor, Cesc Fabregas, Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna leaving in their quest to win titles and earn a better salary. The fact that most have gone on to win trophies elsewhere has not helped dispel the perception that success is more likely to be achieved away from The Emirates. It was a real coup for Wenger to be able to acquire players of the talent and profile of Mezut Özil and Alexis Sanchez and he and the fans will have hoped that such stellar acquisitions were the prelude to a new era where the club could buy and retain high-end players and make the step up to winning titles. It has not yet come to pass and Wenger now finds himself in a familiar situation, with the contracts of his star players running down and no resolution as yet as to whether either will resign. Both are reported to be asking for salaries in line with those earned by stars at other top clubs and Arsenal appear as yet unwilling to comply. There is a suspicion that both are considering their futures as they ponder whether the last years at their peak would be more productive elsewhere. And who could blame them? Careers are short and history tells them that trophies are far more likely to be won in another club’s shirt. The ambition and medium term future of the club are on line and the two defeats on Merseyside and in Manchester can only have served to shake the players’ faith in their club and manager to break the cycle of failure. Özil looked particularly disinterested last week and his nonchalant attitude at a defensive corner led to Ashley Williams heading Everton’s winner. In a further layer of complexity one wonders whether he is part of the problem, that whilst he is wonderfully gifted and full of creativity when things are going his way, some argue that he, like Arsenal, often disappears when the going gets tough.
It is not hard to understand why Arsenal Fan TV is such compelling viewing and can lighten the mood of fans depressed at their own team’s result. The personalities who contribute to the show are compelling and endlessly entertaining and whilst it is very easy to laugh at their emotional struggles and scorched Earth approach to solutions to their team’s issues, one can understand the depth of their frustration, particularly this last week. They are staring into the abyss again, their own worst nightmare on endless repeat, where the same mistakes are repeated time and time again, where the team’s character fails it when the chips are down, where Champions League participation amounts to an early knockout tie exit and where the most talented players are allowed to leave as contracts run down and the years of disappointment take their toll. Perhaps this year will be the one where the spell is broken, Chelsea reeled in and Bayern conquered en route to Champions League glory. But I wouldn’t bet on it, and neither would Claude. We may all laugh at him but I hope he and his team never change, not only because of the long-established rivalry between our clubs but also because he and the other oddballs on Arsenal Fan TV are an effective way of lightening my mood as United toil. Claude may be manic and endlessly entertaining, but it doesn’t mean that he’s wrong.