One of my earliest memories is of a children’s book that told the story of a hapless anthropomorphic bear preparing to go off to work in the morning. Before its shift in the diamond mine or the Amazon warehouse or wherever it is that hapless anthropomorphic bears find gainful employment in the throes of late-capitalism, it had to plough through the usual rigmarole: drag itself out of bed, eat its breakfast, feed its pet, have a shower – you’ve woken up before; you know the drill. Eventually, the bear leaves its house but as it strides off towards another productive day at the munitions factory, it can’t figure out why everyone it passes in the street is giving it funny looks. Finally, on the last page, the bear realises it’s left home without any shoes or socks on and, to its credit, bursts into fits of laughter.
Even as a five-year-old, it’s a story that did little to capture the imagination, but for some reason it came to mind this week when the moment came, as it always seems to at this time of year, to sit down and think long and hard about Arsenal. It’s not been the best week for Arsenal, has it? Their manager is engaged in a public staring contest with their highest paid player, the board have apparently told that player they’d rather he left, and the fans have been notified that there’s no money to spend this January, despite the club being ranked the sixth richest in the world by Deloitte. This in itself might not be such a disaster if Mesut Özil weren’t on wages that basically render him unbuyable to any club in the world and if the man charged with bringing Arsenal back to prominence on a budget – the ex-Borussia Dortmund “super-scout” Sven Mislintat – weren’t packing his bags after falling out with head of football Raul Sanllehi, himself only in the big boy chair because former chief exec Ivan Gazidis did a runner to Milan last month.
It’s a totally head-spinning waltzer of shit, basically, and one that only appears more absurd and fraught the more you zoom out. This was also the week that Petr Čech, one of the best goalkeepers the Premier League has seen, announced he’d be leaving Arsenal for retirement at the end of the season. Čech has had a glittering top-level career but it’s one that’s been conducted in its entirety while Arsenal as a club have been consumed by vexing off-field matters, his arrival at Chelsea in 2004 coinciding with the Invincibles season and the Emirates Stadium move that set in motion a chain of events that have constantly promised jam tomorrow while delivering something that looks more like Marmite and smells rather worse.
When construction on their new home began in February of that year, Arsenal probably didn’t imagine they’d spend the next 15 navigating their way through an attritional slump that has been more memorable for its boardroom power struggles, custodial decline, transfer market ineptitude, arguments about net spend, embarrassing fan TV flare-ups and debt millstones than it has anything on the pitch. Yet here they are again, in the midst of another broken cannon Premier League season without any shoes or socks on, plagued by the sense that a dearth of nous means they’ll have to battle through it barefoot, all the while finding new ways to impede themselves: stapling hats to their face, setting fire to their armpit hair, putting their trousers on upside down and waddling through games against Premier League flyweights with all the poised élan of a man with his dick and balls hanging out and his feet stuck in the arse-cheeks of his jeans.
In truth, on the pitch, it’s been far from a disaster so far. For all the off-field tumult Arsenal have only dropped three points this week. The early-season 22-match unbeaten run is regularly derided – for Arsenal being lucky, having the temerity to face mediocre opponents or “outperform their xG” – but it was still a 22-match unbeaten run and the club are still only six points off the top four. A number of players who seemed to have flatlined under Arsène Wenger’s charge have been revitalised – Čech among them, until he was usurped by Bernd Leno – and new signings Mattéo Guendouzi and Lucas Torreira represent a significant upgrade on their previous midfield options. They also have a cadre of six or seven exciting prospects filtering through the academy, while this summer could see as much as £600k shifted off the wage bill if the right assortment of crocks, veterans and incompetents are moved on along with the contract-less Čech, Danny Welbeck and Aaron Ramsey. In the right hands, money like that could be paired with Arsenal’s existing quality and raft of youngsters to pull together a squad of real promise ahead of next season – though this is, of course, precisely what makes Mislintat’s departure all the more unsettling.
More than anything, you long even as a neutral for Arsenal to find a way to just calm everything down, silence the off-pitch screaming and bickering for enough time that focus can return to what happens out there on the grass. In the last 15 years that Arsenal have, as a club, spent punching themselves in the face, a number of glimpsed, golden futures have failed to materialise. The one where Arsenal win because they’ve got a massive new stadium and there are no oligarchs or billionaire fossil fuel clubs. The one where Arsenal win because FFP is enforced properly. The one where Arsenal win because their clutch of precociously talented young players all miraculously come to the boil at exactly the same time. The one where Arsenal win because they’ve finally started buying superstars like Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez. The one where Arsenal win because Arsène Wenger is old now and everyone agrees it would be really, really nice if he could just summon up one last title. The one where Arsenal win because Arsène Wenger has left, finally, and a new manager – one with modern ideas and a tactical plan – has arrived to replace him.
Sometimes you have to have the good grace to accept that the future you had mapped out isn’t happening. Maybe, when you’ve not won anything of real significance since guitarists were last on the front page of the Sun, it’s time to accept the world on its own terms, submit to its demands and customs, just get the basics of being the richest club in the biggest city in the world right and hope that things will take their natural course from there. Sometimes perhaps it’s best for a club and the individuals that run it to stop revelling in power shifts and grand philosophies and five-year plans and just concentrate on being the best they can where it matters, out there on the pitch at 3PM on a Saturday, without any distractions. To do what the world expects you to do, even if that’s something that for Arsenal seems as unimportant and tediously conformist as leaving your house in the morning with your shoes and socks on.