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When Dmitri Payet blasted home his wonderful free kick yesterday, the very real prospect of both Manchester United and the holders Arsenal being eliminated from the FA Cup in home games appeared to be unfolding for real. West Ham may not have held on for the win but as Slaven Bilic eruditely pointed out, his team go in to the replay as favourites. And supporters of two of English football’s three most successful clubs are left wondering about the future of their teams under the current management.
At Old Trafford, Anthony Martial’s equaliser wasn’t the product of the Alamo as those late Manchester United goals of years gone by appeared to be. United supporters were resigned to losing when Payet struck - they’ve seen this time and time before. For these fans, the jokes of rivals mean little, because they have long been accepting of their path to nowhere. There is no expectancy that they will win the replay, a scandalous and damning indictment of the current circumstances at United when the competition appears so winnable.
That’s the FA Cup; you could say the same for the league. And Arsenal may have suffered their own dismal result yesterday, but their fans appear more aggrieved about how their form in the league has gone. The defeat against Watford was the cherry on a bad-tasting cake which has been iced with the familiar unpleasant frosting of European humbling from Barcelona.
This column has, in the past, both questioned the wisdom of the Gunners continuing under the stewardship of Arsene Wenger and the risk of change in the face of few serious replacements. If the board at Arsenal are considering ending their experienced manager’s reign, they will look out for options of managers that they consider could do a better job. And, probably most pertinently, if those managers are available.
Since Pep Guardiola took the unprofessional route of announcing his intention to leave Bayern Munich, we have learned of the fate of a number of top managers; whilst others appear willing to wait for an opportunity with informed news that one may appear, in a sort of higher-level version of the transfer market.
Nowhere is the danger of transition better profiled than at Old Trafford, where the post-Ferguson years have been turbulent to say the least. They took a punt on a talented British manager and it turned out to be a disaster. Louis van Gaal was seen as a risk-free foundation builder but that hasn’t gone as planned. United may still win the FA Cup but their supporters have long been of the communal opinion that any real progress can only come under the following management to the current set up.
And so, with no guarantees, Arsenal are perhaps understandably cautious about making such a seismic decision. You don’t just sack Arsene Wenger and change your mind a week later if you don’t have a suitable alternative. There is, of course, the very understandable argument that the situation at Arsenal and United is poles apart anyway; Ferguson retired leaving even a recent era of glittering success, whereas the question about how far Arsenal can go under Wenger has been asked for at least five years after more than half a decade of underachievement.
Therefore, yes, you are ending a long period of management, and taking the risk of stopping that stability, but it is a period of success in relative terms rather than actual.
The two FA Cup wins were seen as encouraging signs of progress but the hard reality is that Arsenal should have been challenging for the title in the last two seasons. In this season, particularly, they should be the team leading, not Leicester City. If they are two or three players short, that is down to the manager who once again trusted in a squad that have shown themselves - as Jose Mourinho said - to be specialists in failure. There is a theory that players can learn from defeat and come back stronger; there’s another that simply suggests that players suffer defeat because they’re just not good enough.
It is not quite as universal as the apathy in Manchester, but Arsenal fans are increasingly edging towards wanting that risk to be explored - banners are being unfurled and angry voices are being heard. They are crying out for change and are growing to believe that the change must come at the top.
This week they face Barcelona with two probable outcomes, if history has taught us anything. One is an heroic failure, presenting pro-Wenger optimists with a sign that things might get better next year. The other is a ritual embarrassment the likes of which Arsenal fans have already witnessed in Europe this season. It is one of those uncomfortable situations for any football supporter to have to face - it is sometimes healthier for all the flaws to be exposed in a brutal fashion so that progress can be made. And yet, this is annual event for Arsenal fans, who are used to seeing these flaws so much that they have become just as identifiable in terms of team characteristics as the things they enjoy.
Either of the above scenarios could unfold and still the Arsenal board will, in all likelihood, not make a change. Or, the change.
If having a beating to them handed out by Barcelona is acceptable (though there is a salient argument that says some progress ought to have been made, and instead, the chasm in quality between the sides has arguably never been greater) by acknowledging the stellar cast of the Catalans, it only serves to tighten the spotlight on those domestic failures which border on unforgivable.
Forget transition, forget transfer spend, Manchester United supporters are so disgruntled this season because the football has been so poor and the league has been achingly winnable and yet their poor post-November form has seen them miles away from it. Runs of unexpected results like their own recent win over Arsenal are not taken seriously by supporters as indicators of progress and even if they manage an unlikely FA Cup win, it will represent a poor return over the last two years rather than serve as the chalice of hope that Arsenal fans themselves had expected it to be.
For United, their supporters’ frustration is that they don’t want to be settling for fighting for Champions League places and watching poor football. They don’t want to become what they have seen at Arsenal over the last decade. And Arsenal fans, for their part, are growing tired of seeing it too.
The achievements of Leicester and Spurs, and to be fair, those so-called lesser lights in the FA Cup, act as their own damning indication of where Manchester United and Arsenal are. Change is necessary if either club is to return to where their former glories suggest they should be.
Wayne Barton has been the football columnist for international broadcaster Setanta Sports since 2011 and has been described by the Independent as ‘the leading writer on Manchester United on the period between Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson’ after numerous books on the club and autobiographies. The most recent are ‘74/75’ with Tommy Docherty and ‘Rise Of The Underdog’, the autobiography of Danny Higginbotham.
Wayne has also worked in Hollywood and across the USA with Gold and Platinum selling musicians and actors from the monster hit TV show ‘Breaking Bad’.