Boring banners, the Wenger Hokey Cokey, moaning about not winning the title vs moaning about fighting against relegation and pushing Sanchez in a hole: Dan Brigham talks to ESPN journalist and Arsenal fan Alan Gardner
Dan: Hi Alan. Last time we spoke for the Norwich/Arsenal preview in November (when we warbled on about Mark Robins and Patrick Vieira’s left bollock), Arsenal were two points off the top and still in the Champions League, while Leicester's crazy start to the season was obviously about to run out of steam soon. Like, really soon. Surely.
Five months on and... well. Things haven't gone great for Arsenal, really: they've blown perhaps their best chance to win the Premier League for a decade. So, let's get the boring question out of the way first: where do you stand in the Wenger Hokey Cokey? In or out?
Alan: Oh, Dan. Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan, Dan...
Sorry, just needed a bit of Partridge to cheer me up there. This has been a hard one to take. I’d love Arsène to go out in a high but that is clearly not happening this year. I guess a change would probably do everyone good... but I can't see Wenger stepping down of his own accord, and who do you bring in, anyway?
So I think I've currently got my left foot out, and my right foot nervous about what the future holds. Does that make sense?
Dan: 'Nervous Right Food' sounds like a medieval ailment, perhaps brought on by the fear of dancing the maypole.
That does make sense, though. The fear of change – especially when you’re contemplating changing from someone who revolutionised the way Arsenal played football and brought a great deal of success – against the fear of stagnating forever more.
Some people are taking action, though. I've just seen that two Arsenal Supporter Groups (who rather self-importantly call themselves Black Scarf Movement and REDaction) are planning a protest at the Norwich game. They will wave banners which say – and this is true – 'Time For Change. Arsenal is stale – fresh approach needed'. Which, I'm sure you'll agree, is just as catchy as a Paul McCartney melody and as politically-charged as a Bob Dylan protest song.
Honestly, you'll be pushed to find a duller banner. Just like the football team, they’ve played too many passes there when a first-time ‘Wenger Out’ would have just sufficed. Are you down with this sort of thing, and what's the atmosphere been like at the Emirates this season?
Alan: I've actually not been this season, for the first time since we moved to the Emirates. For a while, I could superstitiously believe my absence was helping the title challenge; at least now I know I saved my money for a good reason.
As I’m sure you're aware, it’s is hardly a cauldron of emotion at the best of times. Mostly just wearied rustling and the odd squawk of frustration as we fail to break down Sunderland yet again. (Coincidentally, I think my last game was actually 0-0 versus Sunderland, when they managed to escape oft-threatened relegation at the end of 2014-15).
But you're right, that is a naff banner. They could have had 'Get Your Arse Out' or 'Thanks for the broccoli, Arséne'. Anyway, I imagine the protest will end up being just another incident that Wenger didn't see.
Dan: I suppose you have to admire their po-faced refusal to indulge in any #bannerbantz.
It's hard to imagine a Premier League without Wenger. While guys like Sam Allardyce and Tony Pulis are still fart-attacking the league with twat-ball, Wenger is a reminder that football doesn't have to be akin to double-maths on a Friday afternoon.
Of course, there's a younger man bringing a bit of fantasy to the Premier League now. Like Wenger 15 years ago, he's developed a team of technically gifted, tall, strapping, dynamic players. It must be galling to see Mauricio Pochettino (for I am talking about him, not Eric Black) doing to Spurs what Wenger set out to do at Arsenal all those years ago? Have you been able to admire them at all, or do you spend most of your time trying to ignore insufferable Spurs fans?
Alan: Wenger should go down as one of the Premier League greats, even if he's not quite got the titles to show it. A bit more style than substance, in the final analysis – but it was a helluva good style.
Poch, well, it’s probably a little too early to judge. Spurs certainly deserve credit for the way they've played this season; you may recall me not taking them too seriously when you brought up the subject back in November, but they have peeled my potatoes in that regard. Harry Kane and Dele Alli have been wonderful to watch (Kane's goal against us at White Hart Lane was a finish Dennis Bergkamp would have been proud of) and they have also had the best defence in the league – which is very un-Tottenham.
But, having said all that, I would make one final point: they haven't won anything yet.
Dan: A bit mean this, but let's just revisit your quote about Spurs: "There have been a few notable close shaves in recent years but I don't tend to worry about how the Spuds are doing. They are their own worst enemies, really, and put here to make Arsenal fans feel good about themselves (I really hope this doesn't come back to bite me in six months)." To be fair, you could still finish above them...
While most football fans grumble about relegations, or misfiring strikers or another boring mid-table season, Arsenal and Manchester United fans (and Chelsea this season) are in the very rare position of getting to grumble that their team hasn't WON THE PREMIER LEAGUE for a few years. Is that just like a rich-kid moaning that his parents only bought him a new Ferrari rather than a new yacht for his birthday, or is it exactly the same thing that the rest of us moan about, but on a different level?
Give us an insight into what it's like to be pissed off your team isn't winning the league...
Alan: Yes, I'm about to be hoist by my own petard – though I was at least wise enough to realise it could come back off the beans on toast. I think Arsenal fans are resigned to there being no St T's this year and would gladly take us scraping into third above Man City.
You make a good point about relative success. One of the reasons I've been pro-Wenger for longer than many is the acute awareness that things could be so much worse. Challenging for the title, regular Champions League football and the odd cup success isn't so disgustingly unpalatable, is it?
Now, I suppose one of English football's most successful clubs ought to have loftier goals, but we are now in the age of the oil-money arrivistes. I don't think I would have preferred to be a Liverpool supporter for the past 20 years.
That said, just like every other football fan, conceding a late equaliser at home to Crystal Palace does stink out your Sunday...
Dan: Conceding a late equaliser to Crystal Palace is still preferable to conceding a late winner to Crystal Palace, mind you. So thanks.
Right, let's get down to the nitty and the gritty. The title's gone, you're almost guaranteed Champions League football for the 746th season in a row, there will be anti-Wenger protests at the Emirates, and the atmosphere will be quieter than a Silent Disco... Are the Arsenal players likely to be dreaming of their Dubai holidays and thus collapse against Norwich? Or is the lack of pressure on them going to relax them and turn with into the minnow-destroying beasts of yesteryear?
Alan: That definitely sounds like the thought process of someone in a glass-half-empty mood, Dan. You've not given up, have you?
Arsenal usually do a good job of coasting home when the pressure is off... But then, the pressure isn't off, really, despite having coughed up our chances of winning the title. United are just five points behind in fifth with a game in hand and I think there's still a scenario where City and Liverpool win the Champions League and Uefa Cup respectively, and cut fourth out of the equation.
So, I hope no one is dreaming of Dubai, Chile, Czechia or even the Euros. A solid win would set things up nicely for something heroic at the Etihad next weekend... and then to screw up at home to Villa on the final day and secure the football equivalent of a Darwin Award.
Dan: My thought processes are dominated by the kind of epic straw-clutching known only too well by yo-yo teams (and especially by fans who fear that the yo-yo string will more than likely be severed while it is on a downward trajectory). It's disappointing to see that both Manchester clubs play on Sunday, depriving Norwich fans of the hope that both would win and put some pressure on Arsenal. Unfortunately, Sunderland and Newcastle both play before Norwich, so we could well and truly be in the brown stuff by kick-off.
So, tell us – as if we need telling – who Norwich should fear on Saturday? Is Alexis Sanchez going to be looking for payback after Ryan Bennett pushed him in a big hole at Carrow Road in November (and “could have killed him”, according to Wenger)? Is Mesut Özil playing well? Is Jack Wilshere likely to announce his readiness for Euro 2016 by scoring a breathtaking winner (before injuring himself celebrating)? Or is the danger likely to come from another source? Mohamed Elneny looks like one of the few excellent January signings...
Alan: The canary may be in the mineshaft but he's not dead yet. "Let's be 'avin' you!" as someone famous once said. Win your two home games and I reckon you've a shout...
Patronising pep talks aside, you probably know who to fear, although 19-year-old forward Alex Iwobi is the latest young gun to make a mark. Özil seems to have gone a bit quiet, which is frustrating, but Sanchez has rediscovered his vim – I forgot your lot nobbled him last time; might have to blame that for us fudging the title again.
Wilshere will probably come on for the last 15 and get booked. As for Elneny, I think he looks a gem, on the showing of a dozen games. Maybe one of Wenger's last landmark signings?
Since you mentioned the transfer window, do we need to look out for Steven Naismith? He's popped a couple in against us in the past and I seem to remember Norwich spending a fair bit of wedge on him in January...
Dan: On the one hand Iwobi looks very promising. On the other, he may be just about good enough to stop Wenger from buying a world-class striker, but not quite good enough to be world class himself. Which probably helps no one, really.
Naismith is very much like our Sanchez. Except he's slow, has a terrible first touch, is rotten at passing and can't hit the target (although he very definitely wouldn’t let Ryan Bennett push him in a hole). I didn't know he'd scored a couple past you before so, in that spirit of straw-clutching, that just about means he probably deserves to start on Saturday.
Right. Give us a score prediction for Saturday, and whether or not you think Wenger will be Arsenal manager next season?
Alan: Think both goals were at Goodison, if that gives you the freedom to put him back on the bench.
I'm going to go for a nervy 2-1 home win, and the certainty that Wenger will be in situ next year (his contact runs until 2017), still searching for "little bit quality" in the transfer market as deadline day ticks around.
Dan: For Norwich to get anything out of this game they’re going to have inject Seb Bassong with something that stops him knobbing about with the ball in his own half, strap Bennett to Sanchez with gaffer tape and hope Olivier Giroud makes it 15 games without scoring. Easy.
I’m struggling to see anything other than an Arsenal win, if I’m honest – our back four against a firing Sanchez will be like four ducks trying to ward off a tank. I’m going 3-1 Arsenal.
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo who used to know a bit about football when he worked on the sports desk at The Guardian. You can follow him on Twitter at @alanroderick