Welcome To Stalingrad

February 20, 2012

As sieges go, this is a big one.

The Arsenal players, manager, directors and staff have become used to being under attack, but now they truly are under siege.

And who are the besiegers?

Yes, of course, the media, mostly comprised of self styled “good blokes” who love nothing more than a beer with a like minded manager and have never warmed to Arsène Wenger’s euro-intellectual aestheticism.

And yes, of course, our rivals at other clubs. Sour, bitter types who’ve worn for too long the scars of defeat suffered at our imperious hands.

And yes, the sugar daddies who go round picking up unfashionable clubs, giving them high heels, a platinum ring and a fur coat and sending them out like they’re the classiest broad on the block even though everyone knows that underneath the mink there’s no knickers.

But – and this is now clear – to the list of besiegers we must also add a significant proportion of the Arsenal support base. Possibly even a majority.

It’s a dire situation.

In the Second World War the German invasion of what we now call Russia inflicted defeat after defeat upon the Soviet Red Army. Eventually the Soviets found themselves backed up against the Volga River, in the city of Stalingrad, with the German army surrounding them on three sides.

The defenders dug in with dwindling supplies and resorted to eating cats (sorry Micky) and rats and dogs (sorry Evonne) to survive.

There would be more than 800,000 casualties before the outcome was decided (human casualties that is – I don’t think anyone counted the rats, cats and dogs). The city itself was reduced to rubble. Anyone who has been to an away game in Liverpool will be able to visualise.

Stalingrad came into my mind yesterday when I was reading Arsène Wenger’s quotes following the FA Cup loss at the Stadium of Routemasters.

He said this:

At the moment it is best to let people talk, criticise, analyse and destroy and on our side it is important to show internal strength and resilience and come out with a strong performance in our next game. We have to take the critics on board, stay together and face them.

On one level it’s the standard sort of quote you’d expect to see from an embattled manager.

But that phrase about letting people “talk, criticise, analyse and destroy” was stronger than we have been used to seeing from Arsene, particularly the word “destroy”.

It was the phrase of a man under siege.

It must feel to him and to most inside the club that people really do want to destroy Arsenal – or at least his vision for Arsenal. And I infer that he includes his many critics among the fan base in that accusation.

I know hardly any supporters who, these days, are 100% confident that Arsène and the club will be able to turn things round and bring back the glory days. Even the most ardent Wenger loyalists are plagued by doubts, while those who have been criticising him for years are now feeling vindicated and invigorated in their campaign to oust him.

A siege, naturally, can have one of two outcomes. The besieged city or castle can fall, with not terribly pleasant outcomes for those left inside. Or it can prevail as the attackers lose the will or resources to carry on the fight and depart (perhaps aided by the defenders getting reinforcements or extra supplies).

If the defenders are successful, there is often forged an almost mystical bond of togetherness between the survivors: a sense of having done something remarkable, with a group of remarkable people.

If we are fortunate, the Siege of Arsenal will have this kind of regenerative outcome. Hopefully our players won’t, like the Turkish defenders in the Siege of Azov, 1696, have to resort to slicing off their own buttocks for food (although if they did, Andrei Arshavin would keep the wolf from the door for a good few days).

But if we can come through these dark times with the right response – starting with beating the Noisy Neighbours on Sunday – there is the possibility, at least, of a brighter future for Arsenal.

Arsène Wenger himself has hinted that last summer’s transfer business was a mess – and I cannot believe a man as intelligent as he is will allow that to happen again in the coming summer.

I feel he will be a harder, wiser man this year, having been let down by both Fabregas and the Fat French Benchwarmer (who would also have been quite a hit at the Siege of Azov).

If Robin van Persie appears to be angling for a move away, I believe we will sell him quickly having first lined up a world class goal-scoring replacement. The same for Song and Walcott.

Regardless of whether we finish in the top four, there will be a lot of transfer activity. I believe Arsène will make demands on the Board that he has not made for years and if they do not back him, he will quit.

I know many, many Arsenal fans believe our manager will do no such thing and that they expect next summer to be a repeat of the last few summers.

Maybe they are right, but Arsène Wenger is a proud man and I cannot see him tolerating anything that will push the club further towards the dead ground of mediocrity. And there were special factors that affected last year’s transfer window.

Summer 2011 was the first since Stan Kroenke gained overall control of the club and, for whatever reason, the transfer strategy that the new regime adopted (or tried to adopt) failed abysmally. Kroenke is also a smart man and will not let it happen again.

I suspect that Silent Stan believed Arsène when he said Cesc and Na$ri would stay. He won’t believe any such assertions this year (not that Arsene will be making them).

Supporting a football team is like having a child. No-one can guarantee it will be plain sailing all the way. There will be times of joy, but also times of despair and sadness. It’s how you come through the latter ones that really counts. And that’s the very test confronting Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal right now.

Historical Note: In August 1942 the bookies would have given you very generous odds on a Red Army victory at Stalingrad, but the defenders prevailed and the broken Germans were chased all the way back to the Fatherland and final defeat at the combined hands of the Allies and the Soviets.

 It just goes to show, it ain’t over until it’s over.



* If you have not read it, I cannot recommend highly enough Anthony Beevor’s brilliant account of the Battle of Stalingrad (called, curiously enough, “Stalingrad”).