Arsenal and Chelsea are quite different clubs, whose fans are united in their misery. What do they share? And what does "We want our big London club back" really mean?
Last season, after a couple of Manchester-based brutalisings and some pretty scary riots, it was Panic on the Streets of London; this season, the capital has a less trendy and more monotonous soundtrack: "We want our Big Club back". Currently Arsenal or Chelsea, such is the vogueishness of chanted narratives like this that it could be Tottenham Hotspur too if results there backslide. There has been some sniping about what, exactly, the fans "want back" - which we'll deal with first - but the interesting question is that fans of such different clubs as Arsenal and Chelsea should feel so similarly.
First, it is silly to take this message literally. Obviously, no Chelsea fan (to use their unrest as exemplary) is demanding a return to the club's 80s Yo-Yo years. None, I believe, are pining for the days of Ken Bates' morally dubious stewardship. Maybe they're saying things were better last year when they won the Champions League, which would be reasonable but I suspect it's less specific than that. The truth is, I think, that these complaints have no literal meaning; they are really just rhythmic expressions of disenfranchised unrest. "We want our Chelsea/Arsenal back" is a collective announcement of vague personal disappointments: "Down with this sort of thing". If we keep that in mind, we can see how identical expressions of dissent can accompany two distinct sets of disappointments.
Let's look at Arsenal first. With two wins in eight and no recently mitigating successes, Arsenal are rubbish and a simple case to discuss. Having sold their best players year on year with only occasional replacement and with very infrequent replacement with equivalent quality, Arsene Wenger's tenure has become a study in decline. Essentially, Arsenal have become embarrassing and a set of fans used to being so (nauseatingly) proud of their club and its "principles" have had enough. Principles are worth having, it seems, only when you're still superior to all but the least principled of your competitors. This exhaustion was initially, towards the end of the meek 2-1 dismissal by Manchester United, directed towards CEO Ivan Gazidis -- Arsenal fans, surely, are the only set who know the amount of their CEO's salary -- but have shifted in the last three games, finally, towards Wenger himself.
The good husbandry for which Wenger was feted by fans and neutrals alike has led, perhaps inevitably, into frustration from fans and apathy from neutrals. It is sad, and maybe Wenger is set to become the great tragedy of English football's age of indulgence, a decent man drowned in others' dubiously-gotten gains. Fans just now, though, don't care: they want their Arsenal back.
Chelsea fans have a different set of problems and a different agenda; whereas Arsenal people are losing faith with the dynasty, Chelsea fans hate the latest new guy. With two wins in 11 (and zero in seven in the league), Chelsea, also about to drop out of the Champions League, are rubbish too. Like Arsenal, Chelsea have become an embarrassment: Chelsea are always awful in November and they almost always change their manager. As with Arsenal, the fans have had enough. They find their club, where Roberto Di Matteo, a loved one, has been ousted and replaced by Rafael Benitez, a sworn enemy, hard to like.
"We want our Arsenal back" and "We want our Chelsea back", then, really mean the same thing. They both exhibit a longing for a pride that was once held but has been lost. In both cases, though, what the fans want is really the opposite of what they demand. Neither Chelsea nor Arsenal has changed; rather, both clubs have done what they always do one time too many. Arsenal have shed too many players: they've made themselves into a glamourously-housed feeder club. Chelsea have behaved ingloriously, replacing a dynasty with a recycling carousel of undermined managers. "We want our Big Club back" really means, then, "Act like a big club. Please". But that don't rhyme so good.