Arsene Wenger was a game-changer in English football. He landed at Arsenal like a manager from the future and his philosophies will endure long after he's left the Premier League behind. But that leave could be coming more quickly than planned for the man once known as "Le Professeur."
Wenger evolved a science. He changed player diets, pored over statistics and developed a winning model for harvesting young foreign players into superstars. In essence, he ushered in a more thoughtful era of coaching in the mid-to-late 1990s.
We'd never seen a manager quite like him, and for a while it felt like everybody else had been left behind—Manchester United's legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson included.
For Arsenal fans, Wenger's revolution has achieved far more than the three titles and four FA Cups they won between 1998 and 2005. He has altered the very DNA of their football club.
Arsenal, under Wenger, have assumed a new identity—one bred on the bold and expressive teams their manager put in front of them, and one that has seen them depart old-school sensibilities for widened horizons and an aesthetic appreciation that had no place with the Arsenal of previous generations.
Wenger's Arsenal have, at times, pointed the way to the future of English football, and their free-flowing exuberance sparked the envy of Europe. The man himself has been linked to every big job on the continent, and he has even been backed as a future manager of England.
But somewhere along the way, the wisdom of Wenger found fault. And since 2005, his philosophies have been a study in ever-decreasing returns.
Arsenal today are a brittle apology for the teams who marched to the Double in 1998 and 2002 and went unbeaten throughout the entire 2003-04 EPL season. And the manager who once defined them appears powerless to halt their inexorable slide into irrelevance.
Beaten 4-0 by Milan in the last 16 of the Champions League last week, knocked out of the FA Cup by Sunderland and long out of the England title race, Arsenal's season is already over—in February. Barring a miracle, the Gunners are on course for a seventh straight season without a trophy.
At most clubs of Arsenal's stature in most countries, Wenger would have been gone years ago. But owed a debt of gratitude in North London, he's still there, and he's still not convinced there's anything fundamentally wrong.
"It depends what you call a crisis. Every time we lose a game we have a crisis. Our job is about winning and playing well," Wenger told reporters on Saturday.
"We will get criticism but I feel that is a bit hard on the team. At the moment I get many lessons from many people who have managed zero clubs and zero games and zero European games. We have played 15 years in the top four, which is a mark of our consistency."
Another constant has been Wenger's state of denial that anything needs to change at Arsenal. Season after season of failure, the Gunners still operate with a frugality in the transfer market that has seen them fall further and further behind the competition.
According to Sporting Intelligence, Arsenal's transfer dealings between the summer of 2001 and the summer of 2011 resulted in a profit of £4.2 million.
Contrast that with over £500 million in losses for Manchester City and Chelsea, over £200 million for Tottenham and Liverpool and £170 million for Manchester United, and you can see where that leaves them. Blackburn were the only other team who started this Premier League season to have a number in the black, and look what it's done for them.
It's all very well balancing the books, but it's a false economy if by doing so you set yourself adrift, cap your earning potential and make yourself unattractive to new players.
Too many world-class players have already left Arsenal as a result of their lack of ambition, and more will follow if they miss out on the Champions League next season. Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy were among the defectors last summer. What are the odds Robin van Persie jumps ship this time around?
Wenger's model is simply not working. It's time for him to go. And it would be best for everyone if he did it himself and he did it now.
There will be Arsenal fans who want that, and those who feel they owe Wenger a lifetime of loyalty for what he's achieved at the club. But ultimately, both sets will be best served if he walks away now and hands over his legacy while there's still something left of it.
If we didn't know that before, we saw it in technicolor at the San Siro last Wednesday. Arsenal were ravaged by Milan, just as they were by Manchester United early in the season. Where was the fighting spirit? Where was the leadership?
Some heavy defeats are freaks of nature, but this was nothing of the sort. This was the culmination of Arsenal's weaknesses played out to huge global audience. The latest in a long line of failures. And there was nothing Wenger could do about it.
And so to another postmortem he went, then another on Saturday—as the memories of his glorious years at the club become evermore obscured by the images of a failing leader, too stubborn to adapt and too stubborn to step down.
Wenger has fallen too far to climb back up this time, and no amount of money to spend in the summer can change the fact he's lost his way.
"Arsene Wenger's magic, he wears a magic hat," goes the famous Gunners chant.
The magic may yet be seen again elsewhere, but his hat fell off five years ago at Arsenal. And he hasn't even realized it's missing.