Arsene Wenger during Arsenal's game against Montpellier.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
Not for Arsene.
Not for Arsenal.
But amid the disaster at the Emirates on Saturday, it became painfully clear that the man leading this spiralling club must be the next piece to fall if the current crisis is to be arrested.
While unquestionably one of the most iconic figures in the club’s illustrious history, the man once adored by the faithful in north London, the man who held the trust of all those at the Emirates, is rapidly becoming a resented figure at Arsenal.
It’s dreadfully cruel, but it is what it is. Wenger, the brilliant manager that led his club to the greatest of heights almost a decade ago, has sadly grown to become the person hindering their revival.
Wenger himself once said, “At some clubs success is accidental. At Arsenal it is compulsory.”
Without that compulsory success, with the very house he built burning down around him, the safest bet for Wenger would be to walk away. Staying to extinguish the flames is a battle he can no longer win.
Saturday’s loss wasn’t a trampling by Manchester United, evidence of the growing distance between the two clubs. No, this was a debilitating defeat at the hands of Swansea, a loss that highlighted how far Arsenal have actually fallen. The club that own the greatest single season in English football history can no longer overcome some of England’s less fortunate.
As manager, as leader, Wenger must take responsibility. His time is up. He is now rapidly outstaying his welcome.
Yet like many before him, Wenger appears determined to reverse the decline, determined to prove he can win the war after losing the battle.
Sport is littered with greats who, one way or another, have stayed too long, unable to see that their diminishing skills are harming their team’s progress. Yet these men are invariably players, men with glorious records who have earned the right to depart on their own terms. Managers and coaches rarely find themselves in the same position, given that few ever determine which day will be their last.
At a miserable 10th place in the Premier League table, the Gunners have never started a season so poorly in Wenger’s reign. A whopping 15 points behind league-leaders United after only the opening months of the season, Arsenal find themselves simply battling for a respectable league position.
After leading his club to the top four in every season of his tenure, Wenger is now staring up at the likes of Everton, West Brom, Swansea, West Ham and Stoke, for all five clubs currently boast a superior position.
There will be those who say this is merely a form slump, a bump in the road to an eventual top-four position. But Arsenal’s current performance is more than that. It’s a season-long trend.
Excluding the five goals put past a 10-man Tottenham squad and the six hammered past a listless Southampton, Arsenal have a meagre 13 goals in as many matches this season. In five combined games against Sunderland, Stoke, QPR, Aston Villa and Swansea, Wenger’s team has a solitary goal, a goal that should have been disallowed, as Mikel Arteta was clearly offside as he scored a late winner against QPR.
Wenger and his team would once punish the peasants of England’s first division. They are now barely able to score against them.
Robin van Persie’s statement after deciding against the renewal of his contract at Arsenal spoke volumes of Wenger’s increasing delusion regarding Arsenal’s future. Via the Guardian:
“Out of my huge respect for Mr. Wenger, the players and the fans I don’t want to go into any details, but unfortunately in this meeting it has again become clear to me that we in many aspects disagree on the way Arsenal FC should move forward.”
The prolific striker who carried Wenger and the entire club for all of the 2011-12 campaign, no doubt craved winning, success, trophies and glory. He expected to see his club chase those dreams wholeheartedly, without inhibition. Instead, he saw a manager satisfied with nearly enough.
Wenger’s ambition to conquer all has slowly dwindled with his team’s gradual fall from grace. At the club’s most recent AGM, Wenger’s vision for Arsenal’s future was there for all to see.
“If everybody is absolutely devastated when we finish third in the league, I promise you I will not be here if you finish 15th one day.”
Stability, profitable returns and an ongoing presence in Europe is the extent of the Frenchman’s vision. Arsenal deserve more.
With their position among the world’s elite clubs falling further into jeopardy every year, the Gunners need a dynamic and enterprising leader. A man more in touch with the nuances of the modern game, a leader with a thorough understanding of the latest training methods, a man able to identify not only talent and skill in transfer targets, but also leadership and character. Arsenal desperately need a manager hellbent on winning.
As his ambition has declined, his failure to adapt has shone brighter. The team’s inability to score against the minnows of the Premier League is a reflection of Wenger’s refusal to evolve.
In his 16 years at the helm, he has rarely sent his side out in anything other than a 4-3-3 formation. His players are instructed to maintain possession at all costs, told that consistent, crisp passing is the only way to win.
Yet as the rest of England has slowly devised ways to counter the once indomitable style, Wenger’s Arsenal have failed to tinker with the recipe.
Now, with every club in England aware of how to bring about their downfall, Wenger desperately finds himself needing to do something he’s never once attempted—reinvent himself and his team. But due to the way he has constructed and managed his club, he simply doesn’t have the tools for the task at his disposal.
While they provide Arsenal with a midfield capable of passing the ball like few can, they leave the team completely devoid of pace, height, strength, aerial ability, tackling prowess and general athleticism. Wenger has failed to grasp that physical conditioning and athletic ability now trump talent alone in the modern sporting world.
Manchester City’s title last season is as much a testament to physical preparation as it is to player quality. While City has seen its enormous wealth handsomely collect elite talent, the club has identified the importance of physical preparation, player monitoring and high performance sport science in its chase of greatness.
As a result, it came as no surprise that City only saw its players miss 186 combined days of training and competition due to injury last season. Wenger saw his players at Arsenal miss 1,343.
Yet Wenger’s failure to adapt has been overshadowed by the serious decline of one of the qualities that instigated his success. At 63 years of age, Wenger’s clarity has become blurred. Once the owner of a keen eye for talent, Arsene has lost his touch in the transfer market. In years gone by, the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robin van Persie and Samir Nasri were expertly plucked from neighbouring Europe. In more recent times, Andrey Arshavin, Marouane Chamakh, Gervinho and Andre Santos are the sort of quality Wenger has acquired.
Although he insists that his club will be better placed to seriously compete when FIFA’s Financial Fair Play rules are implemented, it’s not the gap between Arsenal and the Manchester clubs and Chelsea that Wenger should be concerned with. It’s that his team are now sitting one point and two places below a team that wasn’t even in the division last season.
With another one of the club’s players, Theo Walcott, looking likely to chase a new home, frustrated with his role and the direction of his club, it’s clear he shouldn’t be the first casualty of Arsenal’s dreadful season. Instead, it should be the manager.
With the house he built burning down around him, the rescue effort cannot commence from within. External help is required.
Wenger’s legacy can still go on, remain intact, but only if he flees from the flames surrounding him now.