Arsenal: Is FA Cup Loss to Blackburn the Beginning of the End for Arsene Wenger?
Fourth place in the Premier League might be as good as a trophy for Arsene Wenger, but Arsenal's fans have been waiting a long time to see the real thing at the Emirates—and it looks as though this season isn't going to break that sequence after the Gunners lost 1-0 in the FA Cup to Blackburn Rovers.
For some Gunners fans, this is another straw bundled on a camel's back which broke some time ago.
Wenger has been Arsenal manager since 1996, but after close to two decades at the club, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the end of an era is nigh.
It has been eight years and counting since the Gunners last brought silverware back home—a 2005 FA Cup final victory remaining the last time Wenger led his side to tangible success.
With another new crop of youngsters needing guidance, reassurance and leadership, is now—or, rather, the end of the season—the time for Wenger to step aside and let somebody else take up the reins?
If Arsenal were sitting pretty in third place in the Premier League, or even looking halfway close to challenging the two clubs from Manchester for the title, nobody would likely be questioning Wenger's position or ability to turn things around.
But the fact is, Arsenal aren't even in the top four right now.
They haven't been since late December, and with Tottenham showing better and more consistent form than the Gunners of late, there is every chance that Wenger will fail to guide Arsenal to a top-four finish for the first time.
Are Arsenal likely to emulate Chelsea and retain their Champions League status for the 2013-14 season by winning the competition itself this year?
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While it's unlikely, as proven by plenty of former winners, it's not entirely impossible. The Gunners face a huge challenge in progressing past Bayern Munich at the Round of 16 stage, one of the favourites to win.
Should they fall there—or in the quarterfinals, semifinals or the final itself—then Arsenal simply have nothing to fall back on.
No cup trophy. No European success. Not even the inglorious consistency of a top-four finish, at least so far.
Is Wenger's legacy to be that he peaked with his team in the early 2000s—the Invincibles of 2004 in particular—and was then laid to rest for almost a decade before admitting defeat; that only a series of almosts, nearlys and could-have-beens are to make up the entire second half of his Arsenal career?
Wenger has been a terrific coach. His ideals, philosophies and drive, as well as an ability to develop players, has seen his teams play some wonderful football and, to at least some extent, define how top-flight football in England has developed.
But he will not want his last season as Arsenal manager to be defined by absolute failure.
If not winning trophies counts as failing to succeed by some fans and pundits, then that, added to not retaining a Champions League place, must surely count as the same for the manager himself—and his bosses.
With one season remaining on his contract, Wenger seems faced with two possibilities: Qualify for the Champions League this season and leave in the summer with his head held high, if not lofted to the sky in celebration, or oversee a revival of sorts in his final campaign next year.
Either way, Wenger dare not sully his long reputation in football and not just at Arsenal, by leaving without achieving the bare minimum that the club has come to expect.
It seems unlikely at this stage that Wenger is going to turn things around to the extent that Arsenal suddenly challenge for major honours once more—that is, without him dropping all pretence this summer and spending significant amounts of money on top players in key areas.
The young, British contingent of the club have all had their contracts renewed and extended; Wenger has not, at least not yet. It remains plausible that he believes he can bring about the very best from the youngsters at the club and that he further believes them to be potentially good enough to challenge at the top.
But then, Arsenal fans heard the same argument back in 2007 when Abou Diaby, Armand Traore, Alex Song, Justin Hoyte, Denilson, Theo Walcott and Cesc were on the verge of becoming the next great generation of Arsenal players.
True, some of those have gone on to forge excellent careers in the game over the past six years, but none achieved a trophy win at Arsenal after they were so highly praised having beaten Liverpool twice in a matter of days in two cup competitions during that year.
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They've played in great European stages and have challenged up and around the top few of the Premier League.
But seriously come close to winning? Not close enough.
Wenger, as manager, ultimately has the responsibility of convincing his players they are good enough to win things and then giving them the platform to show that it can actually be done.
For eight long years now, he has failed to do so.
Should he manage to guide Arsenal back into the top four this season, Wenger would do well to consider long and hard about whether or not it seriously indicates that his squad are good enough, under his tutelage, to become a force in the league once again.
Or whether, like him, they are apparently content to win the Trophy of Coming Fourth.
The defeat to Blackburn Rovers shouldn't be taken as a sign that Arsenal are falling apart, aren't good enough or don't have the squad depth.
Should Wenger be looking at calling time on his Arsenal days?
It's a cup game, and plenty of teams this season have lost to teams from lower divisions. A one-off, knockout match shouldn't be looked at in isolation to have conclusions such as this drawn from it.
But looking at the overall picture, perhaps the long, long trophy drought that Arsenal have suffered through should have put an extra ounce or two of appreciation, determination and importance upon that particular fixture.
The defeat to Blackburn might not be the beginning of the end; in fact, that point might have passed quite some time ago.
But, it might just be another indication that Wenger's great period in charge of Arsenal is coming to a somewhat disappointing and overdue end.
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