Arsene Wenger cuts a lonely figure as speculation over his future is heightened by last night's defeat to Bayern Munich
As many predicted it would be, Arsenal’s dalliance with the idea of progression in the Champions League took a knife to the medulla last night, and far sooner than most of those associated with the club can stomach.
It was comprehensive, brutal, and unmistakably German. Having survived less than eight minutes, Thomas Vermaelen gifted Bayern possession on the halfway line, and to the Belgian’s dismay, within 10 seconds his team were trailing.
Cut to a furious Wenger on the touchline, his features screwed up in disbelief that his game plan had been so clinically shattered by a combination of his team’s incompetence and their opponents’ ruthlessness.
Is that it for Arsene?
There is no shame in losing to a team as accomplished as Bayern over two legs, especially in a competition which has been particularly cruel recently to the Munich outfit. But, like I said, there is no shame in losing over two legs.
At 2-1 down, Arsenal had a fingertip back on the cliff-edge— not a hand, but a finger.
After Podolski broke free from what had been a sluggish performance to give Arsenal a glimmer of hope, I realised that the next goal was more important in this game than it would have been in any other fixture between any other clubs. Of course, the hope died rather quickly.
That is why, I am afraid, that Wenger has to go.
Should Wenger leave?
My thought process last night was the result of Arsenal’s newfound reputation as a team who find it difficult to galvanise in the face of adversity. The manager said that his players are not mentally strong enough, and be it a fault of his own or of the players, no one can disagree with his statement.
I used to watch the Arsenal of 1998-2006 with a mixture of reverence and fear. Back then, it was nearly unthinkable that whichever team they opposed could resist such a seismic force.
Viera, Adams, Keown, Pires, Henry, Bergkamp, and many more besides. Players who were either so exceptionally talented or mentally solid that they were never beaten until the final whistle; players who went 49 consecutive games unbeaten. Astonishing statistics abound when you look back to the "Invincibles" era.
Conversely, the past couple of years have exhibited an Arsenal team who appear to think that the first goal signals the end of play.
As the debate has dragged on over Wenger’s future, numerous theories have been put forward as to why Le Professeur appears to have lost his touch.
Lack of finances? Hardly.
As of July 2012, Forbes listed Arsenal FC as the 10th-most valuable sports team in the world, with a value of $1.29 billion. Not football team, but sports team. Football-wise they are fourth, behind only the supernovae of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United, as of April 2012.
So they have the cash to do the business, but some believe that the board withholds funds from Wenger, choosing instead to go skiing with it. Unfortunately, that simply isn’t true; last summer Arsenal had an outlay of around £46 million, while the summer before it was £56 million.
Granted, a large part of that was generated by player sales, but most clubs can only dream of splashing out like that, regardless of where it came from.
The secret to Wenger’s early success was his knack for bringing in raw youngsters and turning them into world-class footballers. However, as evidenced over the last few seasons, the Frenchman’s ability to pick great attacking players has somewhat outshone his nose for a solid defender.
The great Arsenal defence that people remember was that of Adams, Winterburn, Dixon and Bould - the defence that won the domestic double in 1998. Wenger was able to build a new defence after that, formed of Lauren, Cole, Keown and Campbell, who also went on to be part of a double-winning team in 2002.
The years following saw the defence slowly fall away, as players moved on only for the manager to bring in inferior replacements—Eboue for Lauren or Clichy for Cole, anyone?
Arsene once had the freedom to bring in youth and flair, but he seems to forget that this freedom was afforded to him by having an experienced rock of a back four. The growing lack of solidity at the back has been apparent for a few years; it is now though, that it is coming to a head.
While Vermaelen, Koscielny and Mertesacker are all experienced internationals, there is something decidedly lacking when compared to previous Arsenal defences. Vermaelen, while he is the captain and a good player when on-form, appears devoid of any real leadership qualities when you remember players like Tony Adams.
The current crop of centre-backs fails to hold a good back line, let alone inspire fear in their opponents or confidence among their own.
The uncertainty has spread to the midfield and attack, not just when Arsenal step onto a pitch, but going back three or four years. Only 10 years ago Arsenal were a top team, a club where the stars wanted to win silverware and adulation. Now, they are an academy that develops world-class players to be snatched up by the current elite.
Would Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, etc. have left if they thought that they were in the mix for a league title or European Cup the next season?
The closest Arsenal have come to major silverware (discounting the Carling Cup final defeat in 2011) since the "Invincibles" season was a Champions League Final defeat to Barcelona, with a squad that consisted of the last dregs of that legendary side and promising youngsters such as RVP and Fabregas.
Seven years later, and the two players that Wenger built his side around have both departed in search of pastures new. Even lower-profile players such as Clichy, Nasri and Song have been lured away.
Why the recent exodus? No one knows for sure, but I would put money on it that if they had a stronger defence behind them, they would have faith in the team and therefore have stayed. Instead, we have a worrying pattern in which top players’ ambition exceeds that of the club and they leave, only to be replaced by people like Park Chu-Young.
Wenger is still the master of conjuring magic out of nowhere. His record speaks for itself, even recently: Wilshere, Fabregas and RVP are all established players now, while the Ox has bags of potential.
If you go through the list, you’ll see that there is an area being deprived of the Wenger touch—the defence.
Even skirting around the defensive issues, the attacking signings have also been sliding down the quality scale. Latest additions Santi Cazorla and Lukas Podolski are both very good, but neither would break into Wenger’s previous teams, while the less said about Olivier Giroud, the better.
But this isn’t something that can remedied by splurging on the ilk of Gerard Pique or Vincent Kompany next summer. That isn’t Arsene’s style, and why would those players want to move anyway, even if the price was right?
Even the Invincibles may not have been able to overturn a 3-1 deficit away in the Champions League, but they would have looked a damn sight more likely than this lot.
For me, the cracks are too deep and too synonymous with Wenger for the manager to stay. His best asset is fading, and as a consequence Arsenal have long since surrendered their status as a top team.
Of course, Wenger will always be respected for the way he revolutionised English football and took Arsenal to places they could previously only dream about—this is the man who gave the club their most successful period in history.
The board may decide to give him a bit longer if Arsenal manage to qualify for next season’s CL; should that not happen, then in my opinion Arsene has no argument left at all. For too long it has felt as though Wenger’s case is based on what he has done, rather than what he can do.
Because of those reasons, I think he should swallow his pride, do what’s best for the club and call it a day.
Sure, he might beat the odds next season, but that has been said on his behalf for the last eight years, and like everyone else, he has to accept when his time has come.
Most Arsenal fans have at least, and who pays his wages?