With yet another must-win game ending in disappointment for Arsenal supporters and hopes of a Premier League title fading, speculation over Arsene Wenger's future at the Emirates is heating up.
Two months ago this would have been an absurd conversation. Two months ago four trophies were still on the table.
After dropping the Carling Cup Final against Birmingham, Wenger's men proceeded to crash out of the Champions League and the FA Cup, leaving just the EPL crown within the Gunners reach.
But a string of lackluster performances, the latest being the April 2 draw with Blackburn, have—barring an unlikely total Manchester United collapse—effectively ended Arsenal's title hopes.
With questions looming over his handling of the Gunners goalkeeper situation and his choice of center back pairings, the Emirates hasn't seen any hardware hoisted since 2005, and it looks like that won't change this season.
Supporters hold fast to the "Arsene knows" ethos, while detractors point to the lack of recent successes and claim that Wenger's tactics produce artistic football but little else and that the Frenchman displays too much loyalty to players who don't deserve it.
So, what's the verdict? Should Wenger be sacked?
I say no. Here's why.
Sure, I know it was a while ago, but let's not forget Wenger put together arguably the best side in the history of English football in 2003/04.
In the midst of a 49-match unbeaten run that spanned parts of three seasons and lasted from May 7, 2003 until October 24, 2004, the Gunners swept through the entire 2003/04 campaign without defeat. Arsenal became the first team to remain chaste through its entire calendar of league fixtures since Preston North End in 1888/89. To put that in perspective, the last team to equal what Wenger's men did that season, did so when Germany still had a Kaiser.
If Wenger is sacked, whoever Peter Hill-Wood and the board elect to replace him will have never skippered a better side. From top to bottom, The Invincibles are without question one of the greatest club sides ever fielded, despite their lack of success in other competitions that year.
Wenger is the same manager he has always been. The Premier League still has 20 teams, and the ball is still round. I see no reason why the man who revitalized AFC and completed one of the greatest feats in football needs to be replaced.
As always, the manager gets too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly. The main area of criticism is the extended trophy drought, and fans will do well to remember that Wenger hasn't played a single minute of football since the early 80's. Yes, the trophies have been scarce lately, but the Frenchman has still won more than any other boss in the history of the club.
Wenger should stay because he's won before and he will win again. Besides, it's not like Arsenal have been bad during his tenure. That they are one of the top teams in Europe is beyond debate. Wenger is the architect.
After mercifully putting an end to the short and troubling Bruce Rioch era, Wenger came to Highbury in 1996 and took over a side that was squarely mid-table the previous few seasons. His first season, Arsenal finished third and earned European qualification, competing in what was then called the UEFA Cup.
Here is the case for Wenger remaining in charge at the Emirates strictly by the numbers.
14: Wenger has guided the Gunners into European play 14 consecutive seasons, not including this one. That is the most of any active manager save for Sir Alex Ferguson.
481: The number of wins Wenger has recorded with Arsenal.
11: The number of trophies won by Arsenal during the Wenger era (4 FA Cup, 4 FA Community Shield, 3 EPL).
3: Number of times Wenger has been named EPL Manager of the Year.
0: Arsenal managers who have enjoyed more success than Wenger.
0: Managers not named Wenger who have guided a team to an undefeated season in the history of the FA Premier League
Since seizing the reins in 1996, Wenger has made Arsenal into one of England's most consistent squads. A major reason for this is Wenger's stellar record in the transfer market. While not known as a profligate spender by any stretch, the Gunner's boss has, by and large, spent wisely when compelled to loosen up his kung-fu grip on the purse strings.
Perhaps best characterized by the astute decision to snap up midfielder Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona's academy as a 16-year-old, the Frenchman's record in the transfer market has been one of success. If Fabregas returns to the Blaugrana this summer, as has been widely speculated, it is unlikely he will be let go for less than £40 million. Wenger paid nothing for him back in 2003.
Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Lauren, Nicholas Anelka, Jens Lehmann, Sol Campbell (round one), Kolo Toure, Gael Clichy, Freddie Ljungberg and Patrick Vieira are just a few of the brilliant players brought in by Wenger.
That's not to say there haven't been mistakes.
Among the more lamentable acquisitions were: Francis "The Fox in the Box" Jeffers, who played like he was in a box alright—albeit one made from pine—and expensive signings Alexander Hleb and Jose Antonio Reyes, both duds of the first order with Arsenal.
Overall, I defy anyone to make the case that the setbacks outweigh the successes on Wenger's transfer record.
Another one of Wenger's strengths has been identifying and developing youth players. His acumen in bringing in talented tots has led to Arsenal having a seemingly inexhaustible supply of exciting young players coming through the ranks.
Even going back to his days with AS Monaco, Wenger has shown a knack for discovering young talent. While there, he signed a young George Weah from Cameroonian side Tonnerre Yaounde. Weah would later be named FIFA World Player of the Year while with Milan.
Robin van Persie and Patrick Vieira are two good examples of young little known players brought in by Wenger. Currently, Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshire and Kieran Gibbs serve as an indication of the kind of player that Arsenal have brought up through the youth system during the Wenger era.
If not convinced by Wenger's impressive body of work in London and still intent on running him out on a rail, all I want to know is: If not him, than who?
The only candidate who even approaches the Frenchman's pedigree in terms of success is Jose Mourinho, and personally, I doubt whether anyone at the Emirates would be able to abide that clown running up and down the touchline after every goal. Besides, why would Mourinho leave a free-spending club like Real Madrid for one that clearly has a different philosophy? Although, the prospect of riding into London on the back of a glowing white steed and saving the day would probably prove appealing to his sense of vanity.
Former Aston Villa boss Martin O'Neill is another name being bandied about as a hypothetical successor to Wenger. It is worth noting, that while he certainly enjoyed a good run with Celtic from 2000 to 2005, as far as England is concerned, O'Neill's career winning percentage is a fair sight below .500. He has an impressive resume and surely deserves to be a candidate for almost any other job, but I don't think he's near the manager Wenger is, and I don't think he's the man to replace him.
Take your pick, there are plenty of suspects to choose from. One the most likely looks to be Dragan Stojkovic, who currently manages Nagoya Grampus Eight, the same team Wenger led before moving to England. In fact, the Arsenal boss himself has tapped the Serb as a likely successor, citing their nearly identical tactical philosophies and approach to the game. That being said, a more likely scenario would be for Stojkovic to join the Gunners as an assistant, presumably under Wenger, for a season or two before inheriting the big job.
Besides, if Wenger is sacked, that to me would signal the board's desire to move away from the current modus operandi at the Emirates. If that were the case, it seems unlikely that Piksi, as Stojkovic was known during his playing days, would present an attractive option.
The bottom line is, whoever succeeds Wenger is going to be a downgrade. Why hasten his departure? Arsenal would do well to let Wenger run the team as long as he still has the desire to do so. He is one of the best managers in the world, and Arsenal is one of the best clubs.
Look, I'm frustrated with the lack of silverware too. Knee-jerk reactions aren't the answer. The man has built something truly special at Arsenal.
Nobody can guarantee victory. That's why they play the games.
Sacking Wenger isn't the answer. Acquiring the proper positional depth so the niggling little injuries that seem to constantly be gumming up the works at the Emirates don't sting as much is.