Arsene Wenger is on the precipice. Never has the end of his reign at Arsenal felt so close. After the collapse of the Gunners’ title challenge, defeat in the FA Cup semi-final against Wigan would surely precipitate the termination of Wenger’s career in English football.
Signing a new deal would be very difficult amid the inevitable furore. Although Wenger’s legacy would be untarnished, even he would be forced to accept he was not the man for the present moment.
However, some fans feel that even an FA Cup triumph should not be enough to spare Wenger. There are sizeable pockets of the Arsenal support who believe that, irrespective of the outcome of their dates at Wembley, the time has come for the manager to depart.
To some, that seems like heresy. Wenger has served Arsenal superbly for nearly two decades, and to doubt his capabilities feels like an act of treachery.
These fans see progress in Arsenal’s 2013/14 season. Certainly, silverware would be a huge boost. What’s more, their recent collapse should not cloud the fact that Arsenal were the Premier League’s best team throughout the calendar year of 2013.
Much of what he’s achieved has been without a budget that equates to that of his rivals. Wenger’s supporters argue that having guided Arsenal through a financially precarious era, the manager deserves to reap the rewards of his prudence.
However, old habits die hard. Wenger has become accustomed to keeping a tight grip on the purse strings. Despite Arsenal’s steadier financial footing, it will not be easy for Wenger to shed his hang-ups and join the big spenders.
Last summer he had a huge budget at his disposal. Although he made headlines and broke records by signing Mesut Ozil for £42.5 million, the truth is that Arsenal required more than one stellar addition. Upfront, his parsimony meant he opted to pick up French youth international Yaya Sanogo rather than a big name like Argentine Gonzalo Higuain. The respective goal tallies of either player this season speak volumes.
As a veteran of the managerial scene, Wenger is unlikely to change his policies in a hurry. That’s a worry. The mounting concern is that Arsenal’s problems are the same as Wenger’s, and they are endemic.
It’s not just the spending: Wenger is stubborn about his tactics too. He is not the sort of manager to tinker with his formation from game to game, adapting his side to the various strengths and weaknesses of the opposition. He expects his team to impose their own style upon the opponent from start to finish.
It’s an admirable principle, but one that relies upon having the best players at your disposal. When Wenger coached The Invincibles, few other teams could match their physical or technical capacity. Their abilities made them hugely intimidating. Matches were often won before a ball had even been kicked.
It’s not the same now. The competition is fiercer, and thus games are decided by increasingly narrow margins. In that environment, tacticians tend to triumph over philosophers. Wenger’s ethos of attractive possession football is admirable, but perhaps not versatile enough to cope with the challenges of the modern game.
His tactical inflexibility was put in to sharp relief during the recent defeat to Everton. Wenger named an almost identical side to his previous game against Manchester City, swapping Nacho Monreal in for the injured Kieran Gibbs.
His opposite number, Roberto Martinez, restructured his attack in order to exploit Arsenal’s flaws. He deployed Steven Naismith as a floating false nine, and he set Romelu Lukaku loose on the right flank to attack the uncertain Monreal. The results were spectacular.
Wenger didn't have an answer. He didn't even make a substitution until well after the hour mark. The intricacies of Martinez’s tactics proved too much for him.
Martinez also has a background in physiotherapy. He is at the forefront of player preparation, creating innovate regimes to keep his men in peak condition. Wenger once fulfilled a similar role, revolutionising the English game with his knowledge of nutrition.
However, the Frenchman has fallen behind. As Raymond Verheijen told The Mirror, you are only a revolutionary once. The methods that built Wenger’s reputation now belong to the past, and the evidence is there in Arsenal’s consistently long injury list.
Arsenal might benefit from fresh ideas. Against Everton, the team seemed to lack motivation. Perhaps it will take a new man to put some fire back in their bellies.
The Arsenal board must know that they will need to replace Wenger sooner or later. According to John Cross of The Mirror, any new deal for the manager would only be for a further two years. Are the Gunners simply delaying the inevitable?
There is an understandable fear of change. The travails of David Moyes at Manchester United have sparked concerns that following Wenger could prove an equally impossible job.
However, the successes of the likes of Brendan Rodgers at Liverpool and Martinez at Everton show that appointing a young, ambitious manager can reinvigorate a club. It does not have to be a disaster. Replacing Wenger would be a risk but it would be a brave move, and bravery is a prerequisite for success.
No Arsenal fan would begrudge Wenger victory in the FA Cup. However, plenty of supporters will hope he chooses it as an opportunity to bow out with a bang. A fresh face may be required to take the Gunners on to greater heights.