Arsene Wenger is a man under pressure. Not for the first time, but never has the pressure reached such heights as we see now. After the 3-1 defeat to Bayern Munich on Tuesday, progression in the Champions League is highly unlikely.
Knocked out of the domestic cups by lower league Bradford and Blackburn, in dire games where Arsenal’s superior quality never came to the fore, and behind in the race to secure a place in Europe’s elite competition for next season, the days of the ‘invincibles’ are long gone.
The boos that followed the loss to Blackburn last weekend add to the growing feeling on the terraces that Wenger’s time at Arsenal is coming to an end. Despite the transition to a new stadium, results have not been good enough, and the strain appears to be getting to the Frenchman.
The pre-Bayern press conference saw a particularly prickly Wenger verbally ruck with the media, while the look on his face as his team meekly surrendered two goals in the first half against the Germans said this was a man who was lost for an explanation or answer.
In truth, this Arsenal side is a shadow of its former self. When Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry (the first time) and Sol Campbell (also the first time) left the club, they were replaced with the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, and Kolo Toure. World class players were swapped for younger players with world class potential. Young enough for Wenger to mould, brought up under the wings of the established players they would replace, the system was flawless and helped fund the move to the Emirates.
The problem was when these replacements had fulfilled their potential Wenger put too much faith in the likes of Denilson, Abou Diaby and Marouane Chamakh. Instead of bringing players up from the academy, Wenger started buying them in from outside. Laurent Koscielny is a prime example of someone who on his day looks a good defender who can only get better; on his worst day he looks like bambi on ice.
After the sales of Fabregas and Nasri in the summer of 2011, Wenger replaced these players with the likes of Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, and Per Mertesacker. Arteta was at least proven in the Premiership but he is not in the same mould as Fabregas, while Santos is now out on loan in Brazil, and Mertesacker only plays because everyone in central defence is yo-yoing from the sublime to the ridiculous.
In all likelihood Wenger is doing a better job than most managers could given the players at his disposal. Jack Wilshere aside, there are no truly world class players in the team. Some like Lukas Podolski are fine international class players, some like Olivier Giroud are form players, on their day impressive, and others are woefully inept (Sebastien Squillaci).
If Arsenal were to sack Wenger there would be a monumental upheaval. A new manager would bring new ideas, new staff, change training routines, tactics, formations, he’d fancy some players, not others, want to bring in much needed reinforcements, maybe sell a star name who he does not rate. If you sacked a man like Wenger, after all he has achieved, you are drawing a line in the sand. Anything below that line is not good enough, and if it was bad enough to get Wenger sacked after all the titles and trophies he has won, why should it save anyone else, especially if their record pales in comparison.
Manchester United will likely experience something similar. Unless it is a promotion from within and the new man in charge can lay claim to at least some of the applause for previous successes, often an outsider finds he is quickly under pressure and fails to stay in charge for long.
With Arsenal, a new man would want to use the club’s cash reserves to boost the squad, but if they are out of the Champions League that will be difficult. It may require a rebuilding project, and one wonders if the fans have the stomach for that? Eight years without a trophy is long enough for a club of the Gunners size, how would they feel about being told they would have to wait for another few years?
Look at the depths Liverpool have had to reach before they have found a man (and owners) who are willing to put in two to three years of hard work and investment to get the team back to where it was under Rafael Benitez. They went through Roy Hodgson and Kenny Dalglish before settling on Brendan Rodgers – for now – and Arsenal could find themselves in a similar scenario.
Instability breeds bad decision-making. Long term planning gives way to short term recklessness. All Wenger’s hard work over the last 17 years could go up in smoke. The boardroom could become a battlefield. The few remaining quality players Arsenal have may jump ship. It could be Armageddon.
That’s why it is important that if Wenger leaves, it should be on his terms. Not to add more pressure onto the ex-Monaco manager’s shoulders, but the only way he can leave Arsenal is if he decides he can do no more. In the immediate aftermath people might think he ended his Arsenal career a failure, but given time he will be recognised for the visionary he was.
It would be a very courageous decision but one that could decide Arsenal’s future.
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