This weekend, Arsene Wenger goes in search of his fifth FA Cup success when his Arsenal team face Hull City at Wembley stadium in Saturday’s final. However, despite his previous success, this could well be Wenger’s last chance to prove he is still able to inspire success at the Emirates.
Wenger’s reputation as one of the greatest coaches of his generation will never be in doubt, but every season that passes without a trophy there are those who wonder and question whether Wenger is still among the elite. Nine trophy-less years have left Arsenal in something akin to the footballing wilderness, each failure slowly eroding the club’s, and their manager’s, image as a leading force in the beautiful game.
There have been signs this season that the sparkle is back at the Emirates as Arsenal at one point looked serious contenders for the Premier League title; top of the table for much of the season before a series of crushing defeats in a monstrous March shattered their title aspirations. The FA Cup was probably never the goal for the season, but now it has become essential for the future of the Gunners and their boss.
When Wenger’s team of ‘Invincibles’ completed their historic unbeaten championship success in 2003-4 there were few that would have anticipated the sort of decline that has seen Arsenal define success in recent years as Champion’s League qualification and emergence from that competition’s group stage. If any club has come to be the sustained definition of mediocrity flirting with true greatness it has been Wenger’s Arsenal. A ubiquitous, yet utterly harmless, presence among Europe’s elite.
What adds insult to injury is that during the nine barren years Wenger and the Arsenal support have had to watch the emergence of new money clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City; not just endure their presence but to languish in the dust trail of these new powers. Since Arsenal’s last silverware in 2005 these two clubs have between them won five Premier League titles, five FA Cups, two League Cups, as well as one Europa League and a Champions League success.
It’s become so bad for Arsenal that they’ve not just had to suffer the gap increasing between them and the top of the league and but even feel it closing between them and the next ;group’ of Premier League clubs which includes the likes of Everton and bitter rivals Tottenham. Now, it seems, even Liverpool have overtaken Wenger’s Arsenal.
Were it anywhere or anyone else a fall of this magnitude would never have been tolerated; that Wenger is allowed to pursue his obsession of bearing fruit from his strict footballing principles is based entirely on his past glories. However, you have to sense the patience is now finite.
Among Arsenal fans Wenger’s name has been sacrosanct for many years, none allowing a bad word said against the man who produced arguably the greatest team in English football league history. But there were real grumblings and murmurs of doubt as Arsenal suffered a poor start to this season - some even suggesting it was time for Wenger to move on.
Wenger did turn the season around and Arsenal looked like they could be on the ascent again before the usual soft underbelly exposed itself and Arsenal’s title challenge fell apart. While that sense of the inevitable could have turned Arsenal fans again, the club’s run to the FA Cup final has provided a convenient side attraction, providing much needed belief that the return of silverware is not far away.
Hull City will provide a stern task and Arsenal’s inept defeat to Birmingham in the 2011 Carling Cup final is not too distant in the memory for gunners fans to become complacent or think an Arsenal win is a formality. But while Steve Bruce and his men will no doubt be looking to seize their day, Arsenal and Wenger simply must leave Wembley on Saturday night with the FA Cup in their possession.
Wenger has not yet extended his contract that ends this summer. He revealed this week there has been “no change” in the situation, as well as insisting the outcome of the cup final would not influence his future. You can’t help but feel that in years gone by the contract would have been presented to Wenger months ago, such was the confidence the Frenchman’s presence in the managerial hot seat inspired at Arsenal.
Now it seems the unsettled status of the contract suggests the faith in Wenger’s methods and powers does not burn as bright as it once did. If Wenger does not deliver now then the contract situation provides the Arsenal hierarchy with an easy out and an opportunity to install a fresh perspective - as heartless as that may sound. Equally, and if necessary, it allows Wenger a chance to bow out on his own terms and exit with dignity.
One of football’s most common cliches is that you are only as good as your last result; it’s a game where success, not philosophy, is the highest currency. Silverware is the only source of power, and while memory has had a lasting influence inside the Emirates, for how much longer?
Wenger was once arguably football’s most respected winner, but it’s been a decade since the ‘Invincibles’ blitzed English football. It’s time to stop admiring Wenger by looking back. Now he must prove he is still a winner. After all, this could be his last chance.
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