By Matthew Holroyd
It’s that familiar sinking feeling that Arsenal supporters seem to experience every March. Their team have just exited the last-16 round of the UEFA Champion League, and are simultaneously falling away in their challenge for the Premier League title. Pressure inevitably builds on manager Arsène Wenger to turn results around and ensure the team recover for a stable finish to the season. But this year, more than any other, Gunners’ fans are voicing their frustrations and calling for a change at the top.
Before this discussion goes further, one fact must be underlined – Arsène Wenger is and always will be an Arsenal legend. When he joined the club back in the Autumn of 1996, the press cried ‘Arsène Who?’ as the relatively unknown Frenchman inherited a team that had become synonymous with the word ‘boring’ and featured players like Tony Adams, Paul Merson and Ray Parlour who had history in alcohol and gambling addiction. But Wenger’s legacy is plain to see, not only within the club, but also in the Premier League as a whole. He changed the entire mentality of footballers, from their diet to their training regimes, and led the Gunners to one of the most successful periods in their history. Two League and FA Cup Doubles, the undefeated league season of 2003/04 and two more FA Cups were won in the early twenty-first century. More recently, Wenger became the joint most successful manager in the competition’s history with back-to-back triumphs in 2014 and 2015. There can be no doubt of the imprint of success that Mr Wenger has left on Arsenal Football Club. But, as some banners around the Emirates Stadium have recently heralded, ‘all good things must come to an end,’ and last week’s Champions League result to Bayern Munich has become the catalyst for further anger.
Even before the match, Arsenal trailed the Bavarian giants 5-1 from a disastrous first-leg defeat in Germany, and fans protested outside the Emirates that they did not want the Frenchman in charge of the club anymore. Pressure was on the Gunners to perform therefore, not necessarily to overturn the huge aggregate deficit, but to restore pride. Indeed, the first-half satisfied the home supporters; Arsenal took the lead through Theo Walcott and could easily have been awarded a penalty. The team were up for the fight and impressively dominated the first forty-five minutes. But after the break, things turned dramatically. Eight minutes into the second-half, defender and captain Laurent Koscielny brought down Munich’s Robert Lewandowski in the box to concede a penalty, and was eventually sent off for the offence. Lewandowski stepped forward to equalise on the night and all but confirm Bayern’s progression to the quarter finals, and Arsenal, as they have tended to do in this situation, collapsed.
The German side ran riot, scoring four more times past a beleaguered 10-man Gunners outfit to take the aggregate score to a demoralising 10-2.
Only once before has there been a greater aggregate Champions Knockout scoreline, when Bayern Munich were also involved, beating Sporting Lisbon 12-1 over two legs, while the defeat was Arsenal’s heaviest at the Emirates Stadium since they moved there from Highbury in 2006, and the worst home defeat under Arsène Wenger since a 5-0 loss to Chelsea in the 1998-99 League Cup.
Wenger has faced lows during his 21-year tenure at the club, most notably a League Cup Final defeat to Birmingham City in 2011, an 8-2 thumping away to Manchester United later the same year, and more recently in his 1,000th game in charge of Arsenal, when they were humbled 6-0 at Stamford Bridge. But the recent defeats to Bayern seem to be the last straw for many.
The simple fact is that, despite the club’s wealth of resources, Arsenal are unable to compete in the ‘big games’ and regularly capitulate in defeat. Very rarely have other Premier League sides as strong as Arsenal buckled under pressure and suffered heavy defeats, but it is almost an annual occurrence for the Gunners under Arsène Wenger in recent seasons. There is a link.
Once again, Wenger employed the wrong tactics after Koscielny’s red card last Tuesday. If Arsenal had fortified the defence, and contained Bayern Munich with a solid formation, they may well have emerged with a creditable draw on the night. Instead Wenger commanded his side to continue to play open football, which Bayern all too easily picked off. This was not the first time Arsenal appeared to lack a ‘Plan B,’ and Wenger seemed to naively hope his team would remain in the game without a change of tactic.
But it never seems to be Wenger’s fault. The Arsenal manager was remarkably quick to blame referee Anastasios Sidiropoulos for the second-leg result, without considering alternate factors. The red card decision was a game-changer, and after Koscielny had the left the field in both games (the first leg due to injury), his teammates conceded nine goals. But a team with ambitions cannot rely on one player and Wenger reeled out his familiar excuses. Arsenal’s long-term failures cannot be down to injuries, refereeing decisions and bad luck every year. Wenger must recognise this.
The Arsenal manager’s mentality is unfortunately outdated. The golden Wenger era of the early twenty-first century has been replaced by a much more direct, fluid footballing approach. The manner of Arsenal’s recent defeats from this mentality, which is installed through Wenger to the players, is the key to the problems.
When Arsenal ended their nine-year trophy drought with that FA Cup triumph over Hull City on 2014, Wenger should have left the club on a high, and receive the fond farewell he deserves. Now, he has outstayed his capabilities.
It is too easy for Wenger to walk away down the tunnel after these recent defeats and not face the fans and the media to admit responsibility. Wenger has lost that connection that he used to have with Gunners’ supporters, and this relationship will only worsen the longer he avoids reality. Not only are sensationalist fans on social media, and especially the YouTube favourite ‘ArsenalFanTV’, calling for him ‘out’, but also Wenger may well have lost his relationship with the players. The Alexis Sanchez saga continues to loom over North London, as he also stalls on a contract discussion, but his loss would be much more damaging than the manager’s.
The players are not to blame. Admittedly, the current Arsenal squad may still lack the talented core of Campbell, Vieira, Pires, Bergakmp, Henry etc., but there is enough international quality present for this team to be mounting a more serious challenge for trophies. Arsenal are taught to play a certain way, and this has arguably hampered the talents of some of these players, who are discouraged from the direct approach that suits them, instead searching for the ‘perfect goal.’ Arsenal have underachieved for a number of consecutive seasons, and there have been plenty of changes within the club during that period.
The group of players have changed – previously Fabregas, van Persie, Vermaelen and Arteta all failed to lead Arsenal to glory. The staff have changed – Steve Bould replaced Pat Rice as Assistant Manager in 2012 and a number of new faces have been introduced to the Executive Board. Their opposition for trophies has changed – Leicester City the prime example in 2016. Even the stadium they call home has changed. The one common factor in this lean period for the club in Arsène Wenger.
There is a tremendous sense that this Arsenal season spells the end of an era, and Arsène Wenger should announce his departure at the end of the season. The sooner, the better. Not only will the board have time to find a suitor (names such as Simeone, Tuchel and Allegri are banded about) but Wenger will of course be able to wave goodbye to club and the fans he has shared memories with for 21 years. The fan’s opinions do appear to have an influence on his decision, but given Arsenal now have only the FA Cup and clinching a Champions League berth as their season targets, it is highly likely that the fans will want him to leave. Consistency has not resulted in fan’s appreciation. The Arsenal supporters, who regularly shell out money for matchday tickets, deserve the success that Arsène Wenger promises them every year and should not enter a season expecting disappointment.
Sacking Wenger is not an option. It would ruin both his legacy and the relationship between the club and the fans. Wenger deserves to decide when he leaves Arsenal Football Club. But given that there is so much ill-feeling towards the manager, he may struggle to cope with the pressure and justify himself enough to sign a contract extension. One way or another, Arsène Wenger has to end the unhealthy uncertainty around the club, but preferably acknowledge that he has taken the club as far as he can, and gallantly step aside to help transition Arsenal into the next period of their history.
Arsenal’s next Premier League outing sees them visit West Bromwich Albion on 18th March at the Hawthorns, a ground which incidentally has a history seeing managers’ final games. Surely Arsenal will not end the Wenger reign prematurely even if they suffer more disappointment? But in reality, anything but a win there will only add to the probability that Arsenal will be with a new man at the helm this summer.
Photograph: Ronnie Macdonald via Flickr