Arsene’s time up at Arsenal?

Arsene Wenger must ensure that his successful early years at Arsenal are not forgotten when the headlines are written about his eventual departure.

Arsene Wenger has criticised his squad over this weakness consistently during the season, most recently confessing that the home defeat to Watford in the English Premier League may have had a more lasting effect on the players than first thought.   -  AP

‘Shell shocked’. ‘No way back’. These were just a couple of the newspaper headlines that welcomed Arsene Wenger on his return to London following Arsenal’s humiliating 5-1 defeat by Bayern Munich in the Champions League on February 15. While they may point to how disastrous the result was, their contents hinted of sympathy for Wenger too.

It was in stark contrast to the contempt that greeted Wenger when he first arrived in England 20 years ago. Then he was seen as a curiosity, drawing on new-fangled tactics, and dealt with suspiciously. ‘Arsene who?’ read one headline at the time. But now, three Premier League titles and six FA Cups later, it feels more like collective embarrassment for a once great manager, who has lost his way and can’t admit defeat.

The pain of the loss was clear to see in Wenger’s brief address to journalists post-match. Two minutes and 50 seconds, that’s all the press conference lasted before Wenger was whisked away by the Arsenal communications director. Long enough, however, for the hurt Wenger was suffering to become apparent. How the players react to the result matters more though. Wenger’s main method of coaching centres on trusting the players he sends out — give them freedom to express themselves and let them strive for victory. If they cannot find a way out of the doom and gloom, then there’s little hope for the rest of the season and maybe also, the short-term beyond that.

What a fall for Wenger and his boys... Bayern’s Thomas Mueller (centre) celebrates after scoring his team’s fifth goal against Arsenal in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg match in Munich. At left is a crestfallen Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka.   -  AP

 

Much has been made of the lack of leadership in the playing staff, for which Wenger will be proportioned blame due to his transfer policy of signing youthful prospects. A club that once could back up its bark with bite from the likes of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira now struggles to offer much of a woof at all. You only had to see the hesitation from the injured Laurent Koscielny, when he looked around in desperation to find a suitable candidate to take his armband, to witness the shortage of leaders in the team.

Yet for all the talk of leadership, at its most simplistic it comes down to mental fragility. Wenger has criticised his squad over this weakness consistently during the season, most recently confessing that the home defeat to Watford in the English Premier League may have had a more lasting effect on the players than first thought. But this lack of resolve is not a new conundrum, it’s been front and centre since the move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium. When like-for-like transfers were needed for an aging team, young prospective stars and saving money were preferred over expensive player purchases. There was no passing on the knowledge from one set of winners to the next potential lot. The mentality that served Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robert Pires et al so well faded away before being instilled in the next generation.

Arsenal’s glory days... Thierry Henry (left), Patrick Vieira (centre) and Arsene Wenger at the front atop the bus during the team’s victory parade with the EPL Trophy in May 2004 in London. One of the major problems of Arsenal is that there was no passing on the knowledge from one set of winners to the next potential lot.   -  Getty Images

 

And so to the ex-players, who came out in force to pour scorn on an Arsenal side buckling so easily. Ian Wright, Lee Dixon and Martin Keown — all title-winners under Wenger, all pupils in awe of their former master — expressed their disapproval at the performance. The manner in which the team capitulated late on even drove Wright to stop watching the match, so disgusted by the shambolic events on the pitch.

But this is not a lone event, a one-off defeat that can be explained away by idle minds and even idler bodies. This was the second time in 18 months Arsenal has lost to Bayern Munich by the same crushing score line; the 7th season in a row where Arsenal looks like it could be cast out of the Champions League before the quarterfinal stage (arch rival Tottenham Hotspur have gone further in the competition in that time); and, realistically, the 14th season without Arsenal being etched on the Premier League trophy as champion.

To move forward would require Wenger to accept that what he has put together over the past few years — since the arrival of Santi Cazorla and Mesut Ozil in the next phase of Arsenal — has failed. Two FA Cup trophies, following a nine-year wait for a piece of silverware, does not make up for a Premier League title race surrender and another meek Champions League departure.

The issue for Arsenal lies in the fact Wenger is the very heartbeat of the club. He is across every minute detail in the running of it. Wenger didn’t revolutionise Arsenal when he joined per se, but he reorganised it. He brought a determination and original thought to a system not fit for modern sport. Training, diet, infrastructure, all these aspects changed at Arsenal under his watch. And he’s been keeping a careful eye on them ever since. Indeed a crucial reason preventing Arsenal from making drastic changes to the club setup, other than the will of the owner, is that to replace Wenger would require a major overhaul to bring everyone in line. The fiasco at Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure is a warning sign the Arsenal hierarchy should take note of if they do not plan far enough ahead.

So the question now is what happens next for Wenger and, more importantly, for Arsenal. His contract is up in the summer, although a new one has been tabled from the club. Whatever the decision, it will be made by mutual consent between manager and club, reports say. The last time Wenger extended his stay, he did not sign the next deal until the previous season had concluded.

Murmurings from those behind the scenes are that his opinion as to whether he’ll commit sways from one result to another — so entrenched are his feelings in the present when considering the future. How deep the contemplation must have been as he flew back from Germany.

For Wenger, this is his life’s work. Talk to those close to him and they will say how little else other than football occupies his mind. Yet there is a legacy to think about — both his and what state he leaves the club in. Legacies, of course, are forged by how you bow out. Wenger’s greatest managerial foe Ferguson finished by winning the league. Few recall the troubled start to his stint with United though, except when arguing for new managers to be given time at clubs.

In Wenger’s case, he must now ensure his successful early years at Arsenal are not forgotten when the headlines are written about his eventual departure.