BY JONATHAN WALLACE
Last weekend was meant to be such a monumental, celebrated occasion for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. The Frenchman reached a millenium of matches in charge of the Gunners, a reign that has spanned nearly 18 years and defined the London club in the Premier League era. Wenger’s reign has cemented the club’s place in England’s ‘Top 4′ and though others – like Liverpool, Spurs, now Manchester United – have breached this elite bracket and fallen out of it, Arsenal have always been there since 1996. The club has enjoyed Champions League football every season for nearly two decades under the wiry tactician’s tutelage, fans have witnessed the wonderful talents of Bergkamp, Petit, Fabregas, Henry and a host of others, and they are the only Premier League champions to have gone a whole domestic campaign unbeaten. Wenger’s 1000th match against city rivals Chelsea should have been a celebratory event.
Then whack! Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal. Wenger’s joint largest defeat, certainly his most humiliating considering the circumstances: a mauling – the biggest they have ever inflicted – by their neighbours and title rivals. In the 11th meeting between Wenger and Mourinho as managers the Portuguese emerged victorious yet again, still to taste defeat against his supposed rival. The match marked another Arsenal capitulation under the glare of optimism’s spotlight and the majority of their fans will recognise that, for a 10th season, their club are not going to be champions of England. A 2-2 home draw with Swansea City, themselves scrapping to stay in the division, in the midweek fixture has even led to fears that Everton or Tottenham could pip 4th spot ahead of them.
Certainly all is not well at the Emirates Stadium. The anger shown by some fans towards the team’s performance after the Swansea match in interviews was as bad a reaction as I have ever seen – Arsenal’s fans are known for their patience and tolerance. One fan, spluttering expletives and clearly trying his utmost to keep tempers in check pointed at the huge 60,000 seater stadium behind him and blasted: “What is all this for? … These players are embarrassing him [Wenger] … He’s put his faith in them and they’re taking the p*** out of him.”
Yet when asked if it’s all down to the manager, if the board should finally step in and call time on a reign of so many nearly-but-not-quite seasons since the Invincibles era, fans amazingly still find it difficult to answer the question. The same irate fan was asked: “Should Wenger go?” His mood suddenly deteriorated and he squirmed like a salmon in the fisherman’s net. All of his blunt retorts crumbled and he mumbled out praise for the work Wenger has done over the years: taking the team from its mid-table slump in the mid-nineties and helping to mould them into one of football’s leading world clubs, all the while entertaining spectators with an attractive style on the pitch. He concluded with a timid response, barely muttering that maybe it was time for Wenger to resign as the end of the season. He may still have been visibly exasperated by his team but that admittance had still been hard for the man – his face told a conflicting story of anger at Wenger’s continued failings and shame for publically losing faith in the Premier League’s current longest serving manager.
That view seems to be the growing consensus coming out of Arsenal’s faithful. They really want to appreciate everything Arsene has done for them but the last 9 years without a trophy have grown impossible to ignore. The only man who appears hell-bent on the manager’s sacking is Piers Morgan, and I doubt many associated with Arsenal would willingly side with the (really, really) unlikable television presenter.
It is a hard concept to grasp from an external and neutral view, this overextended loyalty of supporters for Wenger. I can certainly see why the club and its fans hold the man from Strasbourg in high regard but with nothing to show since 2005′s FA Cup success except a host of near misses, the strong faith shown from not just the stands but also the club’s owners has me scratching my head. The scenario is certainly unique to London’s most successful club: a severe juxtaposition of warm sentiment for Wenger’s longevity and the purity of his sides’ football, against the cold harsh reality that the latter half of his reign has been barren with the steely spine of the team having never been truly rectified since Vieira’s departure. David Moyes is under immense pressure already at Manchester United and Chelsea once sacked a manager who won them the Champions League; while his rivals fall (or are tripped) on the sword, Wenger has kept his position at Arsenal’s helm unquestionably. The fans want to love him, a man who once went toe to toe with Sir Alex Ferguson at the league’s pinnacle, but the last few years have made it about as difficult to do so as it once was to breach the mighty Invincibles’ backline.
Of course it is important to remember why Arsenal fell in love with Arsene in the first place. He arrived at the club in 1996 out of relative obscurity, joining after a year in charge with Japan’s wonderfully named Nagoya Grampus Eight, but having previously won a league and cup during 7 years with AS Monaco. Wenger immediately dipped into the French market, relatively untouched by other English clubs up to that point, bringing in Vieira and Anelka and steering the club to 3rd in the league. The foreign influx continued with Overmars and Petit arriving while a host of Englishmen were shown the door. The overseas imports paid off as Wenger’s side won the 1997-98 season by a single point over Manchester United; they went on and completed a domestic double by beating Newcastle United in the 1998 FA Cup Final.
The next three seasons the Gunners were Premier League runners-up to United, beaten 2000 UEFA Cup finalists to Galatasaray and beaten 2001 FA Cup finalists to Liverpool. That bad run of form ended during the 2001-02 campaign as they romped to another league and cup double, with Wenger’s French flair in full swing – Henry, Vieira and Pires were the fluent passing embodiment, along with Bergkamp, Ljungberg and others, of Wenger’s free-flowing expressive approach to attacking football, an approach that largely revolutionised English football at the time. He had combined the regimented stubbornness of the defence instilled by former boss George Graham and his own brand of loose attacking flair so that his side was both wonderful to watch and horrible to play against.
That great contrast-emalgamated style culminated with the Invincibles’ great success of the 2003/04 season when they went all 38 league matches unbeaten en route to Wenger’s 3rd Premier League title. Only their great rivals Manchester United were able to halt an amazing run of 49 matches without defeat early into the following season. By then however Chelsea had also emerged as title contending candidates and Arsenal had to be content with winning just the FA Cup in the 2004/05 season.
That first nine years was a glittering time for Wenger’s Gunners. Okay, so Europe had not quite been conquered like they would have been expected to – even the Invincibles could only make the Champions League quarter-finals – but domestically they had prevented an otherwise rampant Manchester United winning the league each year unopposed. The club had, with the Premier League’s growing brand, become internationally popular and plans to move from Highbury to challenge for silverware at the state-of-the-art Emirates Stadium were in motion. They very almost signed that last season at Highbury off with the crowning glory of Europe, but missed out in the 2006 Champions League Final, falling 2-1 to Larsson-inspired Barcelona.
And since then there has not been a whole lot to shout about. They have alternated between 3rd and 4th placed Premier League finishes and rarely came close to winning domestic trophies, the shock 2011 League Cup final defeat to Birmingham City a very notable exception. Manchester United and Chelsea, and now Manchester City have notably stretched ahead of them during this time, and the stars Wenger initially brought in have never been replaced. Van Persie, Adebayor, Fabregas, Rosicky…these players have not showed the same attacking potency as their predecessors. The defence, when it needed rebuilding, has become Arsenal’s biggest weakness when it used to be their strength, now reputable for breaking when the pressure is really mounting. The big teams no longer fear the visit of the Holloway club – Arsenal have taken just 4 points from a possible 45 on the road against rival top 4 clubs in the past 5 seasons, suffering demolitions like the 8-2 at Old Trafford in 2011, and against Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea this season. The Champions League has been no exception in recent years too, as Barcelona and Bayern Munich have shown they also play the pure brand of football Wenger employs, just a lot better.
Arsene Wenger’s biggest problem has been his unwillingness to, as he sees it, overpay for the players his team needs, if he identifies them at all. This summer the club was crying out for a backup striker and added bite in midfield but no such signings materialised and instead in came Mesut Ozil for £40m+ at the transfer window’s closing stages when the season was already underway. Where before Wenger had the advantage of a bit more know-how of European talents, as he was one of only two foreign managers in the league when he arrived, now modern technology and foreign influx around the country has led to everyone knowing where to look for the ‘hidden gem’ talents. It has been a case of the highest bidder winning the signature, and Wenger very rarely enters such a race, even if the funds are apparently available to. Basically, he has not kept up with the moving times, while his notable rival Sir Alex learned to do so and reaped the rewards.
There is a great chance for Arsenal to win the FA Cup this year with their closest rivals being Hull City on the opposite side of the semi-final draw. But with such poor league form and Manchester City to come, Everton breathing down their necks in a bid to finish fourth, many fans would sacrifice the distraction of the cup to secure next season’s Champions League status. Unless Wenger can lead his team to secure both I fear for his sake that the fans’ majority will begin to turn on him and seek with the club to move on. Clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City have emerged from relative mediocrity, albeit with major financial backing, to overtake his side in current domestic and European status. Tottenham, never before considered much of a threat, are biting at their North London nemesis’ heels now. His legend status at the Emirates could be soured if he outstays his welcome without producing any positive results.
For now the general opinion from Arsenal’s faithful is one of delicate juxtaposition between love and bitterness, and I commend how remarkably tolerable they have been these past few years. But now, I think, it is about time Wenger seriously considered stepping aside to let someone else carry the side forward, and for supporters and the club owners to warm to this idea. Perhaps a last hurrah in the FA Cup would be a fitting end to his time in England, and enough for Arsenal fans to forget the disappointing last 9 years and remember Wenger in the positive light he deserves for bringing such attractive football to the Gunners and the Premier League as a whole. Or else, I fear, Arsenal will have to continue to endure disappointment for another few seasons yet.
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