As I did when Arsenal capitulated so lamely in Germany in their first leg Champions League last 16 tie against Bayern recently, I found myself reaching for the remote control and the sanctuary of Real Madrid’s concurrent game against Napoli.
There is no pleasure to be taken in the fact that is the seventh successive season Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have succumbed at the Champions League’s first knockout stage and that Bayern Munich have accounted for three of those exits.
Inscrutable as ever, and incongruously crisp in appearance and demeanour as he faced the press conference cameras last night, it is fair to think that in keeping his own counsel Arsene Wenger will be hiding his all too human frustrations from the public’s view. But the failings of his team, and perhaps also himself, will be as self evident to the manager just as they are to the protesters outside the stadium, now running on an endless loop on Sky Sports News and BT Sport.
Some people love the theatre of a team’s public dismantling but not me. Arsenal’s embattled boss and beleaguered fans deserve better than this torturous endgame.
There was a time of course, when Wenger’s Arsenal were unmissable, a box office team of Invincibles. No-one sought solace in the remote then as the team of Bergkamp and Henry, Vieira, Campbell, Pires and Cole swept all before them on route to arguably the greatest triumph of the Premier League era. But that feels like a long time ago. And as Bayern ran riot, last night, exploiting a favourable red card, this latest collapse felt so depressingly emblematic of the current mode of things.
This was Arsenal’s heaviest defeat at the Emirates, the house that Wenger built, since it opened in 2006. It was also officially the worst result, over two legs, for any English club in the Champions League. But these two new, unwanted statistics are the least of Arsenal and their manager’s worries right now.
Amongst those friends who are Arsenal season ticket holders, I sense an appetite for change even as I’d consider them to be sober, reasonable people it is motivated by boredom, frustration, a sense that events have run their course.
A legacy at risk?
I also think there is an implicit reappraisal lurking within the questions being asked today following a disastrous few weeks for Arsenal. It is best summed up as: “Is Arsene Wenger personally now in danger of dismantling what should have been a fantastic legacy in the last decade at Arsenal?”
Perhaps it is time that he goes for the sake of preserving that legend but whether he goes or stays, I happen to believe that posterity will be rather kind to the Frenchman. Emotions run high, but memories are also short and there will be a queue of people happy to rehabilitate a much loved football man after the sackcloth and ashes have been dispensed with.
No doubt leading the tributes will be his greatest rival Sir Alex Ferguson, a man who shares Arsene Wenger’s acknowledged football addiction. But for all the genuine and heartfelt praise that should greet Arsene Wenger’s eventual exit from Arsenal, there will also be a sense of lingering frustration that a great career might have yielded more in its later years.
The difference between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson, his great rival in his peak years, is that, as football changed, the Scot found ways to constantly reinvent himself and his teams on and off the field, whereas Wenger increasingly has not.
It is a viewpoint best summed up by the observation that: without constant innovation, ten years after genius announces itself it becomes merely mediocre.
Wenger’s obdurate adherence to the increasingly outdated ideas that initially made his name – training players ‘like marines’, finding cheap and hidden gems in the transfer market, winning games idealistically through a philosophy based on beautiful football and the domination of possession, is past its sell by date. You need to do more than that now.
As Johan Cruyff memorably said, each player spends an average of 87 minutes per game out off possession. And it is what happens without the ball that defines great players and great teams now. What you do in possession is only ever part of the deal.
But there is always room for context in football and no more so than here. Jose Mourinho’s moneybags clubs and cash rich Man City also, were notable for their more aggressive pursuit of players that rivals, including Arsenal, had also uncovered. Increasingly, with Chelsea, Man United and especially Man City: once the talent consensus was established, they simply paid what has been needed to succeed in the transfer market. And they did so initially at a time when Arsenal, compromised in the act of building a stadium, were effectively a selling club.
By winning games pragmatically, and often quite cynically, through football based on transitions and controlling space when without possession, Wenger’s arch nemesis Jose Mourinho revelled in his Special One billing for a decade. And he did so largely at Wenger’s expense – at least in terms of the PR war that peaked with his infamous ‘specialist in failure’ comment.
Now, I am not convinced that there is much substance to much of Mourinho’s criticism or indeed a lot to his emperor’s new clothes football either. However, at a public relations level Mourinho has largely succeeded in both framing the press debate on Wenger and also in picking apart what was once an unimpeachable CV.
Ironically, it remains to be seen if this period will also mark the beginning of the end for Mourinho – and I happen to think it will. Certainly any notion of the Portuguese retaining his previous lofty perch lies in the balance.
You need friends on the way down to mitigate against the coming bumpy landing and Wenger can count on plenty of friends both within the game – and within the media.
As for Mourinho, I am struggling to name one notably beloved person who would obviously jump to his defence were he in the same situation Arsenal face now.
The truth is that no-one really likes a smart-arse, especially a smart-arse who uses his powers and his talent so cynically. Short term fans treasure results above all else but long term legacies, and genuine fondness, are built upon how you played the game.
The football cycle
That fact has bought Wenger lots of time and also when the die is cast finally, it will also ensure that he is remembered fondly (and despite his faults) by everyone who truly loves football.
At the moment though, Arsenal and their manager feel like they’re at the end of a cycle.
Arsene Wenger’s iron grip on all things Arsenal ensures that every error is magnified and the culture of the club from the kids playing for Arsenal Community teams dotted around North London, to the players recruited to the first team are all part of the same deal – pros and cons, the same ‘ideological’ malaise.
Amongst the questions I would ask is: why does Wenger sign so many identikit players? Where is that best blend team-building of yore that saw Vieira and Henry, Pires and Adams, Petit and Bergkamp complement each other and create a continuum? Where’s that blend of attributes on the field that supports each players’ strengths and can cover for their weaknesses?
Are the scouts of the same mind as Wenger? Or are they being overruled/or undermined by the manager or their chief scout?
And where is Steve Bould’s influence as Wenger’s assistant in a team bereft of fortitude?
Is there no dissenting voice in a position of influence, sense checking the evidence?
So now, in order for the club to progress Arsenal’s custodians probably need to loosen the manager’s iron grip on the club.
A painful divorce
It will be a painful divorce and also a protracted one due to the fact that Arsenal are a club in Wenger’s image. And this won’t make a transition to a new era straightforward.
We know this because we’ve already seen the precedent of Man United after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement, Leeds post-Revie, Forest after Clough, the end of the Boot-room years at Liverpool.
Three managers on at Old Trafford for example, United are still to find the sort of identity that they took for granted under the Scot.
And it may be a similar story for Arsenal post-Wenger.
No quick fix
There is no quick fix for Arsenal but separation is probably the best option among the various potential solutions. Even when it smacks of a Hobson’s Choice.
I would love to see Carlo Ancelotti as Arsenal boss but he is unlikely to be available. That would be the kind of profile I’d favour. A serious, experienced manager who’s got has wits about him and been over the course before.
As it stands this is not a job for a young manager like Eddie Howe or a continental equivalent such as a Thomas Tuchel type. This is a job for a strong manager who knows his own mind but who can also work with what he has as he moves towards an effective transition. This is a job for a hearts and minds team-builder like a Zidane or Ancelotti or maybe Ronald Koeman rather than a tight jacket ‘philosopher’ manager.
Perhaps the pragmatic Luis Enrique would be the perfect fit of candidates available in the summer. But would he be interested in Arsenal?