The Professor’s time may well be up, but he has earned the right to a little respect
There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Arsenal were representative of everything that was right with modern football. The likes of Thierry Henry, Robert Pirès and Patrick Vieira made for an unrivalled blend of class and power, desire and guile. At the head of it all sat Le Professeur, Arsène Wenger, manager of the first unbeaten league champions in 115 years and the man largely responsible for revolutionising the British game. David Dein, Arsenal’s former co-chairman, called Wenger a “miracle worker” and said that he had brought “football from another planet” to the club. He is, by any measure, one of the greatest managers football has seen.
But the picture over the last ten years or so has not been quite so rosy. The move from Highbury to the swanky, modern confines of the Emirates coincided with a nine-year wait for a major trophy, ended with two successive FA Cup triumphs in 2014 and 2015. Arsenal presently occupy their customary 4th place, 10 points behind leaders Chelsea, and barring the most improbable sequence of events will have gone 13 years without a Premier League title.
Wenger and the club place a great deal of importance in qualifying for the Champions League, which they have done in every season since 2000 – a remarkable achievement in itself. Incredibly, this season marked the 14th in a row in which Arsenal have qualified for the knockout stage of the competition. But to count this as a success, given the resources available to the club, would be disingenuous and optimistic in the extreme. Wednesday’s 5-1 hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich – the same scoreline when the teams met in Germany in November 2015 – made almost certain that Wenger’s side will be falling at the round of sixteen for the seventh consecutive season. His consistent failure on European football’s biggest stage is perhaps the single greatest blemish on his record.
Just as disappointing as Arsenal’s impending exit was the manner of the defeat. For all their grace and undoubted ability, there is still a persistent, fatal fragility about the team. The club’s net spend over the past five seasons is bettered only by the two Manchester clubs, but what do Arsenal have to show for it? The signing of Mesut Özil in 2013 promised to transform the Gunners into serious challengers once more, but in truth the German infuriates as often as he dazzles. Wenger has been typecast as a shrewd spender, but too much money has been thrown at mediocrity in recent times. For a time, the move to the Emirates presented a valid excuse for a lack of spending, but this marks the tenth season since the transition and the reigns have been loosened. Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, who cost almost £70m combined in the summer, looked utterly lost at the Allianz Arena. The continuing presences of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey and Francis Coquelin are symbolic of the club’s continuing acceptance of relative mediocrity, and the reliance on Alexis Sánchez and Laurent Koscielny is bordering on embarrassing.
It seems increasingly certain that this will be Wenger’s last season in the job, though a contract offer remains on the table and no decision will be made until the summer. The Frenchman’s stubbornness has in the past been one of his most endearing qualities, a steadfast refusal to compromise his principles. But as Arsenal have stagnated, cracks have appeared in his composed, wise demeanour – spats with managers, kicking water bottles and altercations with officials are simply not becoming of one with his experience.
It is difficult yet important to remain objective when discussing Wenger’s legacy – it remains well intact, having amassed 23 major trophies in his time at the club. But all good things must come to an end, and in hanging on much further he risks leaving a bitter taste in the mouths of the Arsenal faithful, many of whom have long since turned against him. The defeat to Bayern was greeted with the sound of knives being sharpened up and down the country, a sad turn of events for one of the game’s most distinguished and successful figures. A calm, mutual exit in the summer would do much to preserve Wenger’s slowly diminishing reserves of dignity and allow Arsenal to begin anew as serious competitors once more.
His departure is, ultimately, in the best interests of the club. The grass may not always be greener but Arsenal’s is in dire need of revitalisation. Quite aside from that, Wenger has surely done enough to earn himself a noble exit over his 20 years at the club – he deserves better than to be vilified and hounded out.