Arsene Wenger reaches a crossroads at Arsenal
Three years ago, after Arsenal’s 4-2 Champions League defeat at Liverpool, Irish state broadcaster RTE compiled a short video of Arsene Wenger slowly growing angrier and more animated on the touchline.
The inference was that the Frenchman was, like short-fused hotelier Basil Fawlty, losing the plot. All it needed was the Fawlty Towers music.
Arsenal legend Liam Brady, now the head of the club’s youth academy, was a pundit on the show.
Outraged, he threatened to walk off the set, claiming it was “diabolical and disgraceful” to such a great manager who had done so much in the game, not only for Arsenal Football Club but also for the Premier League in general.
“You don’t want to lose this man to English football. The man is on course,” said a stony-faced Brady, “he may need to tinker, but he IS on course.” Few disagreed.
But as each season hits the Spring buffers, as his side continues to squander commanding leads, as defensive errors remain a weekly habit, as profligate finishing lets weaker opponents off the hook, as frustration grows over another year without a trophy, more fans begin to wonder whether Wenger has gone as far as he can.
Arguably the greatest manager in the club’s rich history is seeing his reputation slowly being eroded, sullied by another implosion as his side continues to lack fortitude and resilience. Everyone but his own players and staff have been criticised and blamed.
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Twice, they have wasted two-goal leads to Tottenham this season, a 4-0 first-half advantage was lost at Newcastle, while Liverpool grabbed a point at Emirates after going a goal down in the eighth minute of injury time.
Many now believe Wenger’s insistence that his current squad is the best he has ever assembled and that silverware is inevitable, has a hollow ring to it.
After last weekend’s 2-1 defeat at Bolton put paid to another Premier League season, he seemed genuinely surprised at his side’s loss of form over the past month – a run which has seen them win just twice in 10 matches.
“It is very unsatisfactory because that is one of the easiest run-ins we have had for a long time,” he said.
“We didn’t take our chances many times during the season and that is frustrating because you feel that the potential is there.
“But we live in a job where you have to take your chances and be realistic. We still lack something that is called maturity, experience or calmness in important situations.”
And he flatly refused to compromise his beliefs, adding: “If you can convince me that the principles are wrong, then I am ready. But I feel we try to play football the proper way.
“When you don’t win, your principles are questioned. You always have to take the right distance to see what is right and wrong in what you do. I think if something is wrong in our team, it is not the principle of playing our football.
“I am convinced we are a very good footballing side. We have not been stable enough defensively.
“The numbers are the numbers, we have conceded six goals this week at a moment where you cannot afford to conceded six goals in three games and win the championship. We were too frail defensively during the season.”
Former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson this week joined the calls for Wenger to dust down his chequebook and spend big in the summer, but he shouldn’t hold his breath after the Frenchman added: “The club is in a healthy financial situation and, if needed, we can make a big transfer.
“[But] no I don’t [expect a busy summer] at all. The team is 23 years-old on average so why should we expect to have a huge turnover at the end of the season?”
There may be calls from some quarters for Wenger to either change his philosophy or quit, but he will do neither, remaining at a club in far healthier position than when he joined it back in 1996, when Arsenal fans were delirious the season before he arrived after his predecessor, Bruce Rioch, managed to secure Uefa Cup football on the final day of the season.
But if progress is to be made next season, the manager must stop blaming everyone – referees, officials, opponents – but himself.
Last Sunday, in the confines of Bolton’s futuristic stadium, he took the first, important step in doing so.
That, however hard it is to accept, represents progress of sorts.