Repeated 5-1 losses to Bayern Munich in the Champions League knock-out stages have only strengthened calls for Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger to be sacked. The biggest loss at the Emirates to date, and the second biggest aggregate defeat in Champions League knock-out history. Not something to be proud of.
This is the seventh successive season that Arsenal have been knocked out of the Champions League in the round of 16. The last time we reached the quarter-finals, we beat FC Porto, and Nicklas Bendtner scored a hat-trick. Ancient history. While reaching this stage is an achievement (considering the European struggles of our fellow English teams), it is the manner in which we fail at this juncture again and again that has riled many of my fellow fans.
Give us a big team, the likes of Bayern Munich or Barcelona, we get swept aside. It is interesting to note that in the 2010/2011 season, the first of this seven-year period, we beat Barcelona with a majestic performance in the first leg, only for a van Persie red card to ruin us in the second leg. Perhaps it was the disappointment of that defeat that has really rattled the confidence of this establishment, to have come so close, and yet fallen short. And we do it again, and again, and again.
Give us a small team, and we get upset. The chances have been there. We have gotten a non-Barcelona/Bayern team twice. Against AC Milan in 2011/2012, we crumbled in the first leg, losing 4-0, only to come short 3-0 in the second leg. Against Monaco in 2014/2015 was our opportunity. Again, first leg failure. 3-1 down, and 2-0 in the second leg wasn’t enough to put us through. Time and time again, Arsenal loses in the first leg, then stages a valiant fightback in the second leg only to fall short. Perhaps it is this repeated struggling and catching up that is wearing the players out. But it isn’t individual players. New players have come in, but the culture of European failure has remained like a cloud over their heads.
Blame the luck of the draw if you will, but there is certainly a mental frailty in this team that is preventing them from making the leap from perennial second-tier to a European power.
So is it the manager?
Yes, and no. European success has never been Wenger’s foremost priority. He has always given the Premier League his focus and then preferred to deliver mediocre performances in all cup competitions than focus on one. His disinclination to cast other campaigns aside to concentrate on the Champions League has allowed us to come in the top 4 in the EPL for 20 seasons straight. Scoff if you will, it is a proud achievement.
In terms of style, Wenger is also not a big-game manager. What this means is that his strength is imbuing a sense of culture and style into his players on the long-term, rather than focusing on superior in-game management and tactics to win games. For example, Roberto Di Matteo was a fantastic tactician, shaping Chelsea’s tactics every game to match their opponents, allowing him to win the Champions League. But at the same time, this came at the cost of Premier League excellence. But we have to accept this, Wenger is not that type of manager. He doesn’t want to be. He is, in his own words,”A facilitator of what is beautiful in man”.
But at the same time, the players have not really stepped up. In the matches against Monaco, it is hard to take the blame away from the players, many of whom just didn’t turn up for arguably the most important match of their life. A new manager may or may not change that.
So, Wenger out?
Let me preface my answer with two things.
First, we are now living in a toxic culture of managerial sackings. The influx of rich owners has led to rapid chopping and changing of managers, even when, in many instances, it is unwarranted. It is in this landscape that Wenger continues to stand out as one of the longest-serving managers in Europe’s top leagues. We should not succumb to the pressure of other clubs changing their gaffers faster than Wenger buttons his jacket.
Second, my whole life, Arsene Wenger is the only Arsenal manager I have known. In my mind’s eye, Arsene Wenger is Arsenal. And, there’s no doubt he embodies it. This man lives and breathes Arsenal. He may be headstrong and stubborn, but that is who he is, and this is manifested in his principled stance on many issues. Something you gotta respect.
So, I think, yes, #wengerout, but only if we can find a manager better than him. There is no need to change manager for the sake of it. We should only hire a new manager if he is an improvement on the current. It’s logical.
Of course, yes, the club needs a breath of fresh air. But a lousy breath of fresh air will become stale very soon. While getting a new manager, and possibly any new manager, will invigorate the team for the short-term, in the long-term, say one whole season, his lack of ability and expertise will begin to show.
So finding a manager better than the legend that is Arsene Wenger? It’s a real challenge. In my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their own, there is only a handful. Arsene Wenger is world-class. He was, and he is. So a manager to replace him must also be of that calibre. And none are available, obviously. Pep Guardiola would have been a great choice, but the Spaniard is currently occupied. Jurgen Klopp could possibly have been a suitable choice. But the names being bandied about now pale in comparison to the Monsieur Wenger. Alan Pardew, Brendan Rodgers and former Arsenal greats are barely worthy to stand in the shadow of Arsene Wenger’s managerial achievements. Eddie Howe is am interesting option. He’s a young English manager who has done well, but can he really fill such big shoes? I doubt it.
Other more accomplished names have also been thrown out, but some may not be suited to the culture of the club, while others are not available. Diego Simeone is a fantastic manager, no doubt, but his Atletico Madrid team has always been built on solid defense. Will a Arsenal team chockful of technically-inclined players excel under him? Nobody knows. Joachim Löw has led Germany ably, but will he thrive in club management? Again, another unknown. Having said that, if one of the best managers in the world becomes available, the wisest decision may be to get him sooner rather than later, and we will have no option but to move Wenger on. If none become available, he should definitely stay for the time being.
Whatever it is, the decision made must put the best interests of the club at heart. The club is bigger than any single person, even a giant like Wenger. Wenger will move on eventually, whether it be tomorrow, next year, or in ten years time. Eventually, there will be someone who will take his place, and maybe he will do even better. That is a big question mark. But whatever it is, the legacy of his reign will live on in the hearts and minds for years to come. And because I love the man, I will rest assured knowing that Arsene Wenger first and foremost is a lover of the beautiful game, and his passion for football and Arsenal Football Club will continue to burn ever so vigorously, and nothing, not a sacking nor Brexit nor a tsunami, will ever extinguish it.
#wengerout, but only if.