And so at least, it seems, the end is near. Arsene Wenger had been vacillating over whether to sign a new contract at Arsenal when his present deal expires at the end of the season. Those close to him suggested his attitude shifted by the week, according to results. After the heavy Champions League defeat in Munich on Tuesday, though, the decision may be taken out of his hands. Almost all managerial lives end in failure, and Wenger, it seems, will be no exception.
The disappointments have become too familiar, the same cycle endlessly repeating. The club’s owners, those who watch the profits roll in, may be happy enough with habitual top-four finishes and exits in the last 16 of the Champions League, but fans demand more. The vocal minority who have been demanding Wenger’s exit for the past four or five seasons is larger now, and the sense is that there is now a significant part of the silent majority who agrees with it. The great successes of Wenger’s first decade at the club seem further and further away now, while the excuse that the stadium move has hindered them financially becomes less and less sustainable with every financial report indicating vast cash reserves.
There are still Wenger loyalists, those who insist that his critics are twisting events to fit their “narrative,” but there wasn’t much to be twisted in the 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich. What happened there was as bad as it gets. The sympathetic way of looking at the game is that Arsenal fell apart after Laurent Koscielny, its captain, was forced off early in the second half with a hamstring injury. That, certainly, was the trigger, three goals following in the next quarter hour.
That, laid bare, was Arsenal’s weakness, its inability to cope with a setback, its mental fragility. Good teams get through misfortune: as former Arsenal striker Alan Smith pointed out, in 1990-91, Arsenal’s captain Tony Adams was jailed for 57 days and it still won the league.
But to conclude, as some have, that Wenger’s plan had been working and that he was undone by cruel circumstance is, at best, an eccentric reading of the first half. Arsenal, as so often in big games, was diffident from the start. It dropped too deep. For 27 minutes, Bayern was in control and leading 1-0. But this is not a great Bayern team. It has flaws. Mats Hummels is vulnerable to pace. Alexis Sanchez, almost by force of will, dragged Arsenal back into the game. But even then it needed a freak penalty (which it had saved, only to have another chance off the rebound) to equalize.
The interpretation some have advanced that Arsenal had the better of the final stages of the first half was extremely generous. It’s true it had chances, but in that same spell, Robert Lewandowski missed two decent opportunities, Hummels skimmed a header just wide and Hector Bellerin could have conceded a penalty for a handball.
That opening Bayern goal was one of the most predictable goals it’s possible to imagine. Does Francis Coquelin really not know Arjen Robben likes to cut inside onto his left foot? The contrast with how Unai Emery had Paris Saint-Germain deal with Lionel Messi–constantly double-marked, always with a second player closing on his favored left side–was striking. In that, it seems, lies the key to Wenger’s modern management: does he simply lack the attention to detail to formulate tactical plans, or do his players for some reason forget or ignore them? Either way, the pattern is horribly familiar.
This has been the way of it since 2010. Arsenal has kept drawing Barcelona or Bayern in the last 16 of the Champions League, and it has kept losing, not because it is somehow technically deficient (although it may have beenin some instances), but because it wasn’t organized enough. Again and again, Arsenal has lost key games because it is not good enough at pressing.
The perfect illustration of that came in the final minutes at the Allianz Arena as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain charged at Arturo Vidal, who rolled the ball to Philipp Lahm. Oxlade-Chamberlain kept chasing at which Lahm calmly knocked the ball back to Vidal. Oxlade-Chamberlain kicked the ground in frustration and screamed at his teammates. The point is not that he was trying and they were not, it’s that pressing is a collective exercise: you either push up as one or you sit back as one. For one player to close down an opponent invites the sort of exchange Vidal and Lahm played with almost no effort, wastes energy and destroys defensive shape. It’s that unified action Arsenal lack, and for that Wenger must take responsibility.
The question, though, is who takes responsibility for Wenger. He is an old-style manager who controls far more than the first team and the suspicion is that when he is replaced it will be not by one man but by several. The ownership structure of the club, meanwhile, means that there is no obvious boardroom figure to tell Wenger that it’s over–which, arguably, has been one of the problems as the club has drifted into decadence. There has not been, as there was in Wenger’s early days, a David Dein-like figure to challenge him.
So Wenger must take responsibility for himself and it seems increasingly the case that the best thing for him to do is to end the speculation and to head off the debilitating vitriol by announcing he will move on at the end of the season. He said on Friday that a decision would be made by April, and also made clear that he intended to keep managing, whether at Arsenal or elsewhere.
Wenger is 67 but has few interests outside football. It’s understandable he would want to keep working. But if he announces his departure now, his final months at Arsenal can be respectful and rancor-free, and tribute can be paid to the extraordinary work he did between 1996 and 2006, when he won three league titles, reached two European finals and changed the image of the club. There may even, barring humiliation at Sutton United on Monday, be a record-extending seventh FA Cup.