Perhaps the most disturbing words uttered by Arsene Wenger since he became coach of Arsenal in 1996 followed the 6-0 thrashing at Chelsea last weekend. He said he’d investigate why the team got off to such a dismal start.
To a listener just arrived from another planet, it would have made sense. Arsenal were already two goals down when they had a man sent off in the 15th minute – in bizarre circumstances. Referee Andre Marriner red-carded Kieran Gibbs even though Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain honestly admitted it was he who had handled a shot from Eden Hazard.
It had been more a sleepwalk into calamity than a slow start by Arsenal. So, yes, an investigation into why Wenger’s players seemed so ill-prepared for the lunchtime kick-off was called for. Except that it should have taken place six weeks earlier.
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For what the visiting Martian might not have realised was that Arsenal had emerged vulnerable from another hostile tunnel only six weeks earlier. Against Liverpool at Anfield they had conceded four goals in the space of 18 minutes before going down 5-1.
If there was an investigation into that – and, given Wenger’s attention to detail, you might imagine that it would have been routine and rigorous – the wrong conclusions were obviously drawn. The performance at Stamford Bridge was even worse. So why did the boss respond as limply as he did?
The first explanation that sprang to mind was that he sought to protect his players from scorn, to prevent panic from infecting the squad as they try to cling to fourth place and the prospect of yet another season in the Champions League.
But even that didn’t seem to work, for on Tuesday they took on Swansea at the Emirates and dropped two points through Mathieu Flamini’s own-goal – though desperately unlucky on the French midfielder, it gave the visitors from Wales the tie they deserved.
And now Arsenal, notional title candidates until the battering at the Bridge, face a very different scenario. If they lose at home this weekend to rampant Manchester City who, while Arsenal were faltering again, wiped the Old Trafford floor with United in a one-sided derby, fifth place and a relegation to the Europa League would become a distinct possibility.
This is on the assumption that Everton, whose breath Wenger’s men are starting to feel on their necks, win at relegation-threatened Fulham. If these two outcomes indeed conspire, Everton would only have to beat Arsenal on Merseyside the following weekend to move into fourth spot on goal difference with a game in hand and time running out for the once-majestic Londoners.
To be fair to Wenger and his players, injuries have hit them harder than most. Aaron Ramsey, whose form in the first half of the season put him in the unofficial frame for the MVP awards now almost certain to go to Liverpool’s Luis Suarez, is still out of action along with fellow midfielders Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere and long-term casualty Theo Walcott.
But that’s what big squads are for and there was no excuse for a player of, say, Santi Cazorla’s caliber dwelling suicidally on the ball in the early stages at Chelsea. Suddenly there is something amiss in Arsenal’s state of mind and it coincides with rumors – no more than that – of a decision by Wenger to hand over the reins this summer rather than sign the two-year contract extension known to be on the table.
The word from club sources is that sudden regime change would be undesirable – they point to United’s struggles since David Moyes took over from Sir Alex Ferguson – but Wenger will be 65 in October and every tenure of office has its sell-by date.
Could the end of this season prove to be Wenger’s last? In the light of what he has brought Arsenal and the English game, making a club once known for attritional soccer one of the world’s most admired for the quality of its passing – and winning plenty of trophies until their flow dried up after the FA Cup final of 2005 – his place in history is secure and he has earned the right, as Ferguson did, to step down at a time of his choosing.
Don’t forget that Arsenal, for all their recent difficulties in the Premier League, are still in the FA Cup, with a semi-final against holders Wigan coming up before Easter. Survive that and they’d have a winnable final against Hull or third-tier Sheffield United.
The end of the trophy drought would enable Wenger to bow out in style. Its continuation would intensify the feelings of those fans who feel he should bow out anyway. Either way, the Emirates needs reassurance and only ferocious commitment from the start against City will provide it. The grand stadium will certainly want no more talk of investigation.