Time ran out on Arsenal on Sunday at the Reebok stadium, Bolton finally ending any faint title hopes with a 2-1 win. The result was predictable. All season long, when Arsenal faced a must-win game, it did not.
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The saddest part of all might have been watching manager Arsene Wenger melt down on the sideline – hair askew, tie unfurled, unable to even look his opposing number in the eye when the whistle blew. He appeared to be a man unhinged; not the smart, suave figure of even three years ago.
What happened? The same thing that happens to all managers in this game: Time ran out on him as well. Now Arsenal must make a choice, and while painful, it’s clear. It’s time to sack the man who has come to embody Arsenal’s badge.
Wenger deserves praise for his accomplishments at the club, and there’s no denying he remains a bold and brilliant thinker in the game. Wenger has helmed Arsenal since 1996, a 15-year tenure that has seen his side win the Premier League three times while also collecting four FA Cups.
It is no stretch to suggest that he also single-handedly revolutionized English football, taking the Premiership’s game away from the kick and run, crunching style of the old First Division to a game predicated on passing, technical skill and attacking flair. He has been brilliant at identifying and molding young talent, and Arsenal rarely fails to entertain. Many clubs have a style; Wenger has given Arsenal an ethos, and he has never wavered from his belief that talent must be nurtured and developed, not bought.
And there’s the rub: This philosophy, as admirable as it may be, no longer works. Instead of being ahead of the game, Arsenal are now swiftly falling behind their rivals not only in England but across the globe. It’s because Wenger is an idealist, a man who believes football should be played a certain way and its business conducted in another. Idealists are wonderful to read about and chat about. But they make miserable leaders, and it’s as a leader where Wenger has fallen short this season.
Wenger first lost his authority in the locker room this summer when he promised want-away captain Cesc Fabregas that he would build Arsenal into a team that would win a trophy. That’s code for: "buying reinforcements" and yet that is what Wenger failed to do. He saw Arsenal lose the title race last year when `keeper Manuel Almunia gifted opponents goals and wins, yet instead of purchasing an experienced `keeper, he balked.
Defensive cover was also thin, yet instead of purchasing some, he brought in a Morrocan striker. And most damning of all, despite the fact that his team is slight, and thus vulnerable to heavy fouling, he failed to bring in an aggressive, old-hand of a midfielder. This left the team without an enforcer, and no team can win these days without one.
Fabregas finally broke his silence this past week in a remarkable interview with Don Balon. In it, he expressed betrayal, frustration and no little impatience with a club culture that makes promises to its fans and players and then fails to keep them. He was unsurprisingly less introspective when it came to his own performance, but the subtext of his remarks was striking. Fabregas clearly thinks that the reason Wenger doesn’t want to purchase experienced players isn’t due to resources, but down to his manager’s fundamental unwillingness to be challenged.
Wenger’s reaction to the piece was illuminating. He maintained that his captain must have been misquoted, and stubbornly stuck to that line even after the magazine posted the unedited tapes of the conversation on its website. Most people would call this behavior delusional. At Arsenal, this seems to be par for the course. Wenger has made so many excuses over the last few seasons, it’s difficult to tell if he even knows he’s making them any longer.
Some Arsenal fans have pointed to their team’s four-goal collapse against Newcastle in February as the turning point in a season when the club once entertained thoughts of a quadruple. Others point to the team’s disastrous loss in the Carling Cup final, when `keeper Wojiech Szczesny and defender Laurent Koscielny conspired to gift Birmingham City the trophy.
The truth is the season was lost in August, before the club even took the field. And Wenger is the man to blame.
The sad fact Wenger is unable to separate ideology from reality, and his club has gone off the rails because of it. He no longer looks capable of leading, nurturing or winning. His time’s up, even if he doesn’t know it.
Jamie Trecker is a senior writer for FoxSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclay’s Premier League.