It’s been a tough few weeks for Arsène Wenger, the venerable Frenchman in his 21st season at the helm of Arsenal. An early February drubbing at the hands of league-leader Chelsea effectively ended any fading hopes of a Gunners title charge; similarly, an even more deflating loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions League all but assured a seventh consecutive Round of 16 exit in that competition. As it has in the past few seasons, Arsenal’s trademark midseason slump and European failures have brought out the vocal “Wenger Out” contingent of supporters calling for his head, and the English media has been ruthless in beating the “Will he, won’t he” narrative to death.
If Arsenal’s season thus far feels a bit like Groundhog Day, it’s because in many respects, it is. The same problems—the lack of steel and resolve, a frustrating inconsistency, injuries, the midfield—continue to plague the club as they have for years and have become such the running joke, it’s no longer shocking when they inevitably set in. It’s Arsène’s lack of awareness to them—or potentially more worrisome—lack of concern that is shocking.
On their day, the Gunners look like world beaters. Consider the first Chelsea match this season. Wenger’s men romped over the Blues with a perfectly executed smash and grab, striking three times in the first half with lightning quick fluidity and elegance characteristic of Wenger’s title-winning sides.
The reverse fixture a few weeks ago was the antithesis of the earlier meeting and emblematic of Arsenal’s recent problems under Wenger. They found themselves faced with adversity early when fullback Hector Bellerin was knocked out by Marcos Alonso’s flying elbow—a clear-cut foul and missed call—en route to Alonso heading in the Blues’ first goal. Instead of responding with any mettle, Arsenal was erratic. The fullbacks allowed Chelsea wide players Eden Hazard and Pedro ample space on the wings, and N’Golo Kante dominated the much-maligned Mesut Ozil in midfield. The story remained the same in Munich, where Bayern barely had to shift out of first gear to cruise past the Gunners.
Regarding Arsenal’s continually folding like a card table, columnist Alex Dunn wrote, “There’s a cigarette paper between them and Chelsea in terms of quality and a cigarette factory between them in terms of fortitude.” It’s an apt analogy; Wenger finally addressed one of his chief criticisms this season and slapped down serious cash in the transfer market, bringing in Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Perez on big money deals. All three look to be class on their day. Add to that a side with the otherworldly Alexis Sanchez and World Cup-winning Ozil, and the problem isn’t quality.
That tendency to roll over when pressed, either literally or figuratively, by top sides is one of the most frustrating characteristics of recent Arsenal sides. This year, it dropped 13 points against the other top-6 teams—Chelsea, the Manchester sides, Spurs and Liverpool—worst amongst them. Dating back to 2012-13, it’s won away from home against that top-six just three times in 22 matches. The inconsistency and lack of resolve, not to mention Wenger’s repeated inability to find a healthy, working midfield partnership, are too common of recent Arsenal sides and ultimately hold the club back.
It’s increasingly evident Arsenal has plateaued under Wenger and is content with stability over glory. To be sure, the club’s 20 straight Champions League appearances under Wenger is an unparalleled accomplishment and an important piece of its solid financial standing. That said, a consistent top-four finish is not enough when Arsenal is capable of so much more. With the club’s brand power and global reach, title contention nearly every season should be the expectation, not merely grabbing the fourth-place “trophy.”
It’s a disservice to Wenger to fail to mention his contribution to the club. Arsenal is where it is today because of Arsène. He championed the Emirates Stadium project and pushed the club into the modern era; he guided the club through those turbulent financial times with a steady hand and foresight to the larger plan; he dazzled supporters with a scintillating brand of football and helped the club cast off the “boring, boring Arsenal” moniker. Arsenal runs through Wenger’s veins just like it does for so many of its supporters.
That history is why it’s so hard for either Wenger or Arsenal to break up with the other. It’s a tired relationship with its best days behind it, but there’s comfort in familiarity and stability. Even so, the manager and the club need to plan for Arsenal after Arsène. As Manchester United showed when transitioning from Alex Ferguson, it’s near impossible to replace a legacy manager like Ferguson or Wenger unscathed. The best thing that Arsène can do for the club that he loves is to facilitate that transfer of power and help set the club on solid footing post-Wenger.
This weekend’s match with Liverpool looms large for Wenger and his future. In the most competitive top-four race in years, Arsène’s men can’t afford to drop points to a rival. The Reds hounded Arsenal in their first match, a 4-3 ‘Pool victory whose scoreline flatters the Gunners. Win, and the pressure lessens for a few weeks. Lose, and the chorus of “Wenger Out” will only grow louder.