Arsenal have consistently been one of the best teams in Europe for 20 years, and a huge part of that sustained success has been Arsène Wenger. Their longtime manager has been a bastion of quality and consistency in coaching that we rarely see in this day and age in the sport of football — but it’s time to see the Arsène Wenger era at Arsenal end, and it’s time to see it end now.
It’s important to keep in mind that this isn’t meant to denigrate Wenger or belittle him or make light of what he’s accomplished at Arsenal, and it’s important to recognize just how very good he’s been as the manager of that club. Since being hired in 1996, Wenger has led the Gunners to three EPL titles and six FA Cup trophies, not to mention countless huge wins and impressive runs in the Champions League, though a major European trophy has still eluded Wenger’s grasp. They’ve also been in the top four in the EPL in every season of Wenger’s tenure, a testament to consistency that no other English side can claim in that time.
Wenger is widely respected in the sport for very good reason, and he’s earned that respect. Respect can buy you a lot of time and a lot of opportunities when your team is in trouble, time and opportunities to pull yourself out of the fire that most other managers don’t get. But those chances run out eventually, and they’re finally running out for Wenger.
There’s been a lot of struggle for Arsenal this season, and not all of it has been Wenger’s fault. There’s not much he can do about injuries, after all — but what Wenger can control has left much to be desired. His handling of rotation and tactics has been oft-criticized by fans and experts alike, especially his dogged insistence on relying on certain players who have long seemed unable to play at the level Arsenal need, players like Theo Walcott and Francis Coquelin. And his responses to his opponents coming out strong in big games has been so poor that Arsenal fans now dread any significant matchup.
That was evidenced in both legs of Arsenal’s abject failure of a Champions League Round of 16 tie against Bayern Munich. They came out flat in Germany in the first leg, getting caught flat-footed on Bayern’s early opener, and then after a moment of individual brilliance from Alexis Sánchez to equalize, it was all Bayern, all the time. They would ultimately concede five goals on the day, including three in a 10-minute spell in the second half that could only be described as an utter capitulation by Arsenal.
A gut-punch loss to Liverpool in between the two legs of the tie didn’t help the mood around Arsenal any — more on that later — and things looked grim for them heading into the second leg with such a huge deficit. The Gunners actually started the match playing better than Bayern, but that seemed to be more down to the Germans sitting back and waiting for Arsenal to wear themselves out than due to any particular brilliant game planning on the Gunners’ part. In fact, the fact that Arsenal only scored one goal while Bayern were playing so passively only serves to look bad for Arsenal.
And once Arsenal did wear down, Bayern hit them hard and repeatedly. A brain-dead foul from Laurent Koscielny saw the defender sent off early in the second half — a harsh decision, to be fair — and once he was, Arsenal basically just stopped playing. Nothing Wenger did seemed to motivate his club, not that he was doing much other than sulking on the bench at that point. At one point, Alexis even appeared to be laughing at Arsenal’s plight from the bench as the Gunners sunk to another 5-1 loss and a humiliating 10-2 aggregate defeat.
...is Alexis Sanchez laughing? pic.twitter.com/vi7nvSXBan— SB Nation Soccer (@SBNationSoccer) March 7, 2017
Arsenal’s lack of apparent heart was pointed out by one of Wenger’s most experienced players before the match — Per Mertesacker told the media that his side was “not ready for a fight.” That eye-opening comment surprised many for its bluntness, and may have rubbed his squad the wrong way given how prophetic they made his words appear.
The fight has especially seemed out of them in recent weeks, with reports of unrest in the dressing room and a widening gulf between Wenger and certain parts of the squad. Mesut Özil has seemed increasingly out of sorts of late, and if recent reports are to be believed, a training ground argument between Wenger and Alexis led to the player storming out of training, and to Wenger benching him against Liverpool.
It’s obvious that something has to change at this point. With where the players’ minds seem to be right now — simply put, much of the team seems to have “checked out,” so to speak — it may be too late for Wenger to be able to reach them again and get the team back on track. Even if he could, there’s the question of whether or not he would actually make any changes significant enough to impact Arsenal’s form and quality; after all, this is what he had to say after their 5-1 loss to Bayern on Tuesday:
Asked Arsene Wenger what needs to change at #Arsenal: "What do you mean by that? This club is in a great shape, very difficult situation."— Bryan Swanson (@skysports_bryan) March 7, 2017
That almost seems as though Wenger doesn’t believe that Arsenal have any problems right now — certainly he’s the only one saying that they’re in “great shape,” no matter how difficult the situation they find themselves in is. It’s not a good look for Wenger, especially when this was his description of a match from his team that many felt was lifeless and without inspiration:
Wenger in fighting mood, totally convinced that ref cost them the game. "we produced a performance of spirit and pride"— Raphael Honigstein (@honigstein) March 7, 2017
Again, Wenger is a tremendously accomplished manager who has earned a world of respect during his career. He is rightfully considered to be a legend at Arsenal, and deserves all benefit of the doubt that goes along with that status. But eventually results and actions move past the level that such benefit can look past, and it feels like we’ve reached that point.
Simply put, it’s time for Arsenal to thank Arsène Wenger for everything he’s done for the Gunners over the last 20 seasons — and find a new manager. For the good of the club, that’s looking more and more like the only practical option. They need to make significant changes in the club’s structure, both in terms of the team, tactical setup, and even player recruitment, and there are too many questions as to whether or not Wenger is the man to make those changes, especially in light of recent results on the pitch.
It’s time for the next era of Arsenal football. An era without Arsène Wenger. He’s had a hell of a career and deserves all the praise in the world, but the time has come to move on and find out what happens next.