APATHY is a greater enemy in football management than jealousy, anger or even Machiavellian intent; and Arsene Wenger seems to have a reached a sad impasse at Arsenal, as his season heads towards a frustrating but predictable conclusion.
A conclusion which today has even the pro-Wenger crowd starting to ask: Is this the right time for him to step aside, and protect his legacy?
There was a scattering of boos after Sunday’s draw against Crystal Palace which ended Arsenal’s title hopes for another season and put their chances of finishing above Tottenham — and even of qualifying for the Champions League — at risk. But the overwhelming sensation in the stands and in the press box was not of anger or disgust but of tired and weary resignation at watching a game they had all seen so many times before.
The same inexplicable lack of energy which has dogged Arsenal on random and unpredictable occasions year after year. The same lack of cutting edge against an opponent with only 28% of possession. The same lack of on-field leadership. The same end-of- season chase for a top-four place with the title long gone. The same long list of players who should be playing but are out injured. The same lack of a world class striker to turn it all around. The same Theo Walcott, still coming off the bench 10 years after he first arrived, and still making the same mistakes.
Even in Wenger’s post-match press conference, the atmosphere was a little eerie. The pens didn’t scribble frantically in the way they usually do, the clattering of fingers on keyboards was a little less intense. The journalists present, almost all of whom have a huge respect for Wenger as a manager and as a man, had seen it all before and heard it all before.
In the same way that Wenger’s players seemed uninspired on the pitch by a battle for third place, even his critics couldn’t face writing the same story all over again.
It must be terribly difficult for a man who has made such a huge impact on Arsenal as a club and as a team to sense that tired apathy, to deal with the questions week in, week out about why he has gone so long without a league title in north London — and to hear fans and critics, some of whom were children when he first arrived, questions his methods and even his integrity.
But this shouldn’t be a Wenger witch hunt. It is perfectly possible to have huge respect and admiration for a man who loves Arsenal through and through and who has transformed the club over 20 years — but to also feel that even the greatest leaders should know when to quit.
Perhaps Wenger should consider that a clever exit strategy can have as big an impact on history and legacy as what has been physically achieved in the first place. Look at Alex Ferguson, who chose to step down at Old Trafford after winning the title with a Manchester United team that had clearly reached the end of its cycle and which is taking years to rebuild. He has been left untarnished by what followed; perhaps, in fact, his achievements have been put into even brighter and sharper focus.
It’s too late for Wenger to follow that model — he should have stepped aside after year’s FA Cup final victory over Aston Villa, perhaps. But despite his protestations as recently as March that he has no plans to quit, he must surely have a plan. And if he doesn’t, he should.
Nobody wants to remember Wenger as a man drummed out of Arsenal by angry fans, battered by vicious criticism from pundits, his pride stung and legacy forgotten as pro and anti-Wenger supporters clash on the terraces. He doesn’t deserve that. He deserves to be remembered as a hero who built a new Arsenal, who transformed the club’s image and style and who left the job with head held high, passing on the reigns to a younger man with the same vision but new energy.
Those who have met the Arsenal manager have a suspicion that letting go may not be easy for a man who has dedicated his life to the club. He is steeped in the job, totally immersed in football and in Arsenal — nobody could say he doesn’t work hard enough or care enough.
But when his Arsenal side continue to make the same mistakes over and over again, year after year, and the title seems to get no nearer then, with a sad heart, you have to say that at the very least, the Arsenal board should consider whether new blood and a new impetus would have a rejuvenating effect on the team. A rejuvenating effect that Arsenal fans desperately crave and which could wipe away the wave of apathy washing over the Emirates before it turns into something a whole lot more nasty.
There’s a poignant quote from American children’s author Kimberly K Jones which says: “The time to quit is before you wish you had.”
Only Arsene Wenger knows what’s in his mind, what the plans are for next season and what lies ahead for Arsenal. But every great leader needs an exit strategy and no-one wants to remember him as the man who wouldn’t go. Even those who appreciate him very much.
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