The Arsene Wenger story just needs somebody to write an ending

Pencils at the ready, children. Poor old uncle Arsene has lost the dressing room. Can you help him find it?

Pardon the levity, but I’m finding it hard to work up the levels of gravitas which ought to be commensurate with the current woes of a manager and a club as storied as Arsene Wenger and Arsenal. 

Not because what they are currently experiencing is comic-book stuff, but because we have been here too many times, over too long a time, for it to feel as if things have suddenly reached an unprecedented breaking point.

That moment of definition may not be far off, but it will only finally become a reality when the club or the manager, or both, accept and then address what Ian Wright has called this “development of mediocrity”.

This is hardly the first time that analysing Wenger’s deteriorating reign feels a bit like being asked to compose an obituary for someone who is still hale if not exactly hearty.

There’s no pleasure in undertaking the assignment again either, given how much Wenger has contributed, not just to Arsenal but to football in England, since he first fetched up in North London in 1996 and was famously greeted by the Evening Standard headline ‘Arsene Who?’ 

Before too long, though, the faithful were proclaiming ‘Arsene Knows’, as the full range of the unheralded Frenchman’s managerial knowledge and pioneering spirit came into play. 

There was his revolutionary (for Blighty) approach to sports science and diet, an unmatched eye, especially when trained on Europe, for nascent brilliance in the transfer market, and a philosophy of something close to total football, which didn’t overlook the importance of remaining rock-solid at the back and warrior-like in midfield. 

Above all, he had a winning mentality, which delivered, among other successes, the double in 1998 and, in 2004, the team which became known as The Invincibles.

Now, 14 years later and without a title since then, the only question worth asking is ‘Arsene Why?’ As in: Why would a 68-year old, who has achieved so much in his career, continue to want to put himself through the misery of serial under-achievement, as the transformed financial landscape of the Premier League has seen his club relegated to the status of also-rans, and not just by the biggest cash-splashers, but even, in that one crazy season when the top guns took their eye off the ball, by Leicester City.

Perhaps Wenger feels he knows no other way of being, almost as if a definition of addiction applies: The one about how you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. 

He offered his own unconvincing answer on the back of his team’s 2-1 defeat to Brighton on Sunday, their fourth straight loss in a row: “It’s not easy, but I have enough experience and desire to turn things around.” 

You won’t find many who will agree, and especially not, it appears, in the Arsenal dressing room. Which isn’t to absolve the players of responsibility. 

Au contraire, my bullshit-detector always reacts when I hear that a manager has “lost the dressing room”.

I can understand players losing faith in a gaffer and I can see how a run of poor form and a sequence of defeats can damage confidence and morale, but even if they can’t — or won’t — do it for the boss, professional footballers should at least be able to muster enough spirit to put in the required minimum effort for the fans, for their teammates, for the club and, most of all, for themselves. If not, they are even more culpable than the man in the dugout.

Arsenal still have one last chance to salvage something from this torrid season and, with a Champions League place the ultimate incentive, the Europa League has turned into a make or break scenario for Wenger’s grip on the club.

Given their current slump, the odds on them going all the way might be long, but admirers of the embattled manager will hope they pull it off and then hope, even more fervently, that he doesn’t choose to interpret such an unlikely reprieve as confirmation of his credentials for continuing to be the right man for the job but, rather, has that moment of clarity which will allow him to recognise it as the perfect time to step aside and let someone else build for the future and, ultimately, challenge for the trophy which so cruelly eluded him in Paris in 2006.

If the post-Busby years and the post-Fergie years at Manchester United have taught us anything, it’s that replacing an overwhelmingly dominant personality, as Wenger has been at Arsenal, will not be straightforward.

As Wenger has already discovered for himself, he is a hard act to follow.

 With or without him, you can’t help fearing that things will get worse before they get better at the Emirates.


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