Saturday, February 18, 2017

A sad humiliation that could signify a seismic shift

An embarrassing and brutal defeat in a big game, unfortunately, isn’t anything new for Arsenal. Wednesday night’s 5-1 capitulation against Bayern Munich, made all the more stark by the fact the Gunners were right in the game at 1-1 at half-time, had a slightly different feel to it though.
There was the same sinking feeling at seeing a rampant Bayern rip Arsenal to pieces to run up the same scoreline for the second year running, seeing Arsenal give themselves almost no hope in the second leg, and watching the Gunners virtually secure their exit in the last-16 of the Champions League for a seventh consecutive year. But there felt like there was something more at play on Wednesday. It’s something we’ve all known had to come at some point, but now feels closer than ever, for better or worse.
It wasn’t just the size of the defeat on Wednesday that was painful, it was the performance that went with it. The goals conceded were all avoidable from a defensive point-of-view. Arjen Robben’s strike is a great one, but why does Francis Coquelin just allow him to wonder easily into a shooting position on his favoured left foot? No effort was made to block Phillip Lahm’s cross for the second goal before Shkodran Mustafi just watched Thiago run through to finish the third. The fourth was a depressing deflection and the defending was non-existent when Thomas Muller was allowed to stroke in a fifth goal.
That Arsenal’s goal came from a missed penalty, a shanked rebound and then an excellent finish from Alexis in some ways typified the feeling of the evening. Arsenal never seemed in control as Bayern and made things harder for themselves with some basic errors. When Laurent Koscielny went off injured early in the second half, it shouldn’t have led to the capitulation that followed, but it was as if he took every player’s brain with him when he limped off. By the end, it looked like Arsenal had given up.
After such a result, the second 5-1 defeat to the Germans in as many seasons, the media spotlight has unsurprisingly and intensely been on Arsene Wenger. And while the man at the top of it all has to take the responsibility for such a performance, the players have to take a look at themselves. Wenger’s tactics might not have been right, he might not have picked the right team and his message might not be getting through, but it was thoroughly disheartening to see the players just completely freeze and not perform in the second half. These aren’t young kids Wenger has thrown in, every player bar Francis Coquelin were internationals and surely some sort of professional pride and nous should have kicked in at some point.
But ultimately it does come back to the manager. Regular readers and listeners will know the esteem in which I hold Arsene Wenger, and I don’t want to see him sacked. As much as I am desperate for him to bow out in a blaze of glory by winning the league or the Champions League, it now feels like that dream has died. Such is pressure being applied from certain sections of the fan base and the media, and the repeated failures in big games, it just feels like we’re heading towards a change this summer. Without a change, the questions, the fan split, the media hysteria and the pressure will only continue, and that’s not a healthy position for the club to be in.
For the benefit of perspective, Arsenal are still right the middle of the battle with five of the top six and could yet finish second in the league. They’re in the last 16 of the FA Cup and did at least make it to the knock-out stages of the Champions League. Had that been the performance of a manager in their first season at the club, the Arsenal fans and the media might have been slightly more forgiving. But with Arsene Wenger passing 20 years at the club, to be going through similar seasons year-after-year without making any tangible progress is where the questions come from.
With his future undecided beyond the end of this season, we’re approaching the stage where there could be a natural stopping point for the boss. He wouldn’t be breaking a contract, something he didn’t want to do with Arsenal, and would still be leaving a good squad in place for his successor to work with. But while he might be ready to move on, I fear that the club aren’t ready for him to. Such has been his association and influence in the club, it’s never going to be as simple as just recruiting a new manager. There are many more structural changes that need to occur in the footballing side of the club, and I have serious reservations about whether the current Arsenal board are up to the possible task of overseeing those changes.
It’s probably a good thing that after the FA Cup tie with Sutton, Arsenal have almost two weeks without a game. It’ll give everyone time to do some serious thinking and hopefully enable some clarity to be established about the future. The manager needs to be honest with himself about how his messages aren’t getting through to the players and how many more of these painful defeats he can take. The board needs to consider if two-year offer to Arsene Wenger is the best option for the club at the moment, and needs to have plans in place should he not take them up on that offer. The players need to ponder how they’ve let down a man who has put a great deal of trust in them and who bears the brunt of the criticism following these ridiculous non-performances in big games.
While many others will say that the end for Wenger has been a long time coming, for me it felt like Wednesday was the beginning of the end. Wenger has been ever-present in my time as an Arsenal fan and it worries me what the future might hold. But Wednesday’s woeful display means that uncertain future is surely about to be upon us.