An Arsenal fan joked that he had expected to get drawn against Bayern Munich or Barcelona in the fifth round of the FA Cup, such was the feeling of Deja-vu for Gunners fans. It’s quite apt that with it recently being Groundhog Day, that Arsenal are looking like they are about to live through a seeming repeat of the last ten years.
The defeat a couple of weeks back to Chelsea was expected by most onlookers, partly down to the current strength of a Chelsea team running away with the Premier League; but also down to what has become a sense of repetition under Arsene Wenger. The same can probably be said for the Gunners loss in the first leg of their Champions League tie away to Bayern Munich, but possibly not quite in the submissive manner to which it played out.
As fantastic as Wenger has been for Arsenal Football Club, they are no further on as a team than where they were ten years ago. It’s impossible not to acknowledge Wenger’s achievements, with those trophies and fantastic teams in the first decade of his tenure, but the lack of progression during his second decade in charge is heading towards a dilemma for the club.
I don’t mind admitting that I have a tremendous amount of respect for Wenger, his achievements and the impact he had on the Premier League. I’ve said before that I believe he revolutionised the game in England, such was the transformation he led at Arsenal and the effect that had on other teams and their approach. His methods, style and vision of how the game should be played stood out at the time. His ability to blend the established defensively strong players he inherited with exciting fresh talent and an eye-catching style of play put him ahead at the time. However, others caught up and have since moved on, leaving him in their wake.
As the trophies dried up, so did the patience of an ever growing number of Arsenal fans; disappointed at an apparent lack of ambition and seeing the club as being content to simply finish top four every season in the Premier League. Consecutive FA Cup wins did largely quell the disenchantment at the time and signings such as Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez were supposed to be a signal of intent that the club was ready to use its increasing financial muscle to compete with the best.
In truth, little changed and the humiliation at the Allianz Arena looked like it might have been one depressing repetition too many.
Post-match, Arsene Wenger was not the same defiant figure of previous years and instead resembled a beaten man who knows his time is almost up.
Arsenal do still have the prospect of winning another FA Cup this season and although that is adding another trophy to the cabinet, it simply won’t be enough to silence the calls for Wenger’s stewardship to end this summer. In some ways that can be taken as evidence of how far the FA Cup has slipped in the perception of priorities within modern football, but in reality, it’s more of a reflection in the lack of belief many Arsenal fans have that it would lead to any type of progression. After years without a trophy, some felt the FA Cup win a few years ago could be the springboard for bigger and better things; that breaking the psychological barrier of winning a trophy again was the missing piece of the jigsaw. The fact that it wasn’t the case probably influences how those wanting Wenger out feel about the possibility of winning the FA Cup again. Right now, finishing this season with a trophy at Wembley would more likely to be going out on a high than it would be the start of something new for Wenger.
Whilst it’s easy for Gooners and members of the media to call for Wenger’s head, for Arsenal to decide the time has come after twenty years will be a momentous decision. In all likelihood, Wenger himself will be the driving force behind such a decision; such is his stature within the club. It’s quite evident that Arsenal do need a change of some kind, but replacing Wenger will be no mean feat. He deserves respect for all he has done, all he has achieved, the dedication he has applied, his loyalty when his stock was high and his standing within the game.
Yes, Arsenal have long lacked progression and yes, something needs to change, but to make that change is still a dilemma that the club face this summer.