By James Goldman
Much to the displeasure of those fans actively campaigning for his removal from office Arsenal are, to use a wholly inappropriate word, stuck with Arsene Wenger.
Stuck with a man who has delivered three league titles, four FA Cups and provided a constant diet of Champions League football for the supporters who direct their abuse at him from seats they would not be sitting in, were it not for the Frenchman’s rare dedication. It should not be this way.
Stickers bearing the slogan “Enough is Enough. Wenger Out” plastered over London Underground trains, #Wengerout trending on Twitter, protest marches, banners and black scarves. It is all deeply disrespectful and, more to the point, utterly futile while the Arsenal board continue to offer their manager its unanimous support.
Undeniably, however, this marriage has gone stale and is in need of sprucing up. Naturally, those who feel the relationship has already fallen into a state of total disrepair are casting admiring glances elsewhere, but Arsenal are no longer the most eligible bachelor in town.
A smattering of talented players and a beautiful stadium would surely not be enough to tempt Jurgen Klopp to leave Borussia Dortmund, already one of the most watchable sides in Europe, while the words Jose Mourinho and the phrase ‘operating under restrictive transfer budget’ have not been seen together since the Portuguese worked miracles during his time at Porto.
Change of some sort is undoubtedly required although the board are unwilling or unable to enforce it – as others would have done and would have been within their rights to do following cup defeats against lower league opposition – and Wenger himself has no desire to vacate his post.
Were the Frenchman to at least hint that he is capable of change would surely quieten some of his detractors. Prioritising the FA Cup fifth round tie against Blackburn at the expense of protecting his key players for a battle with Bayern they were always destined to lose would have been a start.
Eight years without a trophy is a significant stick to beat Arsenal with and though Wenger was right to point out earlier this week that his record of four triumphs in the competition was evidence of his deep-rooted respect for the FA Cup, a genuine and successful attempt to win a fifth would have lifted spirits and pressure at once.
A largely second string Arsenal side bowing out of a domestic cup competition to inferior opposition is nothing new but it need not be repeated. Priorities need reassessing from next season onwards.
Redrafting of the battle plans may well be enforced upon the Frenchman should Arsenal fail to secure entry to the Champions League, a competition they scarcely deserve to be involved in having failed to beat a major European side in the knockout stages since 2008.
Such a record would have alerted most managers to the fact that a different approach was needed on Tuesday evening against such formidable opposition. Instead, wedded to the 4-3-3 formation that suits barley half of his preferred starting XI, Wenger’s side were, to the surprise of nobody, crushed with the minimum of fuss.
Stubborn he might be, but totally inflexible he is not. Arsenal’s most successful European campaign under Wenger’s tenure came with a switch to a 4-5-1 system that was within 13 minutes of delivering the one major prize that continues to elude him.
Nor, despite what recent damming evidence would suggest, is he incapable of identifying defensive talent and harnessing it as a collective unit as the record of the Invincibles would testify. Their success, however, and the work Wenger undertook to help them achieve it seems an ever distant memory.
Despite the constant knocks to his credibility the relentless asset-stripping and questionable purchases, Monday’s ill-tempered press conference demonstrated Wenger’s passion to maintain Arsenal’s position as an elite force burns as strong as ever. The old Arsene Wenger is still out there, his club need that man now more than ever.