Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

James Lawton: Is time finally up for Wenger at Arsenal?

Despite his dazzling history at Arsenal, Arsene Wenger is under increasing pressure as the club looks unlikely to qualify for next season's Champions League

No one is any longer unaware of the consequences of drumming up the nerve to say, however sorrowfully, yes, it is indeed time for Arsène Wenger to go. It is to be automatically cast among Brutus and his knife-wielding mates.

Yet who speaks up for the crumbling republic of Arsenal? Stan Kroenke racks up his shares and puts his head over the parapet only to say, briefly, that the manager has his unequivocal support. He says that the republic is serene, even as the blood runs in the streets.



Chairman Peter Hill-Wood, with that insuperable complacency that is one gift of an Eton education, says that missing out on Champions League qualification would not be a disaster. Wenger shrugs away the reassuring hand on his shoulder and begs to differ with some emotional force.



But Arsenal, 10 points behind Spurs, five adrift of Chelsea, are programmed for that specific disaster among others.



These now include the increasingly likely defection of captain Robin van Persie.



For students of body language, the most persuasive comment on the decline of Wenger's empire came last spring when Barcelona-bound Cesc Fabregas, injured and on the sidelines, was caught by the TV camera in the moment of Arsenal's Carling Cup defeat by Birmingham City. Fabregas's expression could hardly have been more eloquently despairing. It said that he had gone beyond hope that Wenger, for so long the brilliant mentor, could halt the drift that had carried Arsenal away from their last major trophy six years earlier.



This was shocking enough at the time but on Sunday evening it was surely surpassed by Van Persie's public agreement with the fans who so vociferously protested Wenger's decision to remove the thrusting young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in favour of the seriously discredited Andrei Arshavin. It is, of course, true that if you collected together all the football insights of Wenger's critics, including those of Van Persie, they would not brush against the foothills of Wenger's knowledge and achievement.



However, knowledge is one thing and the nerve and the old instinct to move ahead of events, to unleash a succession of game - and power-changing talent, is another. One is for life and the other needs to be summoned again each new season and every fresh challenge.



Those who insist that it is absurd to say that Wenger's meaning today is less relevant than when he assembled his Invincibles neglect the lessons of football history.



Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements are the opposite of commonplace. They are unique in their relentless hold on the realities of winning and losing and if he is fighting for his life this season it is not because of any reluctance to re-cast his team – and his priorities. It is because of new financial restraints that prevented him from resolving his central problem of finding a new heavyweight in midfield. Without them, we know Ferguson would have delivered Wesley Sneijder on a silver platter after the undressing by Barcelona last spring.



We are told that Wenger has money to spend, real money, but if it is true, his response in the summer to the loss of Fabregas and Samir Nasri – and the overwhelming evidence that his defence was not fit for purpose – was wholly inadequate.



The argument that Wenger inevitably knows best continues to be pummelled. When this is conceded, it is not at the cost of a brilliant reputation, a body of work which will always enshrine him among the greats of English football. It does not create any less of a yearning that a great man might just find his way back to his surest touch. Unfortunately this, more than ever, has become an act of faith.



But then who replaces him, who gets the chalice that is currently poisoned? Not a man with superior football instincts, because he may not exist, but maybe someone who has no past to horde, no regrets at its passing, only a feeling for what needs to be done and an ability to see where the work must start. It is not, for sure, in the brief re-incarnation of a Thierry Henry, no more than Andey Arshavin.



Arsenal's need is desperate now. It is to move on, with or without Arsène Wenger.



It may be unsayable, but who cannot but think that circumstances are conspiring to make it ever more likely to be the latter.







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