Should Arsène Wenger stay or should he go now?
He is heading for an eighth successive season without a trophy. Our writers decide if his time at Arsenal is up
James Lawton: Go! Sadly, what he is doing, so long brilliant, no longer works
If it is true there is no better guide to the work of a great football manager than the way his team performs today, rather than a decade ago or at some distant point in a mythic future, the verdict on Arsène Wenger's situation has surely passed the point of sensible debate.
For an eighth-straight season Arsenal, who are valued fourth in the financial rankings of the world game, behind Real Madrid, Barcelona, and Manchester United, have condemned themselves to another campaign without a trophy and, even worse, the declining prospect of one.
The team is going nowhere and the manager who for so long was a by-word for the brilliant reading and marshalling of young and sublime talent appears to be as lost as some of his most hapless players, the ones who were ejected from the League Cup and the FA Cup by Bradford City and Blackburn Rovers and were this week effectively ushered out of the Champions League by Bayern Munich so briskly they might have been dishevelled intruders into some fancy party at the Ritz.
There is no more pleasure in saying this than in spitting in the face of a proud and distinguished man of the most impeccable achievement and values, but it is only to state the reality in which Wenger has been threshing so desperately these last few days.
It is also, of course, to concur with the inevitable verdict that it is time for Wenger to go.
Ideally, it would be by his own hand, his own decision when weighing all the options because who, deep down when the hurt pride and the angst over the lost days of that ineffable touch and judgement have been put to one side, knows better than Wenger that what he is doing now simply no longer works.
Surely he knows this more surely than the fine Arsenal loyalist Bob Wilson, the goalkeeper of that Double year of Charlie George and George Graham, who for some time now has been railing over the lack of respect for the man who turned the modern Arsenal into something far more than another winning team.
Jack Wilshere, the one Arsenal player who on Tuesday night might have augmented the strength of Bayern, made similar noises in the rubble of something that was less a defeat and more a shocking vision of what the future, on all available evidence, can no longer hold for a team that once adorned both English and European football.
Wilson and Wilshere were running up the flag for Wenger's past – not the effectiveness of his work for today and the future. It is, heaven knows, understandable that no one at the club has shown the least inclination to play Brutus. Everyone there knows that it would be seen by so many as an act of regicide, whatever the state of the king's wardrobe.
Arsenal were for so long the brilliant expression of Wenger's superb talent for drawing the best out of footballers of the greatest quality. Now, despite the constant claim that he has a war chest that, if it doesn't stretch to paying more than £30m for a holding midfielder of the quality of Bayern's Javi Martinez, surely provides the scope for something rather better than is currently being produced at the Emirates.
No, Wenger couldn't keep Fabregas and Nasri and Van Persie, he couldn't pay £200,000 a week for the best of his talent, but he could have acquired recruits that said rather more about his old insight than the likes of Wojciech Szczesny, Per Mertesacker and Olivier Giroud. Wenger is enshrined at the heart of Arsenal's business plan, the man who gave them a solid financial future and a shining stadium and, with the increased revenue from sponsor deals, declining stadium costs and extra TV revenue, the chance to invest in a new epoch of glory.
It is a beguiling idea but if football does cry out for sounder economics, if anyone can see the value of a club creating its own financial independence, it can never be reduced to some endless measurement of profit and loss. It cannot live without some significant stirrings on the field.
Ultimately, the old Wenger could not be about a shining set of accounts. He was always supposed to be about a genius for the game, the point of it all; about men like Henry and Vieira and Fabregas and if they can no longer be so easily acquired there is a need for some authentic quality. Wilshere, at 21, has the Wenger hallmark. He sees so many things so quickly. He can beat a man and take the fight to any opposition.
He proved that this week despite odds which would have drained the majority of talented footballers of any age and experience. Yet Wilshere can do only so much. He cannot make a team. That was, until these last few years, the glowing facility of Arsène Wenger.
He said this week: "You'll miss me when I'm gone."
That might be true enough, but what will be mourned most sharply: the enduring life of his work, or the memory of what he was?
This week it has been only the latter – and never more hauntingly so.
Sam Wallace: Stay! He deserves another chance to build a new team
It is easy to be cynical when Arsenal, and Arsène Wenger in particular, talk about investing in players this summer given how many transfer windows have come and gone with the club's manager deciding that no one is quite good enough. But this summer, there really is no alternative for Wenger: he has to make major signings, and he has the money to do so.
One more season, at least, for Wenger to put it right. A contract that lasted until June 2014 was stipulated on the last deal Wenger signed in 2010 and, as he is fond of reminding us, he has always seen out his contracts despite, at various times having been a target for the likes of Real Madrid and even Bayern Munich, Tuesday's conquerors at the Emirates.
If Wenger stays one more season and is simply unable, whether in the transfer market or elsewhere, to halt the slide then at least there will be a dignity about his departure in the summer of next year. It is a dignity that should be afforded to great, transformative managers of big clubs – and a dignity that is too often denied them.
This summer, as well as the uplift in the Premier League's broadcast deals, Arsenal will benefit from the new Emirates Stadium naming-rights contract and a vastly improved kit deal with one of the two big manufacturers. Add to that their cash reserves and there is undoubtedly a bounty for Wenger to spend. He cannot afford not to do so. In some respects he will be, for the first time in his Arsenal career, planning for the short term.
If there is to be a new contract beyond 2014 then Wenger will have to show significant improvement in Arsenal's chances of competing for a trophy on all fronts, pre-Christmas. Of course, there is the possibility that they will do so without Champions League football for the first time in 16 years and if that is the case then Wenger will accept that winning a new contract will be that much harder.
But if Arsenal were to part company with Wenger this summer they will always wonder what might have been. The promise of a new future is, famously, always just around the corner at Arsenal – English football's FC Jam Tomorrow – but this summer is the last opportunity for their great manager to make it a reality.
He has a core of young players, led by Jack Wilshere and including Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson – some of whom might be edged out this summer by new signings. There are a group of mid-ranking older internationals like Thomas Vermaelen, Mikel Arteta and Santi Cazorla. Wenger has to add the players that can lift his side up a few notches. Hard, admittedly, but not impossible.
Mistakes have been made. Wages that were too high paid to average players (Sebastian Squillaci, I'm looking at you). A blind faith that the likes of Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie would stay. Mismanaged contractual negotiations. Excessively conservative restrictions placed on spending levels. But no one should be blind to the way that Wenger husbanded Arsenal's resources.
Over the period in which Arsenal built the Emirates and paid down debts, he kept the team in the Champions League places while selling the best players. To state baldly that he has not won a trophy in eight years would be to simplify a complicated financial picture.
Wenger's greatest trick was exploiting, in the late 1990s, the hitherto untapped market for French players that he knew better than anyone at the time. Later his club focused on other countries and regions but quickly the rest have caught up and in doing so nullified one of Arsenal's biggest advantages.
This summer he must show the same unerring certainty in the transfer market. Easier said than done. In recent years he has lost out to the likes of Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United largely because of their financial might and as a result he has made purchases from beneath the elite level – which does yield up some diamonds but also some clunkers.
Arsenal still have one of the most sophisticated scouting networks in Europe under chief scout Steve Rowley, one of the few at the club to have resisted a move elsewhere in recent years when he turned down an offer from Chelsea. They simply have to target players of a better level and a greater readiness than the likes of Gervinho and Olivier Giroud.
Ignore all the nonsense about the return of David Dein making all the difference. What needs to return is Wenger's sure touch in the transfer market. The board are willing to spend. The club have the money. So one more summer and one more season to see if Arsène knows. It will at least give Arsenal the certainty that they are not ditching a great manager before his time.
Belfast Telegraph Digital