A couple of years ago, Arsene Wenger talked in broad terms about the idea of retiring.
“Yes, it crosses my mind sometimes,” he said, “but for no longer than five seconds because I panic a little bit. When we played at Man United, Alex Ferguson came to meet me after the game. I said: ‘Come on, you don’t miss it?’ He says: ‘No.’ He had enough. He goes to every game. But he has horses. I have no horses.”
Of course, it’s difficult to fully work out a man’s motivation. Wenger is notorious for giving little away, and barely anybody knows his plans. But at the moment, it seems that Wenger is clinging on to being Arsenal manager because it’s his life. Wenger’s entire being is football, and by extension, it’s Arsenal. Thus, it’s tricky to escape the idea that Arsenal are stuck with a manager way past his prime, because he doesn’t know what else he’d do with himself.
“It’s difficult to explain,” said Wenger after Arsenal’s 5-1 evisceration by Bayern Munich on Wednesday, and while the Frenchman’s public statements should be taken with a fistful of salt, that seemed telling. Arsenal have developed a horrible habit of repeating the same season, again and again: The same mistakes are being made, the same results are occurring, and it doesn’t seem to matter that much who the opponents are. They’ve lost the title to Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Leicester City.
Bayern didn’t even have to be at their sparkling best to destroy Arsenal, and still, Wenger doesn’t seem able to pinpoint what’s going wrong. That, if nothing else, should be a sign that his time is up.
In reality, that’s been pretty clear for at least five years, if not more. He should have retired with some sort of dignity after breaking their trophy drought with the FA Cup win in 2014. By now, he’s only damaging his legacy.
Now that they’re free from the financial constraints that were the previous primary excuse for their lack of trophies, the main argument that those who remain pro-Wenger rely on is: “Who next?” What about the post-Ferguson mess that Manchester United are still in? But even allowing for the situations being wildly different, that argument is completely redundant now. Of course there might be a rough patch after Wenger goes, but he’s going to leave at some point and that possibility will be there whenever that is. So why not get ahead of the game and get some sort of control?
At the moment, more or less anyone, within reason, would be better. What Arsenal need now is something different. Something different to rouse them from this pattern, this never-ending repeating of history. Change is preferable to this torpor. Even if that change turns out to be worse, it might be of some benefit. “Worse” at the moment is falling out of the top four, but would that really be the end of the world?
The Champions League no longer represents the sort of financial imperative that it once did, so for a club of Arsenal’s means the two main reasons for being in it are status, and trying to win the thing. They show no sign of doing the latter, and the former is ephemeral at best, so is there really much point in them being in the competition anymore? At the moment, all the Champions League does for Arsenal is give their fans a few jolly outings to the continent, and give the club a few extra games to play. It’s essentially a disruption, and one that provides opportunities for embarrassments like Wednesday in Bavaria.
There’s plenty to be said for giving the Champions League a miss for a year or two. In the past few seasons we’ve seen the domestic benefit of a team not having European distractions. Chelsea are basically cantering to the title, effectively with a squad of about 14, only possible because they don’t have trips to Germany, Italy, Spain and France to worry about. That’s not the only reason they’re the best team in the country, but it helps; it was the same with Liverpool in 2014, and Leicester last year.
Would it not be better for Arsenal to have a proper go at one competition rather than falling short in a couple? It’s not quite hitting rock bottom in order to improve, but a similar theory.
You’ll all have your own list of names for who could come in: Thomas Tuchel, Jorge Sampaoli, Massimiliano Allegri, Eddie Howe, Patrick Vieira, Leonardo Jardim, Ralph Hasenhuttl. But really, it doesn’t matter that much. A new manager might be good, or terrible, or somewhere in the middle, but at least he’d be different. Arsenal need something different.
It’s impossible not to feel desperately sorry for Wenger. This is his life’s work, and much of it in the past was absolutely glorious. He created this Arsenal, but he has been finished for some time. Nobody wants the job of telling an old man he can’t do it anymore, but somebody at Arsenal has to, for everyone’s sake.
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.