Is it over?
Not the title race. That’s been over for a while. Not the “race for fourth”, either. That’s got a good way to go, and looking at the respective fixture lists, I still fancy us to come out on top of Everton.
No: the operative *it* in this instance is the reign of Arsene Wenger. After this latest capitulation, serious questions have to be asked about his suitability to take the team in to next season — regardless of what happens between now and May. Truth be told, I happen to think we’ll make the top four. Call me crazy, but I still think we’ll win the FA Cup too. But that doesn’t assuage all my fears about the manager.
Wenger was comprehensively outmaneuvered by Roberto Martinez at Goodison Park. It started with the team-sheets. We persisted with a midfield that hasn’t really functioned properly for several weeks now. All the evidence suggests we’re better when we employ the pace of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the flank, yet Wenger continued with his bizarre policy of selecting both Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky, with neither player seemingly asked to do any defensive work on the right-hand side. In a game in which a point would have been a good result for Arsenal, it’s tempting to call Wenger’s tactics naive. However, considering how long he’s been in the game, one has to revert to an altogether more damning adjective: negligent.
By contrast, Martinez made some bold selections, starting Steven Naismith as a false nine and Romelu Lukaku wide on the right. Naismith frequently dropped in to the area between Arsenal’s defence and midfield, becoming a natural pivot around whom the Belgian pair of Mirallas and Lukaku could buzz effectively. Arsenal didn’t have an answer.
At half-time, Arsenal were 2-0 down and not even in the contest, and yet Arsene Wenger didn’t make a single change. Arsenal needed an act of decisive leadership. Instead, inaction felt like surrender.
My mind cast back to the January transfer window. That was another time when Wenger needed to make a bold decision, and dithered. The consequences have been disastrous.
Arsenal were gutless against Everton. More worryingly, they were rudderless. Never mind a back-up plan — there didn’t appear to be any plan whatsoever.
I don’t want to diminish the achievements of the first half of the season. However, it could be argued we’ve only been able to stave off this kind of collapse due to vagaries of the fixture-generating system
Much has been made of our improvement. However, the stats show we’re now just four points better off than we were at this stage last season. The back-loaded nature of our fixture list has evened out our points tally, and the relative progress compares poorly with that made by the likes of Liverpool.
We’re fourth in the league, and that’s a pretty fair reflection of our ability. We’re good enough to beat pretty much everyone below us, and not really good enough to beat those above us. Your contentment with the manager largely depends on your acceptance of that status quo.
I’m in the camp that believes another manager could improve upon some of our existing issues. What worries me is that the team’s faults appear to be Arsene’s faults. There is a lack of attention to tactical detail, a chronic absence of depth in key positions, and a question of motivation. Those are all ultimately the manager’s responsibility.
Wenger’s contemporary failings don’t diminish his previous greatness. However, you’re only a revolutionary once, and Le Boss has never felt more replaceable than now.
Whichever way you slice it, he’s going sooner rather than later. Wenger doesn’t have another decade in him. Those who advocate stability have to face the fact that eventually, a change is going to come. With the manager’s contract at the point of expiry, now seems as good a time as any.
Looking back, his stalling tactics on his contract felt like a calculated game of brinkmanship with the fans. If the jeopardy of losing him increased, we might draw him closer to our collective bosom. Around Christmas, it seemed to be working. However, on the back of our recent collapse, the adverse effect has occurred. As the prospect of losing Arsene has moved closer, the idea has become increasingly palatable. Few fans are eager to sign up for three more years of this.
I’ve backed Wenger for a long time. If he chooses to stay on, he’ll retain my support. However, he must be wondering whether it’s time to hang up the sleeping bag/coat that has adorned him in recent years.
If Wenger loses the FA Cup semi-final next week, it’s indisputably over. Even if he wins the competition, it may be more of a celebratory send-off than cause for a new contract. It’s not over yet, but it feels like it’s accelerating towards a gloomy conclusion.
I don’t like it. But I’m not as scared of it as some.