It’s not a matter of if, but Wenger

It’s been a tumultuous week alright. There have been moments – days, weeks perhaps – over the past 21 years when I’ve thought it could be the end for Wenger. The 8-2 at Old Trafford and the 6-0 on his 1,000th match in charge felt seminal, for example. But he hasn’t lasted this long by chance; he has an incredible eye for reinvention and survival that makes him, by some distance, Arsenal’s longest-serving manager.

The pattern often goes like this: there’ll be some damaging reverses, resulting in exiting two competitions in short order; but just when you think the mood couldn’t darken more, Wenger rounds up some form and takes us on a 10-match unbeaten streak. The needle moves back out of the red zone. We qualify for the Champions League. Off we go again.

We are in poor form (let’s be honest, we looked an absolute mess of a side after half-time in Munich) but I wouldn’t bet against something similar happening now, because this is a strong Arsenal squad and Wenger has been here before many times. The difference now is that I don’t think it will make much difference to what happens next. It feels like these next few months are Wenger’s last; that change is upon us.

“No matter what happens, I will manage next season, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

Said Wenger in yesterday’s press conference. On the one hand it tallies entirely with what Amy Lawrence wrote about Arsene knowing nothing but football and being lost without it. On the other, it feels like a message to his detractors, to the board, and probably to the fans.

I don’t think he’ll be here because the siren call for change is only getting louder. The players – not exempt from criticism, as I said on yesterday’s Arsecast – look like they need it, many fans crave it, and Wenger would probably benefit from it. I don’t think two more years would do anyone any good.

Would I begrudge him a move to a big European club? The man is an Arsenal legend and there’s nothing I would begrudge him, short of rocking up at Spurs with a Chas and Dave single under his arm.

Whenever it happens, it will be moment of huge sadness and reflection for me. His legacy is huge, his achievements myriad, and he has been a master of intelligence, courtesy and good humour. On top of that, and this is a selfish point I suppose, Wenger has been a constant for me for nearly half my life. Job changes, house moves, marriage, two children – Wenger has been there all along (metaphorically of course – I can confirm he wasn’t at Barnet General Hospital shouting ‘little bit push’).

In a world where things are changing fast and in unpresidented ways, there’s Arsene, with a cheeky smile and a throwaway quip. His departure will be a challenge to my own world order.

What happens next is in a big way up to him, but not entirely – and he will know that. Sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own.

Looking back to 1996, all it took to assuage the swirling chorus of ‘Arsene Who’, was Patrick Vieira’s introduction against Sheffield Wednesday. The new man had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and things seemed immediately rosier. That was one bookend.

For the other bookend, he has to cajole everyone into believing, at least for the next three months, so that we can find another rabbit, and another magic hat.

Bridge over: Troubled Wenger

Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal

Apologies in advance, because this is a pun-free, humourless post. “I wonder if you could stick a gag in?” asked Mrs Lower as she read it. I’ll see what I can do.

Are sure as eggs are eggs, Arsenal sank to their annual defeat at Stamford Bridge with barely a whimper. In terms of the title – that’s all folks; though in terms of performances the writing has been on the wall for some time.

First though, Chelsea. They were fantastic yesterday and have been fantastic since September, leaving everyone – not just us – well and truly in their wake. They defend as a unit, pick off their opponents and are relentlessly good at it. For an Arsenal fan, comparing the two sides yesterday was painful, especially as – unlike Chelsea sides of yore – there are fewer players to dislike.

There surely have to be doubts about the validity of the first goal, but few pundits or commentators seemed that fussed by it. Odd, no? Bellerin was flattened by Alonso’s elbow before he headed it in and I suspect that would have been blown as a foul anywhere else on the pitch.

To add insult to potential head injury, Bellerin was forced to retire with Gabriel replacing him. It was a double blow, because while Gabriel is an OK backup central defender, he really is no right back.

Would it have been different had we taken one of the few chances we had? There was one for Iwobi early on, a very presentable header for Gabriel and a great chance for Ozil.

I suspect not. It was a day when we really needed to step up but too many of our players were depressingly absent. Ozil and Sanchez, our two superstars, were two of the worst culprits. The former was peripheral while the latter cut a lonely and frustrated (and frustrating) figure.

Walcott was ineffective and didn’t defend, Iwobi faded, Coquelin was utterly overwhelmed and to cap it all off Petr Cech picked a bad day for a howler. We were at best ineffective yesterday, and at worst disorganised, error prone and playing off the cuff.

A horse walks into a bar. The barman looks at him and asks, ‘Why the long face?’

Our 3-0 win earlier in the season – our best performance of the season – was the outlier. Because overall, when the chips are down against sides that we like to compare ourselves against, we have been poor.

And our record at Stamford Bridge since our 5-3 win in 2011 also speaks for itself. We’ve lost every time with an aggregate score of 15-2.

The title is as good as over. Even if Chelsea collapsed, we’d have to go on a barnstorming run. Neither looks remotely likely. Maybe the boss can pull something out of the hat in the Champions League? Past performance would suggest otherwise.

The fact is that year after year, irrespective of the players, we are too often making the same mistakes. We let in silly goals. We disappear too often. We aren’t prepared well enough. We are inconsistent. We are predictable. We switch off.

And that, of course, rests at the doorstep of Arsene Wenger. Martin Keown said after the game that he believed Wenger would sign a new two-year deal. The boss stands alone at being able to get us into the top four, but taking us to the next level? That now seems beyond him.

Will he really take that deal? I’m not so sure he will. To me it feels like the team needs a massive dose of the smelling salts. It needs a new broom to sweep through it and it needs new ideas. I don’t know many Arsenal fans who think Wenger will be the man to do that. But in the end, because of the incredible power he wields within the club, perhaps the more pertinent question is: Does Wenger still think he’s the man to do that?

“We want you to stay,” sang the Chelsea fans with mirth. I wonder if he heard.

Let’s hope it’s not just me who’s mentally ready

In the heady aftermath of our 3-0 win against Chelsea in September, it didn’t seem feasible that come the return leg we’d be teetering on the edge of the familiar title challenge abyss. That we are is partly to do with the phenomenal way Conte responded – after all, we are not the only team holding on by our fingertips. (In idle moments I wonder what he might have been able to do with our squad – and I doubt I am alone.)

Since then our win percentage is 58%. But three results in particular have cost us – Boro, Watford and Bournemouth. Had we won those we’d now be just two points behind.

The bottom line though is that Chelsea have been nigh-on flawless, while we have struggled for true consistency, an achilles heel that has dogged us throughout the latter Wenger years.

Having seen us so listlessly and carelessly throw away all the points on Tuesday, I don’t hold out much hope for today. But the thing about Arsenal is that it wouldn’t enormously surprise me if we did win, either. Though we’d probably go and draw our next game against Hull.

Our midfield has been decimated, which does call into question Wilshere’s season-long jaunt on the south coast. I maintain it was not such a bad idea to go, but quite why we weren’t a little clever by inserting a recall clause is odd.

Still, we are where we are and it looks like the job falls to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. A nice little assignment for them at lunchtime on a Saturday – which everyone knows is our favourite time to play Chelsea.

Elsewhere, in theory we have the firepower and options to match Chelsea. Converting theory into practise is another thing though. Wenger still doesn’t know why we sometimes turn up mentally unprepared. Ultimately though he must accept that it’s a faultline of his own making.

Can he sharpen them up today? Suffice to say, only a win will do.