This has been an oft-revisited topic over the past five or six years.
Has Arsene Wenger, on the job since 1996, stayed on too long as coach of English Premier League side Arsenal?
Increasingly, the answers have come back, from fans and pundits, “Yes. It is time for Wenger to go.”
The criticism of his work, and of the latest apparently “soft” team he has assembled, seemed to reach an unprecedented height tonight, even before Bayern Munich had concluded a 5-1 thrashing of the Gunners in a Champions League match.
The usual criticisms came rolling in, but this time it seems as if his defenders had gone silent.
A journalist for The Guardian summed up Arsenal’s performance in harsh terms:
“It was a gutless display, but that won’t come as any great shock to seasoned Arsenal-watchers.
“… this team has no heart or backbone. They downed tools and gave up tonight.”
The talking heads on Fox, which included former U.S. national team members Alexi Lalas and Eric Wynalda, were among many who called for Wenger to step down (or be pushed out).
If this were Year 1 of disappointing results from an expensive team and a leading world soccer brand, it could be forgiven. But it is very much like those of the past half dozen years.
Wenger was a transformative figure when he first joined the club, emphasizing quick passing and movement, often with small and crafty footballers from outside England.
Twice, in the early years, he won both the league and the FA Cup in a single season. In 2003-04, he produced a team that did not lose a match in the 38-match league season. The Invincibles, they were known then, as now.
Then came a period when the club built a fine new stadium in London, and Wenger went into a long period of caution in pursuing top talent, making a point of balancing the budget against spending pertaining to the Emirates Stadium. Even after it was built and opened he seemed to have lost his capacity for the bold move, approaching the transfer window as a middling English club rather than one with fans all over the world.
The most telling moment, perhaps, was when Wenger and Arsenal lost Robert van Persie, the Dutch forward, who jumped to Manchester United and promptly led the latter to the 2013 league championship.
Wenger, a Frenchman, was born in the former German city of Strasbourg. At one time, the tall and patrician-looking man was known as “The Professor”, but of late he has seemed more fusty and intractable than scholarly, perhaps a function of his being 67.
His style in recent years has been to assemble teams of wonderful passers with refined on-ball skills, but those teams have been fragile, both physically and emotionally, and his unwillingness to find places for a big, tough player (or two) has seemed counter-productive.
Over a span of two weeks, Arsenal have lost to a mediocre English side (Watford), the league leaders (Chelsea), a result which ended Arsenal’s title pretensions; defeated Hull City but were unimpressive throughout, and saw a 1-1 score at halftime degenerate into tonight’s 5-1 rout, at Munich.
Wenger’s contract is up at the end of this season, but at the moment it is not clear he will survive this week.
He has had a great run, but two pieces of silverware since 2004 (FA Cups in 2014 and 2015), as well as 19 consecutive appearances in the Uefa Champions League (albeit no efforts beyond the round of 16 since 2010) is not enough of a return for such a rich and well-supported club.
As a late-comer fan or Arsenal, I perhaps am in a small minority of those who think he should at least serve out the season, but I also concede that when a team gives up on its coach, as Arsenal seemed to do tonight, the situation often is irretrievable.
Even Wenger spoke of an implosion in his team once the central defender, Lauren Koscielny, left the game with an injury.
“It looked like we collapsed,” he said. “We mentally collapsed.”
As noted earlier, that is a criticism often leveled at Wenger’s teams of the past decade. They fall to pieces under strain. And now that Wenger increasingly looks like someone whose powers have been on the wane for a dozen years … yes, he may have to go now.