London (AFP) – “Every good story has an ending. Au revoir Arsene,” read the words on a sticker on display in Borehamwood, a commuter town where north London side Arsenal enjoy strong support.
That sticker has been on display for several months and the words were positively polite compared to the torrent of criticism Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager for over 20 years, faced following the Gunners’ humiliating 5-1 loss away to Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League on Wednesday.
Of course there is still a home leg to come but having seen their side lose in the last 16 in each of the past six seasons, even loyal Arsenal fans will have few hopes of a spectacular reversal of fortune when German giants Bayern arrive at the Emirates on March 7.
This defeat was compounded by a recent shock league loss to Watford and an ensuing, rather more predictable defeat by Chelsea that between them appeared to have scuppered Arsenal’s hopes of a first Premier League title since 2004.
Veteran manager Wenger, whose contract expires at the end of the season, has always previously appeared defiant in the face of criticism, so much so that some have suggested the best thing for those who want the 67-year-old Frenchman to leave Arsenal is to stay silent.
Yet what might hurt a proud man most was the evident pity behind the comments of those who reckoned his time was up after a Munich mauling where Arsenal, level at the break after Alexis Sanchez cancelled out Arjen Robben’s opener, were swept away by goals from Robert Lewandowski and Thomas Muller either side of Thiago’s double.
“The fact that he hasn’t been able to get a response from the players in the last few weeks might be the final straw,” former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon told ITV.
– ‘Too soft, too naive’ –
That Wenger was unable to get that “response” was, in the view of many observers, because he had signed too many of the wrong sort of players.
“They (Arsenal) have only two players of stellar quality in Alexis Sanchez, who scored and never stopped trying, and Laurent Koscielny, whose injury early in the second half gave Bayern even more space to plunder goals,” wrote Henry Winter, The Times’s chief football writer.
Winter added: “Ultimately the real blame lies with Wenger, who has built a squad with too few leaders, too soft, too naive.”
Wenger, whose ability to speak near flawless English from the moment he arrived at Arsenal in 1996 charmed the media and fans alike, won praise early on for his tactical sophistication, his success paving the way for an influx of foreign managers into the Premier League including bitter rival Jose Mourinho.
But as with many pioneers, there is a sense he has now been overtaken.
His repeated insistence that Arsenal could no longer compete with the likes of big-spenders Chelsea and Manchester City because of the cost of their move from Highbury to the Emirates was already looking a thin argument even before 5,000/1 outsiders Leicester won the Premier League title last season.
Wenger’s early successes, including domestic league and FA Cup ‘Doubles’ in 1997/98 and 2001/02, meant he could do no wrong in the eyes of the Arsenal board.
Yet even since the takeover by Stan Kroenke in 2011 there has never been a hint of pressure from the Gunners’ hierarchy regarding the manager’s position.
Indeed Kroenke angered Arsenal fans when he made it clear last year he had no interest in matching the big-spending of City and Chelsea, who’ve won six Premier League titles between them since 2004, with the US businessman saying: “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved.”
For the time being, Wenger’s future appears to be in his own hands.
But when his most loyal supporters such as former goalkeeping coach Bob Wilson and the man between the posts during Arsenal’s 1970/1 ‘Double’ season, say even Wenger “can only take so much”, perhaps the writing is on more than just a sticker.