Thursday 19 October 2017

Brian Kerr: Time for Wenger to go before his two-decade legacy is tarnished

Arsene Wenger again finds himself under pressure ahead of today’s game against Hull. Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images
Arsene Wenger again finds himself under pressure ahead of today’s game against Hull. Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images

Brian Kerr

It is early afternoon in Stamford Bridge and those fans seated below me wearing blue are in a raucous mood.

Ahead on the scoreboard, and soon to be 12 points ahead in the title race, they turn to the grim-faced red section from north of the Thames and sneeringly sing: "Wenger, please don't go," all the while knowing that as long as he stays, days as glorious as this will continually come along.

It's hard to believe how a man once dubbed The French Revolutionary, because of the manner in which his Arsenal side played the game, is now the subject of ridicule, yet the underlying truth is that Arsene Wenger's team, for some considerable time, has been in decline.

His has been a reign of two halves. The first decade - when he won the league three times, the FA Cup on four occasions, and when he brought Arsenal to the Champions League final in 2006 - were among the greatest years the club has ever known.

Yet instead of that 2006 final at the Stade de France being a high point, it turned out to be the turning point. Ahead from the 37th minute, even though they had been reduced to 10 men, they unravelled in the closing quarter, Samuel Eto'o and Juliano Belletti scoring the goals that punctured a dream and ensured the trophy went to Catalonia rather than north London.

Significantly, Ashley Cole and Robert Pires never played for Arsenal again and a year later Thierry Henry left too.

Until that night - Arsenal, under Wenger - had a tendency, firstly, to hold onto their best players and, secondly, to regularly deliver on the big occasions. There were the four FA Cup final wins, the key title-deciding matches which they won at Old Trafford in 1998 and 2002, followed by the Invincibles year in 2004.

Glum

All this came back to me last Saturday as I sat in my radio position two rows behind where Lee Dixon was working in the main stand. Looking at Dixon's glum demeanour, and remembering the central role he played in the early Wenger years, when - surrounded by big, big men (Seaman, Keown, Bould, Adams, Winterburn, Parlour, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Bergkamp, Anelka and later Henry) - Arsenal always seemed to turn it on when it mattered.

You rarely say that anymore. Aside from the fact they have not won an away game against any of the other members of the top six in 12 matches, you also have to the look at their failure to move beyond the last 16 in the Champions League since 2010. And that's before we mention another stat, that over the last 11 seasons, they have finished an average of 13 points behind the Premier League champions - a long way off the winner's enclosure.

So whereas the Arsenal of Dixon and Adams, Bergkamp and Henry, was hard-nosed and strong, this crowd once again have been exposed to be too soft - not just in their physiques but also in their heads.

Is it any wonder then that so many ex-players have spoken of a comfort zone in existence at the club, how Arsenal may be capable of embarking on impressive winning streaks but lose the games that really matter?

Last Saturday was the latest example of that. Prior to kick-off, as I studied the two team sheets - my instinct was to think that Chelsea would possess too much strength at the back and in midfield for a lightweight Arsenal team, not to mention the problems Costa, Hazard and Pedro would cause them up front.

But, in actuality, Arsenal started quite well, after Wenger had diverted from his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation to go with a 4-3-3 system that incorporated Francis Coquelin in the middle, surrounded by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Alex Iwobi.

Yet despite their bright opening, you always felt Wenger's selection had left the side too open to be counter-attacked.

And so it proved as Chelsea's opening goal highlighted all the flaws and indiscipline that is often so evident within this current Arsenal side.

First there was the advance of the Chelsea wing-back, Victor Moses, which - in the old Arsenal days - would have been covered by a winger who never shirked his dual responsibilities of defending as well as attacking.

Yet Wenger hasn't signed a player like Marc Overmars or Pires in a while. Instead, his preference is for the flashy, nicky-nacky types like Mesut Ozil, whose moments of brilliance are never matched by his hunger for a fight.

So Moses advanced down the right touchline and Ozil stayed still. Meanwhile, Eden Hazard dropped into a position to receive the ball, a run which Coquelin failed to track. Elsewhere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Iwobi failed to spot the danger. Can you imagine this happening with Vieira or Petit manning the midfield?

Well, it happens now. Hazard passed to the unmarked Moses who moved it on to Pedro, who was also loose. Laurent Koscielny reacted too late while Shkodran Mustafi is dragged out of position. Pedro crossed, Hector Bellerin competed with Diego Costa in the air and lost that battle miserably. The ball then cannoned off the crossbar, allowing Bellerin the chance to make amends before Marcos Alonso showed greater fight, and physical strength, to get there first and score.

If any goal could be picked to sum how vulnerable the modern Arsenal are, when facing the bigger teams, then this was it. The team that Wenger said was not "mentally prepared" to deal with Watford four days earlier, were now proving to be neither tactically prepared nor physical enough to cope with Chelsea.

Exposed for having no depth in their defence or midfield, I saw embarrassment on the faces of the Arsenal supporters afterwards. Embarrassment and anger - because they have been in this position so often before - having won just one of their last eight away Premier League games against Chelsea, as well as falling 12 points adrift of their rivals in the title race.

Banner

And it's clear they've had enough. Much was made of the banner that an Arsenal fan - Kane Hopps - held up at the end of the game, which read: 'Enough is enough, time to go'. Yet - as far back as August 2013, I can remember sitting in the Emirates on the opening day of the season and seeing Arsenal fans, in their thousands, hold up posters which said 'SPEND', after their team had lost 3-1 to Aston Villa.

Accompanying the posters that day was a vitriol aimed at Wenger. It was awful to listen to, especially when you consider how proud and successful a man he is. And it made me wonder why, at his age, he was prepared to put himself through it. And yet here we are, four-and-a-half years and two FA Cup wins later, and it isn't getting any better, either in terms of the results on the pitch or the crowd's behaviour.

I never had to manage a team in that weekly cauldron. Nor did I ever have to endure a crowd booing my team's performance at the end of a game but this is the sort of thing that regularly happens to Wenger now. So - aside from the fact he is reportedly earning £8m a year, I just cannot see what he is getting out of this experience. It's highly unlikely he is short of a few bob and even if he was to leave Arsenal, there'd be a clamour for his services.

At 67, he'd be young enough still to attract interest from China and some of the leading international teams around the world, as well as England, which would allow him the time to pursue other interests he may have in life.

Now while you could understand his persistence with the job if Arsenal were getting closer to achieving another big trophy - a Premier League or Champions League title - the truth is that they aren't, even if Wenger did state at the start of this season that this squad was the best he had at his disposal since the Invincibles year.

Now that the tide has definitely turned against him in terms of the affection he is held in by Arsenal fans, he has to start worrying about something much more important than either trophies or money - his legacy.

If he was to walk away now, his reputation would be enhanced. Suddenly, all the memories of the third- and fourth-place finishes - and there were 10 of those between 2005 and 2016 - not to mention the annual exits from the Champions League at the round of 16 stage, would be trumped by the achievements of the early years.

History would judge him kindly, referencing how he built a team that could play both attractive and effective football, and then rebuilt it into one that could go an entire season unbeaten.

What's more they'd look at the global expansion of the Arsenal brand and attribute that success to their French manager and the shrewd way he kept the club competitive even in a period when a debt on their new stadium had to be serviced.

However, if he overstays his welcome - and there is a clear sense that he is beginning to do that - then you worry for that legacy and you are forced to scrutinise more closely the kind of decisions he has made in recent years, like the expensive signings of Granit Xhaka, a player with an appalling disciplinary record, and Lucas Perez who has yet to justify his £17m fee. Meanwhile last January he added Mohamed Elneny, an Egyptian international who he knew could potentially be absent for a six-week period midway through this season.

Recruitment

Given how two of those three are midfielders - and considering also another player in this department, Aaron Ramsey, has a history of injuries - you have to wonder if there was any joined-up thinking going on in either Wenger's head or the recruitment department at the club.

All those problems came to the fore last weekend. Xhaka was serving a ban - for a stupid red card he picked up against Burnley - while Ramsey was keeping Santi Corzola company on the treatment table, where they had all the time in the world to chat about Elneny's performances at the African Cup of Nations.

Minus all four midfielders against Chelsea, the game was lost in this area - just as so many previous ones have been. Of course it could have been different had Wenger followed his instinct and signed N'Golo Kante, who they chased not just once, but twice, losing out first to Leicester and then to Chelsea.

Now whatever about being outbid by Chelsea - it is an indictable offence for Arsenal to miss out on a signing to Leicester. A club with their financial muscle should have swatted last year's champions out of the way with the kind of contempt Coquelin was shown by Hazard last Saturday, as the Belgian moved nonchalantly past him en route to scoring Chelsea's second goal of the day.

That, more or less, ended the Arsenal title dream for another year, while also ending the debate about whether Wenger should stay - or be kept on for one more season.

At this stage only one thing could rescue him from the overall mood of the fans - which is a journey home from Cardiff on June 3 with the Champions League trophy in his hands. But can you see them going on a run like they did in 2006 - when over six games against Villarreal, Juventus and Real Madrid, they advanced to the final without conceding a goal?

The answer is a resounding no.

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