Friday 22 September 2017

Familiar frailties and failings reappear to haunt Wenger

Wenger: Dumped out once again. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay
Wenger: Dumped out once again. Photo: Reuters / Hannah McKay

Jeremy Wilson

If this is to be Arsene Wenger's 184th and last match in the Champions League then it is not the small pre-match protest outside the Emirates that should represent the defining image but rather the swathes of red seats.

They were evident before a ball had even been kicked and, by the time Bayern had completed an aggregate 10-2 humiliation, the stadium was largely deserted. Going down to 10 men might initially have been unfortunate but there was simply no excuse for the subsequent capitulation.

Wenger had asked his team to play with "honour" but frighteningly little was evident once the task became hopeless. "We want our Arsenal back" had been the noisy external chant and, while tempting to wonder if we missed a previous golden era when clubs like Bayern and Barcelona were regular visitors to Highbury, the internal cocktail of anger and apathy remained damning.

The searing frustration of supporters is also easy to understand. Boredom is ultimately fuelling the anger that was also directed here against club directors and the inescapable wider context is how this sort of pummelling is nothing particularly new against a top team.

This is now the seventh season in succession that Arsenal have exited the Champions League at this stage. On four of those occasions, they also very briefly threatened a valiant fightback after a suicidal first leg performance.

Yet even when teams other than Bayern or Barcelona have stood in their way, Arsenal still fluffed their lines. Hope, and alluring glimpses of a potentially better future, can only carry supporters so far and the repeat sense of deja-vu has created an overriding, almost fatalistic, air of resignation about how seasons will end.

Wenger's challenge between now and the end of the season is to show some tangible evidence that he can change the narrative. It is hard to feel optimistic. Wenger might have salvaged a top four finish from similarly unconvincing seasons but the broader picture was that this three-year cycle of his contract could be about something different.

That after the hard years of relative famine while the club moved stadium, he had constructed a squad that would compete for the Premier League or Champions League. Instead, we have seen almost a carbon copy of past frailties when it matters most.

The stench of dressing-room unrest is also unusually strong for any Wenger team. Sanchez's walk-out from training last week was confirmed on French television last night by Robert Pires.

Petr Cech is also known to be dissatisfied at his ongoing exclusion from the cup competitions while Mesut Ozil, like Sanchez, is still stalling over a new contract. A devastating sequence of five defeats since the end of January do now feel pivotal in the Wenger's 21-year Arsenal story, even if the chapter is still not definitely closed.

Wenger will try to seize some positives. Arsenal did initially play with a spirit and freedom that has been horribly lacking in recent weeks.

The addition of another central midfielder in their 4-3-3 system did briefly give Arsenal a presence and solidity that has been desperately absent. Yet even those crumbs of comfort still prompts another question.

Why can't Arsenal deliver with their first-half conviction when there is still a realistic chance to win? The problems have been a combination of the psychological and tactical.

Solving the former is complex but Wenger must at least now cling to the initial evidence here of playing an added midfielder. His 4-2-3-1 system has exposed Arsenal against the best teams and, if that means playing Ozil wide or leaving him on the bench, then so be it.

Defeat now against Lincoln City is clearly unthinkable, yet the idea that the prospect of a stellar FA Cup semi-final is bad news for Wenger is wrong. It represents a desperately needed chance.

Winning the FA Cup as he did in 2014 and then 2015 - by beating teams like Wigan, Hull City, Reading and Aston Villa in a series of Wembley semi-finals and finals - offered only qualified validation.

This season offers a different challenge. Arsenal are likely to need to beat two from Manchester United, Chelsea, Tottenham and Manchester City to triumph this time and, while the odds are clearly stacked against this team delivering such results, the mood could again change if that happened.

In that sense - and in the context of Wenger's desire to stay on - such a difficult route to what would be a seventh FA Cup is probably useful to Wenger. The problem is not a lack of will from Wenger or indeed the board to continue their partnership.

It is not even a protest by disgruntled Arsenal fans. It is simply that he is fast running out of road to prove that he can again set up a team that will beat the best when it matters the most. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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