Tuesday 20 March 2018

James Lawton: Fresh surrender tells Arsenal board all they need to know

Arsenal players prepare to kick off during their defeat against Crystal Palace which damaged their chances of reaching next season’s Champions League. Photo: REUTERS
Arsenal players prepare to kick off during their defeat against Crystal Palace which damaged their chances of reaching next season’s Champions League. Photo: REUTERS
James Lawton

James Lawton

Cowardice is a heavy charge to level against any man or group of men. But then you look at Arsenal. You look at the team's spineless descent from serious contention in England and Europe, you wonder if you ever saw such an abject surrender as Monday's 3-0 loss at Crystal Palace or a manager as agonised and defeated as the once-great Arsene Wenger.

And when you do that you worry less about an over-stated accusation than to where, precisely, it should be directed.

Who is most deserving of the white feather symbol of cowardice?

The players who virtually downed tools at Selhurst Park? The manager who cannot face the haunting fact that he can no longer shape or inspire a significant team?

Or the directors and the fabulously wealthy chief shareholder Stan Kroenke who have been so content to pick the profits from the money tree of the Emirates Stadium, ignoring year upon year evidence that something has been irreparably broken at the heart of the team?

No-one, plainly, has a monopoly of blame, all three elements have played their part, but the ultimate responsibility must always reside at the top of any failing organisation.

It is 13 years since Arsenal won a league title, the mark of a seriously ambitious club - and it is almost as long since it became obvious that the glories of the Invincibles had galloped off down the high road of football history.

No other manager but Wenger could have survived such a malaise. No other club bosses but Arsenal's would have tolerated it.

Imagine the tumult which would have consumed any other club that chose to think of itself as major if a manager was given anything like the untouchable status of Wenger?

Arsenal's hierarchy don't have to look any further than west London to see the dynamic results of an owner who simply will not permit any hint that his product might be dying on the vine. Roman Abramovich fired Jose Mourinho for a second time within months of the Special One's third title triumph for Chelsea.

Now Chelsea contemplate their fifth Premier League title, this time with the driving leadership of Antonio Conte, having also won the Champions League under the stop-gap Roberto di Matteo during the Wenger famine.

When Mourinho first referred to Wenger as a "specialist in failure" it seemed like the last word in brutal insult, even by his dizzying standards. But from someone operating under the pressure of a demanding owner, there was an uncomfortable ring of justification.

Read more: Comment - Why changing the weak, leaderless dressing-room culture must now be Arsenal's transfer priority

Consider for a moment Mourinho's perspective from a Stamford Bridge where he learned that winning titles did not begin to guarantee safe tenure.

Stamford Bridge, after all, has axed four Champions League winners while Wenger has nursed the wounds of defeat by Barcelona in the final of 2006. Carlo Ancelotti is a three-time winner of club football's greatest prize with Milan (twice) and Real Madrid. He won a title for Chelsea and at the end of the following season was given the hard word.

Mourinho won it twice, with Porto and Inter, and Di Matteo and Rafa Benitez once each with Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. All four faced the immutable football truth that, sooner than later, someone was going to put a hand on their shoulders and ask what they had done for them today rather than in the distant past of the previous season.

The Chelsea example may be extreme but it is hardly unique in the upper echelon of club football. Real fired Vicente del Bosque, who won them two La Liga titles and two Champions League victories in four years, and then saw him go on to win the World Cup and the European Championships for Spain.

The veteran Jupp Heynkes was replaced by Pep Guardiola after delivering the Champions League to Bayern Munich, and now Luis Enrique will walk away from Barcelona two years after scoring the treble of La Liga, Copa del Rey and the Champions League.

So it goes at the hard end of big-time football. And what goes at the Emirates Stadium is the most extraordinary complacency.


Maybe it is this that is the deeper crime rather than cowardice, however much current events steer you towards the latter verdict.

How much courage, after all, does it take to tell a man you have indulged and protected for so long that his time has come? That his position is no longer tenable in a world which demands results, or at least some indication that one day there might be the means to produce them.

Rather than fret over the delicacies of their relationship with a once-great but now time-expired manager, they would be much better advised absorbing the meaning of a performance which came 24 hours after their team's shaming, witless collapse at Crystal Palace.

It was the one produced by the Juventus of Massimiliano Allegri, who has been mentioned as a possible successor to Wenger - and has been taking English lessons.

Juventus not only beat Barcelona 3-0, they gave a precise definition of a team showing the courage and the ability to win the greatest prizes. The match was in Turin, less than a thousand miles from North London.

But, for the moment at least, it might have been on Mars.

Irish Independent

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