Arsenal should be a European superpower but they’ve been also-rans for too long under Wenger

Arsenal can at least console themselves that their result was not the greatest shock in the Champions League this week. That dishonour belongs to Barcelona. Besides, Arsenal’s drubbing was hardly a shock. For all of the talk of Bavarian stagnation, this was a Gunners side that had been well beaten by Watford. They were always going to struggle in the Allianz Arena. And oh, how they struggled.

At a time of crisis, you should always look for positives. Arsenal’s greatest positive from Wednesday is that they kept the score down. Had it not been for wayward finishing, some borderline refereeing decisions and a string of David Ospina saves, this could easily have been seven or eight. As it was, the result and performance was so wretched and so devoid of hope that Arsene Wenger is out of allies. 

There is open dissent in the stands again. The press, a body of men and women who, as Jose Mourinho is always eager to point out, have generally been very respectful of Wenger, have turned. Out on Twitter, even the most sensible, level-headed, ‘In Arsene We Trust’ fans were facing up to the new reality. On Arsenal TV, where the wild things are, there was first incoherent rage and then nothing more than dead-eyed submission. And when those boys reach a point where they can't even rustle up a good tantrum, you know things must be bad.

It cannot be said that Arsenal did not have a plan in Munich because, for a portion of the game, they had one and it worked. A bit. Bayern were always the better side, but remember that for a period, Arsenal were the more dangerous on the counter-attack. Unfortunately, given what would come to pass, that’s a little like remembering how much you enjoyed your first pint on a night that ended with you breaking both your legs trying to cartwheel down a flight of stairs. It is no defence for Wenger to say that his players ‘mentally collapsed,’ because it happens so often that it can only be his fault. 

You would say that now is the right time for Wenger to go, were it not for the sad truth that that the right time has been and gone. So few managers ever walk away at the perfect moment. Bob Paisley did it, retiring in 1983 after winning the League and the League Cup. Sir Alex Ferguson did it, retiring in 2013 after betting heavily on Robin van Persie’s ability to give him a good send off. Wenger’s refusal to go isn’t quite in the Brian Clough category; Arsenal are unlikely to be relegated this season, but you can’t help thinking that he would have been better off leaving in 2014 or 2015 with an FA Cup in his hand.

Nevertheless, his legacy will survive, as well it should. He transformed the club, won a pile of silverware, went an entire league season unbeaten and then wedged his piton into the side of the mountain, just short of the summit, and held Arsenal there for over a decade while they built and paid for their new stadium. In the entire history of one of England’s most storied clubs, only Herbert Chapman stands alongside him. But he is history nonetheless. 

Arsenal are based in one of the richest parts of one of the richest cities in Europe and they play in the richest league in football and are regular attendees of the first knock-out round of the richest tournament. They should be one of the most successful teams on the continent, a superpower to rival the likes of Real Madrid. They have been also-rans for too long. 

It was okay to tell Arsenal fans to, “be careful what you wish for,” in 2008 when Arsenal lost five league games before the end of November. It might have been okay to say it in 2011 when they handed the League Cup to Birmingham and crawled home in fourth place. You could still have said it in March 2013, when they were beaten by Spurs, having already crashed out of the domestic cups to Bradford and Blackburn. 

But now, in 2017, with Arsenal no closer to real success and with the fans visibly cringing at the mention of the Champions League, you know what? It seems like it might be all right for them to wish for nice things.