It's a curious thing, football management. You're given far too much praise when your team wins, and far too much grief when they're humiliated by lower league opposition live on national television.
Unless you're Arsene Wenger, of course. A little over two months since League 2 Bradford out-fought and out-thought an almost full strength Arsenal side in the Capital One Cup quarter-final, Colin Kazim-Richards scuffed Blackburn Rover's only chance of the afternoon into the turf and watched it spiral back up into the air, evade the attention of a desperate covering defender, clip the inside of the post and, in all probability, end Arsenal's season.
21 points adrift in the league, and with an increasingly futile-looking date with the rampant Bayern Munich coming up in Europe, the FA Cup represented the Gunners' only realistic chance of ending their eight-year trophy drought this season. Meanwhile, Spurs have opened up a four-point gap above them, and the chances of them even retaining their Champions League place are looking perilous. This is, to put it bluntly, the lowest ebb of Arsene Wenger's reign at the club.
As I'm prone to doing when I need a laugh, I flicked on an unnamed, post-match football phone-in show, where the ex-professionals that Dancing On Ice won't have allow the general public to ring up from service stations and get really, really annoyed at whatever injustice they've suffered that week. With nobody from South America having won a dubious penalty this week, the subject was Arsenal. Yet, to my horror, when the question of potentially sacking Wenger came up, everybody seemed quite calm and rational about the whole thing.
“Yeah, they're in serious trouble at the minute, and the performance wasn't good enough, but... hey... what are you going to do? It's Arsene Wenger, isn't it? He's a legend at Arsenal,” shrugged the caller. “Exactly” retorted the floppy-haired former Championship journeyman; “when you look at what he's done at the club over the years, the Invincibles, Thierry Henry, all that, you can't start making any rash decisions”.
Over the years? Rash decisions? Arsene Wenger has been at Arsenal for 16 years now, and hasn't won a trophy in eight. He's at a club that should be title contenders every season; that should be fighting for domestic honours; that should win things. One year without a trophy is, by the standards he set, a failure to meet his objectives, and at the start of next season he'll have been failing for longer than he succeeded.
Nigel Adkins led Southampton to successive promotions and was sacked with the club three points above the relegation zone. Roberto Di Matteo won the Champions League last year, and was sacked as soon as it looked like he'd be unable to do it again. Let's just imagine for a moment that following the FA Cup final in 2005, Wenger had proudly marched into the press conference and announced that he'd taken the club as far as he could, and that he felt it was time for him to move on. Then imagine his replacement had failed to win anything since.
How many managers would Arsenal have been through trying to replicate the success he'd managed? How many trophiless seasons would the callers on phone-in shows have put up with? We'd all be sitting here, in 2013, reading about how chopping and changing your manager is always a backwards move for a team, and how Arsenal fans wouldn't be facing the very real prospect of a barren decade if only Wenger had hung around.
Make no mistake, what Arsene Wenger did in the first half of his spell at Arsenal was extraordinary. The effect he's had on the game of football worldwide is breathtaking, and it'll be felt long after he decides he's had enough. But I can't understand why the success he brought the club eight years ago should mean he's above reproach in the present day.
His ideals of building a world-class team entirely from his own academy floundered, faltered, then failed, and his plan B of buying in the finished article has, at times, been comical. Cesc Fabregas gave up and promptly went on to win everything at Barcelona; Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy had enough and swiftly lifted the Premier League title; and unless a meteor impacts Old Trafford in the next few months, Robin van Persie will probably do the same. They haven't been credible at the top of the table for years, and now their only chance of salvaging anything in the here and now is to desperately claw their way back into the top four.
But Arsene Wenger won't lose his job over this because Arsenal didn't lose a single league game in 2003/04.
Maybe the most telling comments of all came in the wake of Saturday's defeat, when Wenger's (now broken) record of never losing to lower league opponents in the cup was brought up. “We went 16 years without losing to lower-league sides” he mused. “It's disappointing that it's happened twice this season, but I prepared for those games exactly the same way I had in the previous 16 years.”
Which maybe illustrates the whole problem. Arsene Wenger changed football forever when he took over at Arsenal, but after years of playing catch up both on and off the field, the rest of the world appears to have overtaken him. He, better than anyone, should understand the progress that comes with change - even if he's the very thing that has to make way.
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