By James Goldman
Beleaguered, disrespected, outdated and out of touch; this is not how Arsene Wenger deserves to be remembered or treated. With his stock at an all-time low, however, it appears that merely preserving what should be a glittering legacy will represent his last great challenge.
Tuesday’s unacceptable loss against League Two Bradford was the culmination of years of underinvestment in a team that still came tantalisingly and miraculously close to winning significant silverware little over 18 months ago.
Worst of all, perhaps, defeat was not wholly unexpected and the performance bore all the hallmarks of a club in a state of flux, lurching towards a fully-blown crisis. Forget that Arsenal eased into the knockout stages of the Champions League and remain within touching distance of fourth place in the Premier
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Yes, Arsenal are an easy target at present and many are delighting at an opportunity to throw sticks and stones at a man who has never been subjected to such treatment in the past. That it need not have been this way - through their own mismanagement and neglect the club and Wenger have become targets of their own making -matters not.
There would be no more fitting end to the Frenchman’s glorious tenure than were he to walk up those famous Wembley steps in May and collect the Champions League trophy. Sadly, even were he to spend the £50 million that is reported to be available to him in January, that dream is as remote now as it was when he first entered Highbury’s marble halls, unknown and unfazed by the challenge that lay ahead.
Regrettably the tide has turned, stemming the flow and limiting the damage are now the priorities. This team, even with the addition of the quick-fix reinforcements that are likely to be on their way next month, is not equipped to challenge for honours.
Yes, there have been sporadic glimpses of promise this season – the dismantling of Liverpool, the draw at Etihad Stadium and recent trouncing of Spurs - spring to mind. Yes, it is true that in Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain there is the potential for a bright Anglo-centric future, but how long before they, like Theo Walcott, have their heads turned by clubs with greater ambition and willingness to back it up by flexing their financial muscle?
Amid the considerable gloom there is, however, a Pep Guardiola-shaped beacon of light on the horizon. Goal.com revealed on Wednesday that the former Barcelona coach has stopped only marginally short of issuing a come and get me plea to the north London club.
That a coach of his standing, repute and ability is even remotely interested in Arsenal as his next destination is exclusively down to Wenger and the foundations he has laid for a club that has become a self-sustaining European super power.
Guardiola, whatever his talents is not a magician though and there is no Lionel Messi at Arsenal, let alone a long since departed Cesc Fabregas, on who he can rely to perform miracles on a weekly basis. Assuming his race is all but run, and it increasingly looks as though that is the case, it is Wenger’s final challenge to provide the stable footing from which a new coach can build.
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To achieve this, unlike the finishing ability of his most recent acquisitions, he cannot afford to be anything other than deadly accurate when the transfer window opens in a matter of weeks. Nor can he remain wedded to a style of play and formation that does not suit the tools he has at his disposal.
Stubbornness, a personality trait, has been Wenger’s downfall as much as any tactical or managerial failing in recent years and it is time for this proud man to accept as much. A short-term change of philosophy for long-term gain is required to avoid the messy divorce nobody connected with Arsenal, and most people outside the club, wants to see play out before them.
The house that Arsene built is creaking but it is yet to fall into a state of total disrepair, despite what the naysayers would have you believe. Patching it up ready for a new incumbent would be enough to cement the legacy and ensure the dignified exit an all-time great deserves.