There comes a point where greatness becomes a liability, where history and reputation become a burden. Arsene Wenger has passed this juncture.
When this dreaded moment arrives at a football club, there needs to be people around with the vision to recognise what is happening. It needs an owner, a chief executive or a chairman with the acumen to understand the events that are unfolding and act accordingly. Arsenal do not have anyone prepared to do this.
Wenger has said that he wants to manage for four more years. It is likely he is preparing to sign for at least another 12 months at the Emirates. His favoured option is to stay in London. At 67, the last thing the Frenchman wants is to uproot and start a new phase of his career elsewhere.
Arsenal are a club in reverse. The manager appears helpless to arrest the backwards motion. Someone has to make a decision and find a way to restore forward momentum. There is little pressure on Wenger from the boardroom. He is free to choose whether he stays or goes. On Saturday, after another heartless, disorganised defeat, this time to a workmanlike but committed West Bromwich Albion team, the Frenchman teased the supporters by admitting he has made up his mind about his future and saying “you’ll know soon”.
At most clubs, decisions on a manager’s future are not left to the man who picks the team. Most owners would have harsh questions for Wenger and demand a clear blueprint about how he plans to go about restoring success.
Stan Kroenke barely shows his face at the Emirates. The US-based majority shareholder has been busy moving his NFL franchise from St Louis to California, doubling the value of the (now) Los Angeles Rams. A man who could uproot a team from one city and move them 1,500 miles is hardly likely to be too interested in the concerns of Arsenal fans. Profit, not glory, seems to be at the top of Kroenke’s priorities.
Ivan Gazidis, the chief executive, runs the day-to-day activities at the club. The 52-year-old is nominally Wenger’s boss but the manager was consulted on Gazidis’s appointment. The Frenchman’s power was already cemented before Gazidis’s arrival nine years ago. There is no chance of Gazidis doing anything other than deferring to Wenger.
Then there is Sir ‘Chips’ Keswick, the Old Etonian chairman who is rolled out occasionally.
These are the men who should be defining the direction for Arsenal. A hard-nosed American without much sympathy for football and for whom trophies seem to mean little when the balance sheet is positive; a chief executive who has always acquiesced to the manager and a chairman named like a character from an Evelyn Waugh novel. Decline And Fall? Not quite because that book was a comedy. Arsenal’s plight is only funny to supporters of other clubs.
Wenger, the man who transformed English football, has become myopic. The methods and processes that worked so well two decades ago are failing and he cannot understand why. Even his friends and admirers have begun to shake their heads in sorrow. One, speaking off the record, said: “Arsene is the most insightful man in football. Except about Arsenal.”
What would another season achieve for Wenger? There is little chance of him turning things around with this squad of players. Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, the two superstars who were meant to provide the foundation of Wenger’s last great team, have rarely lived up to the heights predicted for them. They were meant to bring titles and Champions Leagues to the Emirates. Now, they are supplying little inspiration on the pitch and rancour off it in their contract negotiations.
Arsenal need to rebuild. The Ozil-Sanchez gambit has failed. Last summer, £85 million was spent to build a team around these two big names. It was money badly used.
There will be plenty of outgoings in the next transfer window but does anyone believe Arsenal will recruit the sort of players needed to win trophies? They may find, like Liverpool and
Manchester United, they are forced to shop in the non-Champions League market.
If no one cares about trophies in the boardroom, they do in the stands at the Emirates. The anger will only grow. The last two months of the season could turn nasty in north London.
On Saturday, there were two planes over The Hawthorns, giving conflicting verdicts on Wenger’s future. The plain truth is that Arsenal have been on a long, slow descent for years. Kroenke, Gazidis and Keswick should have ensured the decline did not happen.
Wenger should be challenged internally in the same way his teams are confronted on the pitch. It will not happen. His past greatness has become an excuse. It is unworthy of Arsenal.