FOR all the misgivings Arsenal fans have felt crowding in on them in recent seasons, for all the warning signs over a summer in which the club have managed to gain new, wealthy ownership and yet lose key players, few can have imagined it would come to this.
Their barely credible 8-2 thumping at Manchester United feels like the kind of result which demands a response beyond the usual press conference hand-wringing. Like an intervention made in the life of an alcoholic it’s a wake-up call, a clear sign things have gone very wrong.
Something is rotten in the state of Islington, yet it’s far from clear how it can be rooted out. A club with a massive new stadium, embarking on its 15th successive Champions League campaign with money in the bank and a reputation for playing good football will always have options when it comes to finding a path out of an apparent crisis.
Striking the right balance between making rash decisions in light of a freakishly bad result and ignoring the clear signs of trouble ahead will be crucial to the future direction of the club.
Option One: maintain the status quo
Until this point at least, Arsene Wenger has adopted a ‘crisis? What crisis?’ approach. The Frenchman has tried and tested methods which have seen him through years at the helm of one of the biggest clubs in the land.
Appointed seemingly out of the blue from the J-League in the face of bemusement from the ever-parochial British press, Wenger has defied the critics before and appears convinced he will do so again.
Wenger may wish to point to this seemingly cataclysmic 6-1 thrashing by a Dwight Yorke-inspired United (video below) as evidence that past performance is not a guarantee of future results.
Injury problems have exacerbated the downturn in his side’s fortunes, and it’s hard to imagine a lineup featuring Thomas Vermaelen, Jack Wilshere and Alex Song being brushed aside quite so easily.
Yet the real question has to be whether, even with those players restored, Arsenal have enough to compete with United, a fearsomely complete-looking Manchester City, Chelsea and (whisper it) Liverpool at the very top of the table.
In such a competitive league there will be no shame in finishing fifth, yet for Wenger such a slide will be seen not as a singular aberration but as the inevitable next step in the club’s downward trajectory.
Leaving things pretty much as they are would seem grossly negligent on the part of both Wenger and the club’s senior executives.
Option two: go nuclear
The likes of Piers Morgan on Twitter have got it taped. The kind of swivel-eyed idiots who portrayed Rafa Benítez as a crank have had it in for Wenger for years.
Like Benítez, Wenger is convinced of his own methods and not without his faults. The worrying thing for the Frenchman is that the likes of Morgan (choice for next manager: Martin O’Neill) are being joined by plenty of more reasonable football people in wondering whether it’s time for him to move on.
With no sign of Wenger stepping aside it would be up to the much-changed board to remove him.
At such an early stage of the club’s new ownership, would they have the stomach for it? Do they have a Purslow figure around to stick the knife into a manager who’s reshaped the entire club and its philosophy?
More importantly, do they have someone better than Roy Hodgson lined up to replace him?
Of managers available to start tomorrow, Carlo Ancelotti and Benítez look like the outstanding potential candidates.
Ancelotti’s record speaks for itself, but the peculiarities of Benítez’s past experience might push him ahead of the Italian in terms of suitability for the job.
Having broken the Real-Barca duopoly at the top of La Liga with an overachieving Valencia side, he inherited a Liverpool side much like the one Wenger would bequeath to any successor today.
In 2004/05, while Arsenal finished second, six points clear of United, Liverpool trailed in fifth place, a reflection of the gaping holes in the squad left by Gerard Houllier and only partly filled by the signings of Xabi Alonso and Luis Garcia.
Yet as we all know, that season became about much more than the league table. While Istanbul was truly miraculous, it was in performances such as the win at Deportivo La Coruna or the comprehensive dismemberment of Bayer Leverkusen that we saw Benítez’s strengths in galvanising a team of mixed ability.
Getting the best out of the genuine quality that exists within the squad while inspiring the rest to raise their performances when it matters sounds as close to a job description for any Wenger successor as it gets.
In this respect the win at Udinese to secure Arsenal’s Champions League place is something of a mixed blessing for Wenger. While taken at the time as evidence there is life in his regime yet, conversely Arsenal’s continued invovlement in the competition makes the job that much more attractive to other managers.
The third way
As much as I’d love to see Rafa back in a big job, it’s hard to see sacking Wenger as anything other than an absolute minefield for the club.
Wenger’s vision of football is a powerful bulwark against any attempts to oust him. A manager seeking to change any aspect of that approach would need to get results, and do so quickly.
A big part of the appeal of joining Arsenal for players has been the chance to work with Wenger, so a new man would immediately be faced with man-management issues on several fronts.
Aside from all that, Wenger is justified in his high opinion of himself. He is a fantastic manager in a league where too many charlatans are afforded positive press coverage on the back of good connections and an unhealthy dollop of xenophobia.
Change has to happen, but it’s hard to see who’s better placed than Wenger to lead it. His destiny is in his hands, he has money to spend and the majority of Arsenal fans are at worst bewildered rather than angry over the manager’s recent decisions (or lack of).
It appears clear from the signing of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain that Wenger retains a long-term vision for the club. It’s the short term that poses problems, but unfortunately he can’t skip a few levels in this particular game. The rewards further down the line will be someone else’s to reap unless Wenger gets active in the transfer market right away.
Liverpool’s summer recruitment policy under Dalglish, Comolli and more broadly FSG was seen by many as being a safety-first approach, aimed at solving a particular short- to medium-term problem.
We needed to get back in the top four – not next season, not within three to five years, but at the next available opportunity.
Transfer targets such as Gael Clichy, Phil Jones, Charlie Adam and Stewart Downing reflected the need to bring in players familiar with the Premier League, capable of settling straight in and getting on with the business of steering the club back towards the 70-point mark.
That analysis was fair up to a point, but already looks to be a limited one – this new Liverpool team can aspire to be much more than a temporary fix, yet there may be lessons for Wenger at Anfield.
One of the fairer criticisms of Wenger is that he is too much of a perfectionist when it comes to pure technical ability. He seems unable to see the value in recruiting a mature player who performs below the level of an Henry or a Fabregas.
Wenger is happy to take chances on youth, but seems unwilling to back himself to integrate players who’ve learned their trade elsewhere in England.
This is one of the factors which has always made talk of Wenger being a candidate for the England job seem fanciful – how would he manage to pick more than five or six players?
But we’ve established change is needed, and it’s clear there are deals out there to be done.
Everton need money and have plenty of saleable assets who might fit in nicely at the Emirates.
Speaking after the Old Trafford debacle Wenger dismissed talk of signing Mikel Arteta, but the Basque midfielder would be a natural fit in terms of style at the Emirates.
In fact, Marouane Fellaini, Tim Cahill and Jack Rodwell might all offer something to Wenger’s current squad, while the on-off transfer of Phil Jagielka seems mysteriously to have slipped off the Gunners’ agenda lately.
Elsewhere a deal for Bolton’s Gary Cahill seems likely, while Matt Jarvis must be wondering what exactly he’s done wrong as the only reasonably talented English footballer not linked with a move to Anfield or Old Trafford this summer.
Casting the net wider, Gonzalo Higuain would provide an immediate solution up front while it’s hard to see Ibrahim Afellay getting too many chances at Barcelona this season.
For Wenger it’s time to stop pursuing the perfect world and look for options to add depth and experience to his squad.
He should have just enough political capital and goodwill to hold on to his job. Whether the 8-2 is a sign of impending doom or the darkness just before the dawn is down to one man and one man alone – just how he’s always liked it.