Arsene Wenger not the only one struggling in City’s slipstream
Sideline Cut: Consecutive defeats to runaway league leaders a wrong reason for his exit
Arsene Wenger: all the other so-called contenders have tried to live with City’s version of enlightened management and furious spending. And all have been found wanting. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters
Endings in sport are often brutal and cinematic and so it went for Arsene Wenger on Thursday night, as the snow fell across north London and the electronic scoreboard read Arsenal 0 Manchester City 3 and a mournful chorus of boos was directed at the Frenchman as he left the playing field; never so friendless, never so alone.
If there was empathy in Pep Guardiola’s handshake, then maybe it was because he foresaw that that moment will some day come for him, too.
Just four days after Arsenal’s other 3-0 whipping by City in the League Cup final, the game seemed to have hastened of Wenger’s slow eclipse. The scene was appropriately nocturnal and bleak and, of course, the drama of the story line helps to disguise the fact that the Premier League has been effectively over for months.
If Wenger is finally coaxed or forced or even decides to leave Arsenal this summer, it will mark the end of the epochal managerial terms: Nicholson at Spurs, Ferguson at United, Clough at Forest. Wenger’s staying power within a league culture that has become notoriously impatient for instant results has been miraculous; a benign dictatorship that won’t be repeated.
The most lavishly praised contemporary managers – Guardiola and Klopp and Mourinho and, until recently, Zidane – have shamanistic qualities; they arrive, reinvigorate clubs with their physical energy, charisma, game-philosophy and – most importantly – the almost limitless spending power of the owners. They win stuff and then they move on. They have no interest in becoming figureheads even if club boards were willing to keep them around that long.
It’s early March and Arsenal are a staggering 30 points adrift of Manchester City, the league leaders. Viewed in that light, their current standing leaves Wenger in an untenable position.
But then Chelsea, last year’s champions, are 22 points off the pace while Manchester United are a shocking 16 points away from challenging for the title. The league has been an indictment of all the major clubs in their failure to put the faintest pressure on Guardiola’s exceptional team.
The dazzling creativity informing the attacking play of Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool has left the critics purring all season long. And they are fun to watch.
But Liverpool have only had three more Premier League wins that Arsenal this year. Gary Neville’s scathing commentary directed at the lethargy of Arsenal’s players after they fell 3-0 behind at Wembley quickly hardened into an unofficial verdict of what the club had become under the Frenchman.
“Absolute disgrace. Spineless. Look at that,” cried Neville.
A sharp-eyed camera editor quickly switched to a kid in floods of tears, a sight which stirred Neville into even greater bouts of righteous indignation. “Look at that! That’s what you’ve caused.”
In his life after his playing career as the United player everyone loved to hate, Neville has emerged as a really entertaining media analyst. He is an emotional person and that makes him stand out from the crowd even if it carries with it the suspicion that, just as in his playing days, Neville wants to be best in class and will say or do whatever it takes to make that happen.
City have scored three or more goals in 16 of their Premier league games. They beat Liverpool 5-0 when the ‘race’ was just starting; Spurs fell 4-1. They pummelled Leicester for five, Stoke City for seven.
In their sole defeat, in that return Liverpool game which convinced everyone that Klopp can be the answer, they still scored three goals. Stuffing teams is what they do.
Neville had the ambition and gumption to step into the dug-out when, in one of the more left-field managerial adventures of recent times, Valencia came calling. His ill-fated four month spell in charge at the Spanish club culminated in an infamous 7-0 trashing by Barcelona in 2016.
When he was asked about whether that result would and should hasten his sacking, Neville dug in and remained defiant.
“Next question. I have answered that before. I think I was very clear,” he said after that game, responses which mirrored Wenger’s replies during a sustained inquisition on his future late on Thursday night in the Emirates Stadium.
The brief and sorry story of Neville’s deep-dive into elite football offered a frightening glimpse into just how insanely tough the management lark must be. Neville had done it all as a player and then kind of won everyone over with his passion and logic and insight and articulacy. So if he could flail like that, what hope for the rest?
When Arsene Wenger joined Arsenal in 1996, he was an exotic figure. It wasn’t hard to achieve that status in English football then, which was still very much in its ‘beef-and-two-veg’ state, the managerial carousel populated by redoubtable sorts like Joe Kinnear, Peter Reid, Graham Souness and Bryan ‘Robbo’Robson. Leeds were a Premier League side and managed by former Arsenal legend George Graham. It was, in short, a different world.
Wenger became such a looming distinctive figure in that period – the years of Rule Britannia and Tony Blair – that he could never fully escape it. And when Alex Ferguson – even Ferguson – figured it was time to bow out, Wenger looked somehow bereft. He had lost his nemesis and his main adversary.
For two full decades, Wenger’s voice and image has been part of the routine of England’s weekend life, on its newspapers, on the BBC; his reign has been twice as long as Margaret Thatcher’s. A generation of football fans have moved from teenager to middle age and Wenger at Arsenal has been the one touchstone in a changing world.
The longer he has remained in charge, the more opaque he has become. That early nickname, ‘the professor’, hinted at a worldly type to whom football was just one of many interests. But it turned out that Ferguson was the one who made time for other pursuits – a horse lover, a wine buff, a US Civil War geek.
Wenger, meanwhile, seemed lost in the game and in the house of Arsenal, English football’s version of Miss Havisham.
“I don’t think Arsene can let go, it’s an addiction,” said his former captain, Tony Adams, just after last season ended and the wolves were baying. Last year, Arsenal missed out on the fourth place Champions League spot to Liverpool by a single point. They also won the FA Cup. In fact, they have won the FA Cup three times since 2014.
Liverpool haven’t won that trophy – or anything else apart from one League Cup – since 2006. But they are perceived as having the right man on the sideline; young and hip in football parlance.
In the coming months, Stan Kroenke, scion of the American Kroenke group who are majority shareholders at the Emirates, will spend time at the club amidst increasing conviction that Wenger’s time has passed. The owners are almost certain to try and attract a younger manager – scarf-wearing and bestubbled and bristling with the sort of energetic conviction that will appease the fans and keep the turnstiles whirling. For a few seasons. Whether the club is willing to make the money required available for this new man to compete with the nouveau powerful City however is far from certain.
Three of the 13 league titles Arsenal won in their history were under Wenger; seven of their FA Cups claimed came under his watch. They’ve fluctuated between agonising and abject disappointment in Europe but, then, it was ever thus with the club.
The logic that Wenger should go may be sound. But getting stuffed 3-0 by Manchester City twice in a week is the wrong reason to sound the death knell.
The truth is that all of the other so-called contenders have tried to live with City’s version of enlightened management and furious spending. And they have all have been found wanting. Fixating on the slow eclipse of the Wenger era is a convenient distraction from that.