On Soccer: Arsenal’s Struggles Mount, Tarnishing Arsène Wenger’s Legacy

It is not a surprise that Britain’s bookmakers had just cut the odds on his dismissal — a November tradition now fast-tracked to the last days of summer. Nor is it unexpected that talk of crisis swirls around the club again, or that Wenger’s players are being accused of failing to try and failing to care. That is just how Arsenal is now. This is the club’s reality and has been for years.

Arsenal spent all of last season racked by debate, internal and external, as to whether Wenger’s two-decade stay at the club should be allowed to continue. A squadron of light aircraft was hired by fans determined to make their feelings known, one way or the other, on the matter.

In the stands, tensions ran so high that fights broke out. The question was put to Wenger every week. He could never answer. The uncertainty asphyxiated the club. Arsenal finished fifth in the Premier League, missing out on a place in the Champions League for the first time in Wenger’s reign. By the end, even he admitted that the speculation over his future had contributed to a “horrendous” environment.

He signed a new contract, though, after winning the F.A. Cup and promising the club’s board, his theoretical employer, that he could reinvent himself, that he was not a relic, that the world of the Premier League had not passed him by.


Alexis Sánchez of Arsenal in what has become a familiar pose of rage, disbelief and despair.

Anthony Devlin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Ivan Gazidis, his chief executive, promised that the turmoil of last season would provide a “catalyst for change.” Things would be different from now on, ran the message.

It has not taken much — a traditional loss at Stoke City last week, this surrender at Anfield — for that to be exposed as sloganeering. Nothing has changed at Arsenal.

The club has signed two players this summer, Sead Kolasinac and Alexandre Lacazette, who both started on the bench here. There has been no transformation in the playing squad, no ruthless culling of those who had been found demonstrably wanting last season.

Wenger has done nothing to suggest that he has developed a new tactical skill set to enable him to thrive in this edition of the Premier League. He salvaged some credit last season by switching to a three-man defense, something he said he had been considering for months before finally doing in April.

It was taken as proof, by those who wanted to find it, of his ability to adapt, a brilliant new trick learned by the division’s oldest dog. Liverpool tore it to shreds here, cutting Arsenal open time and again in that devastating fashion that was once the preserve of Wenger’s teams. After halftime, Wenger’s response was to revert to type. It proved just as bad. Liverpool scored four and missed half a dozen other glittering chances. Arsenal did not have a shot on target.

And so here we are again: three games into the season, and the defining issue of Arsenal’s campaign is already set. As it was last season and the one before that, everything else will be cast into shadow by the question of whether Wenger should stay or go. The club is locked in stasis until that is resolved. Sánchez’s contract, like those of Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, among others, expires next summer, the players feeling unable to decide whether to remain until they know what sort of club, which manager, they would be committing their futures to. Wenger-in-Wenger-out dominates everything.

Someone rouse the pilots and alert the people at Airads, the company hired for last season’s aerial dogfight. This will be another bumper year.

For those fans demanding Wenger’s departure, the guiding emotion is contempt, of course, but there is another, more damning, sentiment: pity. It has long been part of the debate over Wenger to ask whether a man who has achieved so much should risk tarnishing his legacy.

The truth of the matter is: That particular horse has bolted. Wenger will, of course, be remembered as the mastermind behind the Invincibles of 2004, as the guru who delivered Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry and all the rest. But he will also go down as the man who stayed too long; the sad coda to his time at Arsenal will cast the deliriously happy days into shadow. That die is cast.

“From the first minute to the last, we were not physically, mentally or technically at the level requested,” he said after the defeat on Sunday. The follow-up question was obvious. Why? “It is very difficult to answer that straight after the game,” he said. “There are some reasons, but I do not have too much to say right now.”

The answer, in truth, is obvious. Deep down, Wenger knows exactly what it is.

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