18 February 2013

Wenger's time is running out

Arsene Wenger sees the Arsenal exit door - he'll probably go through it soon.

Arsenal's FA Cup exit at home to Blackburn Rovers on Saturday is the strongest indication yet that Arsene Wenger's reign as manager is entering its final months.

Wenger fielded a second-string team against the chaotically-run Championship club, but with 10 full internationals present in the starting line-up (the 11th, Francis Coquelin, has been capped by France Under-21s), the Gunners should have had too much class for Blackburn.

In the end, they were undone by the performances of two goalkeepers. Blackburn's young custodian Jake Kean was brilliant, performing save after save to somehow shut out Arsenal. At the other end, Arsenal's own shotstopper Wojciech Szczesny made an unconvincing save from Martin Olsson on 72 minutes, and gifted the ball to Colin Kazim-Richards, who squirmed it in off the post.

Wenger criticised his team afterwards for being "immature", but when asked about whether he regretted naming a weakened team, he said, "Regrets over what? My selection? No. We had 11 internationals at the start and, when we made the changes, it was 0-0.

"I can understand the fans' reaction. You don’t want your fans to be happy when you lose at home to Blackburn in the Cup after they’ve had one shot at goal."

Unfortunately, the man who infamously failed to see lots of unsavoury incidents involving his players in the past is now failing to see the point.

He can't keep trotting out the same excuses anymore, or trying to defend himself after an embarrassing defeat. This season, Arsenal have gone out of both domestic clubs to lower-league opposition (Bradford City ended their League Cup hopes) for the first time in the Wenger era, and they are 21 points adrift of Premier League leaders Manchester United with just 12 games to go.

Their only hope of silverware is something they have no realistic chance of winning - they've got German giants Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.

For Arsenal to go eight seasons without a trophy is astonishing, considering that they added 11 pieces of silverware to their cabinet in Wenger's first eight seasons as manager. The Professor's managerial brain has gone to mush.

In recent years, the Gunners have consistently finished 3rd or 4th in the Premier League. They've seldom come anywhere near winning their first title since the 'Unbeatables' season of 2003/2004, but they've always done enough to ensure that their impeccable Champions League attendance record since 1998 has remained intact.

This season, even that is under threat. They currently trailed 4th-placed Tottenham Hotspur by four points, and considering the form that Gareth Bale has been in during recent weeks, it'll take more than lasagne to stop Spurs from stealing their rivals' place at European football's top table.

In 2006, when Arsenal reached the Champions League Final, their squad was full of world-class players. A mass exodus of top talents from the Emirates Stadium over recent seasons has left them with just two players who could be put in that category - Santi Cazorla and Thomas Vermaelen. When you consider Arsenal's recent track record when it comes to keeping their captains, I wouldn't be too surprised if, by this time next year, Vermaelen was playing alongside two of his old team-mates at Manchester City.

The absence of any Champions League fixtures next season would only make the Gunners' leading players more anxious to leave. This is where Wenger's steadfast refusal to spend massive money on elite stars, preferring instead to invest in 'rough diamond' youngsters, lets him down.

Szczesny's error against Blackburn has highlighted the fact that Wenger has still not found the dependable goalkeeper that Arsenal have needed since Jens Lehmann's exit five years ago. Szczesny is only 22 and will get better, but like Manchester United's own young keeper David de Gea, he is too inconsistent to be a surefire starter.

The goalkeepers that Wenger is said to be targeting are Asmir Begovic, Simon Mignolet and Michel Vorm, all of whom are at best a marginal improvement on the current number 1. If he really wanted another 'Safe Hands' like David Seaman in his pomp, he should have raided the bank for Manuel Neuer before tomorrow's opponents Bayern got him in 2011.

Wenger should have also found a replacement for Alex Song by now. He is currently looking at Borussia Dortmund's midfield duo Mario Gotze and Marco Reus. When he raided Borussia last year, he didn't have the courage to sign either of them. Instead, he got... Thomas Eisfeld. That's like turning down a Rolls Royce (pardon the pun) and buying a Vauxhall Vectra instead.

Wenger's losing his touch both in the tactical department and also in the transfer market department. Nowadays, more Gooners can be found chanting "Wenger out" instead of holding up banners that say "In Arsene We Trust". It all points to the Frenchman's near 17-season reign coming to an end this summer.

Who will replace him? David Moyes has emerged as the new favourite. As an Arsenal fan myself, I'm surprised - even though Moyes has done a tremendous job at Everton over the last decade, I've never before imagined him moving to the Emirates.

Jose Mourinho would be the journalists' favourite, but a lot of Gooners would be repulsed by the sight of the Special One's ego at Ashburton Grove. Laurent Blanc, Remi Garde and very surprisingly Dragan Stojkovic are also leading contenders.

When the next most successful Arsenal manager ever after Wenger, the great Herbert Chapman, died in 1934, he was replaced from within by George Allison. If the Gunners board do the same post-Wenger, then the current assistant manager Steve Bould - a former defender at Highbury - would be a popular choice for the top job.

If you were to put a gun to my head and demand an answer to the question, "Who do you want to replace Arsene?", I'd most likely say Bould.

It will be a sad day for everyone at Arsenal FC when Arsene Wenger leaves, but even though he has brought unprecedented success to the club, it is probably for the best that this season be his last.

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