This must be the last straw, surely. There’s no coming back from this. The bowed heads, thousand-yard stares and sagging shoulders speak of utter defeat, the kind that spells the end of the road for someone. A head has to roll here to exorcise the ghost of this disaster. This being football in the modern age, that particular noggin usually belongs to the man in the dugout. Such are the vagaries of our favourite sport: the most helpless actor involved once the whistle blows for kick off is the most likely one to pay the ultimate price if things go south.
It’s been six years since Arsenal’s baffling defeat to Birmingham City in the 2011 Lea…, sorry, Carling Cup final and it still seems shocking that it wasn’t the last straw for Arsène Wenger. The result, and its context, had all the contemporary hallmarks of a sackable offence. Arsenal hadn’t won a major trophy in almost six seasons. Their opponents in the final were a team threatened by relegation, which they would ultimately succumb on the final day of the Premier League season.
Moreover, the loss was so damaging that the Gunners ended up exiting two other competition within the fortnight: a customary last 16 defeat in the Champions League and a meek surrender to Man Utd in the FA Cup. Their league form also collapsed, with only two wins from their final 10 matches.
The performance itself had all the ingredients of that peculiar bowl of dross frequently served at the Emirates – a horrible start, conceding from a set-piece, brief hope offered by an equalizer (scored by an over-relied upon striker) and a cataclysmic piece of defending to give away a late winner to the opposition.
If you think that sounds familiar now, it’s easy to forget that it was familiar back in 2011 as well. And yet, Wenger wasn’t sacked after that disaster. It’s been six years and the Frenchman has watched league-winning managers like Ancelotti, Mourinho and Ranieri pointed towards the door at the merest hint of their teams underperforming. And he has watched from a seemingly unassailable position of security at Arsenal, notwithstanding the grumblings in the stands and occasional humiliations on the pitch.
Come May, it might just turn out that this season’s travails were the last straw for Arsène and that he will be moving on. But that’s just the thing: if that happens, it will have been enough for him, not the board or Stan Kroenke. Wenger is perhaps the last manager in the UK that can claim to have almost complete control over his future.
Many will point to his hugely influential two decades in English football as an explanation for this seemingly inexhaustible reserve of credit. And yet, this seems insufficient. The power of habit is an awesome thing, but we’re not talking about a destructive relationship between two people who are just too complacent to let go. Arsenal FC is a multi-million pound business, not a tired couple. Time is not enough to understand why a manager who hasn’t been consistently successful for over a dozen years can stay in such a high profile job in today’s cut-throat football environment.
It’s only when you realize how intrinsically Arsenal’s identity is tied to Wenger that you can see how deep the dilemma runs for the club’s decision makers. If you try to pin down the defining traits of this team, you inevitably stumble on Wenger’s legacy. Attractive, expansive football? Since 1996. An emphasis on youth and technique? Somewhat more recent, but still the mark of Arsène. Even the new shiny stadium has the manager’s fingerprints all over it, down to the look of the dressing room.
And talk of the Emirates is the perfect segway into how meaningful the cult of personality is for Arsenal these days. The move away from Highbury has left nothing except name and colours to stand alongside the manager as links to this institution’s long past. A past in which long periods of mediocrity were broken by exceptional, era-defining managers.
Herbert Chapman, perhaps the last genuine tactical innovator to come from England, gave the club trophies and a world-renowned shape on the pitch. George Graham provided only the fourth and fifth post-war First Division titles. In the process, he created “boring, boring Arsenal”, an unwanted identity, but an identity nonetheless. And then came sophisticated, continental Arsène Wenger, the polar opposite of his predecessor, but no less defining for the club. When you’re almost a blank canvas for your manager, you can’t just sack him. Chapman tragically died while he was still in the job. Graham was let go only because of the reputation-destroying bung shenanigans with the agent Rune Hauge. Unless he suddenly develops a taste for bribes, the fact that Wenger is the latest manager to mould Arsenal to his image makes him unlikely to be forced out. When he does leave, the club might find itself confronted by an identity crisis to match the one on the pitch.