Arsenal: Can Arsene Wenger leave on a high?
A European final in France, potentially against Marseille would be the perfect send-off. But Atletico Madrid stand in his way.
Arsene Wenger’s final weeks at Arsenal are in danger of feebly petering out.
After being presented with a commemorative trophy by Sir Alex Ferguson on behalf of Manchester United before their match on Sunday, Wenger astutely observed: “It shows that once you’re not a danger anymore, people love you.”
The match itself was a strange and listless affair, at times resembling Soccer Aid more than a top Premier League match.
Arsenal’s team, their youngest since the infamous 8-2 thrashing at Old Trafford in 2011, performed admirably with Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Konstantinos Mavropanos standing out in particular. But there was a sense that Manchester United were playing within themselves, going easy on Arsenal.
It was almost patronising, and an indictment on the state of affairs as Wenger’s reign comes to an end; not least after their good performance was undone by failing to deal with the physicality of Marouane Fellaini, who leapt to score the winner in injury time.
The first leg of their Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid also demonstrated their weaknesses. Their toothlessness in the face of defensive resilience, and then their flakiness in defence, with Laurent Koscielny committing an unforgivable error that gifted Antoine Griezmann a vital away goal.
The last few weeks of Wenger’s reign are in danger of resembling a sad Greatest Hits tour of the worst elements of the late Wenger era.
The alternative to Europa League success is bleak
There have been other opportunities for Wenger to leave. It’s hard to argue against the case that he’s already gone past that point, given the slow decline that has sunk to new depths this season. Any of the last three FA Cups were opportune.
2014 ended the nine-year trophy drought. The club were still in a healthy position and in the top four in 2015, and last season’s victory over Chelsea demonstrated the Frenchman still could demonstrate vitality on the biggest of occasions.
Should Arsenal fail to win the trophy, the end of Wenger’s reign will be miserable. Trophyless, leaving behind the worst squad in a generation. Their worst league position and points tally since before Wenger took over.
His last game would be an inconsequential one for Arsenal, at the John Smith’s Stadium in Huddersfield, one of the smallest and most unremarkable in the Premier League.
It would be a damp squib of an ending for a manager who has given so much to Arsenal and English football, but perhaps an apt one after the atrophy of recent years.
Atletico Madrid stand in Wenger’s way of a fitting French finalé
Despite the melancholy of recent months, there remains a get-out clause: The Europa League.
For one of the most decorated clubs in English football, European trophies have largely evaded them. They’ve never won the Europa League, or its former guise the UEFA Cup and have just a Cup-Winners Cup and a Fairs Cup to their honours roll.
Lifting an elusive prestigious European trophy would be a fine way to depart the club, and given the qualification into the Champions League, would go some way in remedying their poor domestic performances. There’s a strong argument that it would trump the FA Cup wins of recent years.
Not only does a European trophy also evade Wenger, but the final is all set up for him in a personal sense. Not only is it hosted in his home country of France, but it’s likely to be against Marseille, who are 2-0 up from their first leg against RB Salzburg
Marseille are something of an old enemy for him, as Monaco’s main rivals when he was manager in the early 90s. He did win one Ligue 1 title, but it might have been more were it not for the match-fixing scandal that blighted French football in the early 90s.
Stripped of the title in 1993, there are longstanding suspicions that the corruption stretched back earlier when Wenger’s Monaco were runners-up. Subsequent quotes have shown those scars have not healed.
There is one thing in their way: Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid. They have not conceded at the Wanda Metropolitano in the Europa League this season, and are on a run of eleven consecutive clean sheets at home. After conceding at home, they need to score at least one to progress. It’s a gargantuan task.
Arsenal need this
Not only could Wenger’s parting gift to Arsenal be a European trophy, but qualification for the Champions League too. Instantly, it would be something for the next manager to build on. Manchester United finished sixth and won the Europa League last season and they’ve developed from there.
Unless Arsenal win the Europa League, they’re guaranteed to be playing in it next season.
Should they fail, the new manager could be starting the next campaign as early as July in the early qualifying rounds of the Europa League. It’s unlikely that Burnley catch them at this point, but it’s a possibility.
The second tier of European competition is something that Arsenal can genuinely compete for, but there appears to be a general sense of malaise from the fans about it. There’s also a dissatisfaction about the regular Sunday afternoon Premier League games and Thursday nights.
A hangover, any sense of continuation from this campaign – Arsenal’s worst for over twenty years – is the last thing the next coach needs. Going forward, a sense of positivity is essential.