We may have just come as close as ever to seeing the end of the Arsène Wenger era at Arsenal as the Gunners just barely squeaked into the next round of the Europa League. So ... hooray?
For many Arsenal fans, just looking at the lineup ahead of yesterday’s match against Östersunds in the second leg of the Europa League Round of 32 was disappointing. Surely, coming in with a comfortable 3-0 lead from the first leg away from home, and with a big League Cup final against Manchester City set for Sunday, much of the Gunner faithful would’ve preferred to see a team made up entirely of B-teamers so that those backups could guide the club past a gigantically overmatched Swedish side and into the next round of what is now Arsenal’s most important competition. Instead, some fans groaned at seeing a handful of first-stringers set to take the pitch. Little did they know their indignation would only grow.
The problem, you see, isn’t with who plays for Arsenal; it’s who manages them. And Wenger, as much of an indisputable legend as he is, sucks at managing now. That’s the only explanation for how a pretty strong Arsenal team at home found themselves on the brink of humiliation at the hands of Östersunds.
Look at the two first-half goals the visitors scored today, which by that point put them just a goal away from forcing extra time against a team with exponentially more talent and money:
The oceans of space Östersunds—Östersunds! From Sweden! By god, Östersunds!—were able to break into with just a simple pass or two was flat-out criminal. And it was no fluke. The Swedish team threatened Arsenal’s defense pretty much every time they got on the ball. No matter how bad you think center backs Rob Holding and Calum Chambers are, under no circumstances should a defense at a club as big as Arsenal regularly look so suspect when coming up against a club from Sweden—Sweden!
Not only did this rotated side look bad today, but the fault lines they demonstrated are commonly present when Arsenal’s full-strength lineup takes the field, too. The team has nothing even resembling a coherent defensive strategy. No organized system of pressing, no structural commitment to compactness to prevent all those chasms from opening up between their lines, nothing. Just total freedom for everyone but the center backs to jaunt forward wherever they please with no regard for what goes on behind them.
This is why Arsenal need to move on from Wenger sooner rather than later. He was once a genius at plucking up undervalued talents from all across Europe, and getting his assembled band of attack-minded players to seamlessly flit and pass their way through any defense on the club’s way to success that far outstripped their economic station. Now, as the head of a club with way more money than all but maybe six or seven clubs on the planet, in an era of much more sophisticated tactical scheming, Wenger has been routinely exposed as a relic.
His lack of defensive structure lets him down time and again as small clubs always have a chance to put a couple past his Gunners and the big ones regularly thrash them. His free-form attacking is no longer as effective as it once was, and the openness of this style directly leads to the team’s defensive weaknesses. When a Wenger team can’t even count on coasting to victory against a team like Östersunds at home with a huge margin for error, you know something is seriously wrong. And, presumably, not even Wenger’s sizable reputation could’ve seen him keep his job had Arsenal gotten bounced from the first knockout round of the only competition that still matters to them.
Ultimately, some terrible Östersunds defending gifted Arsenal a goal right after halftime, giving Wenger’s men some breathing room. The away team tried their damnedest but couldn’t find another pair of goals to send them through, so Östersunds had to settle for a victory on the night but a loss in the tie. Still, for a club of their stature, Östersunds were justified in celebrating after the game for what was probably the biggest win of their club’s entire history. Meanwhile Arsenal progressed, and still will be one of the favorites for this title that they must win in order to have even a semi-successful season. It was a win that might have saved Wenger’s job and possibly even his career.
Now, Arsenal being Arsenal, they’ll probably go on to beat City this weekend to hoist the meaningless League Cup, eke out a few more tight Europa League wins in the coming rounds (next up are AC Milan), and somehow prevent themselves from choking away that competition to win it while finishing sixth in the Premier League. If Wenger still does have one world-class ability, it’s his knack for dragging his team to the precipice of catastrophe, then weaseling his way back to something approaching respectability.
A Europa League title would almost certainly be enough to convince the club’s board to keep Wenger around for another year at least. Anything other than that, however, will consecrate this season as the worst one in Wenger’s long and storied time as Arsenal manager, and would put the most pressure we’ve yet seen on his job. If Wenger does stay on longer than this season, Arsenal can count on even more depressing results like the Östersunds one while the club continues to let the historically great manager Wenger used to be obscure their vision of the washed up version that currently patrols their sideline. Hopefully for fans of this proud club, the change at the top that must come if Arsenal hope to be something other than what they have been the past few years doesn’t come too late.