Saturday, February 4, 2012

What Was Once Unthinkable is Now Highly Probable

Bolton 0-0 Arsenal

As in the last round of Premiership games, 4th placed Chelsea dropped points, Arsenal played afterwards, and Arsenal failed to capitalise.

Having dropped to 7th, with the transfer window having slammed shut, and with Jack Wilshere not likely to enjoy much if any playing time this season, the time has come to admit it: in all likelihood, Arsenal will not qualify for the Champions League.

Chelsea are well ahead now and most clear-thinking critics would argue that they have more scope for improvement in the second half of the season than Arsenal do. And even if they continue to be inconsistent, the evidence suggests that Arsenal cannot take advantage.

As discontent grows, the most frightening question becomes, who would replace Arsene Wenger were he to leave? Many critics of Wenger suggest people like Roberto Martinez and Owen Coyle, solely on the basis that their teams try to play what we like to think of as good football. They have never been tasked with the stewardship of a large club and this kind of scenario could lead to further disaster, in my opinion.

Arsenal could attempt to lure a high-profile manager from the continent. Since Mourinho left London, Chelsea have had a succession of them. It has kept trophies coming in, but the price they have paid for that has been the staleness of the squad that Andre Villas-Boas inherited last summer. Mourinho himself, Scolari, Hiddink, Ancelotti: there was never a great sense that any of these men cared much where Chelsea would be in ten or twenty years time. It is amazing that Villas Boas has faced so much criticism for trying what noone else had the foresight to do: to freshen the Chelsea squad with younger blood and to instil a greater sense of identity.

Of course, football fans only seem to think about the short term now. It remains the most obvious defence of Wenger. Without him, can anyone really predict where Arsenal will be in five years' time? His flaws have, in my opinion, become damaging to the club, but is the current situation ALL his fault? Who would choose his replacement if he did leave this summer? A board that is equally villified, and equally culpable for Arsenal's stagnant state.

Optimists may look at the way the season is shaping up and surmise that Arsenal need to hit bottom and that that will happen in May. But we don't really know where bottom is. How can we assume, if money was not spent to keep Arsenal in the Champions League, that money will be spent to get them back there? If Wenger has to be creative with what we assume will be, 'the Van Persie money', is he really capable of surprising us to the extent that he used to? And if he is not, who is?

I can't claim to offer any concrete answers. I have been one of Wenger's harshest critics, and I stand by most of what I've written here. But a future without him is potentially much bleaker than we perceive the present to be.

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