Sunday afternoon’s Premier League encounter between Chelsea and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge yielded a familiar result for the Gunners. Their performance in the 2-0 defeat was by no means a poor one, but neither was it impressive, and the failure of Arsene Wenger’s men to overcome their London rivals means that the Frenchman’s winless streak against Jose Mourinho has been extended to twelve games.
Arsenal’s dire record against Mourinho’s Chelsea is merely the most striking example of the Gunners’ broader aversion to facing their rivals at the top of the table. Last season, their one victory against the top five came against Liverpool at home in November, and heavy losses to Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool in the return fixture saw their title challenge crumble after such a promising start.
Post-2005, Wenger’s Arsenal seem to be living a continuous Groundhog Day of early season optimism based on some excellent performances, followed by a gradual demoralising burnout after some significant defeats, and finally a springtime rally which sees them clinch a Champions League berth. Although Patrick Vieira’s winning penalty in the shootout against Manchester United in the 2005 FA Cup final symbolised the ultimate flourish of Arsenal’s last great side – whose finest hour came during the Invincibles season of 2003/04 – the Gunners have still possessed the players to achieve more than the solitary FA Cup victory of last season that they have managed in the nine years since Vieira lifted the trophy.
The much-welcomed taste of silverware that Arsenal enjoyed in May does not disguise the fact that they have for a long time been serial underachievers, and the longer that the North London club fail to prove their worth against their title rivals, the harder it will be for them to shake off this unwanted tag. As regrettable and unfortunate as it may be, the best way for Arsenal to do so is to part ways with Wenger.
The Arsenal manager is a man who deserves a great deal of respect and who should rightfully be considered as the club’s greatest ever manager. His progressive and innovative approach to many aspects of the game – most notably sports science – were revolutionary when he first arrived in England in 1996, and his masterminding of the unbeaten season of 2003/04 remains a phenomenal sporting feat. However, even the greats fade away eventually, and it seems that after such wonderful success during the golden years, characterised by the effortless magic of Thierry Henry, the indomitable athleticism of Vieira and the strong leadership of Tony Adams, Wenger’s time has come.
In spite of the FA Cup success in May, Wenger has not come close to replicating his earlier success at the club. He is still admired for his tactical knowledge, his firm belief in the aesthetic values of football and his ability to identify and nurture young talent, yet Arsenal’s biggest weakness for a number of seasons has been psychological, rather than tactical or technical, and it is a recurring problem that the Frenchman has failed to address. The Gunners have a wealth of highly talented and skilful footballers who too often seem to choke in season-defining games against big sides, either in the Champions League or in the Premier League, and although Wenger’s aptitude at man management and motivation should certainly not be called into question, it may simply be the case that Wenger’s governance during Arsenal’s relatively fruitless spell since 2005 has made him a subconscious symbol of failure in the eyes of its most recent players who were either too young or were not at the club during Wenger’s most successful period.
While a new manager brings new methods, ideas and a clean slate to a club, enabling it to start from scratch, Wenger’s continued presence at Arsenal has made it impossible for the players to overcome an unwarranted sense of meekness and inferiority when it comes to playing its rivals. If the man leading the team out before another crucial fixture against fellow title contenders is the same man who has yet to register a victory over Jose Mourinho and who has been on the receiving end of a number of heavy defeats in the past, how are the players expected to banish from their minds the niggling feeling that the same thing might occur again?
Arsene Wenger is one of the Premier League’s all-time great managers and deserves recognition and ample praise for his work at Arsenal. However, in order for the Gunners to remerge as a genuine force to be reckoned with at the top of the table, a new manager and a fresh start is needed.
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