You’re at a dinner party. The conversation is flowing almost as readily as the wine, the music is merging with the chatter of voices to give your ears the equivalent of an acoustic hug and your gorgeous conversation partner is hanging on your every word. And then you say it: I agree with Piers Morgan.
Across the room, a woman swoons. A child begins the kind of wailing only usually found on transatlantic flights and, suddenly, a perennially lycra-clad Alan Sugar emerges from behind a large pot of petunias to punch you in the face.
This unfortunate individual is me. Granted, there was no dinner party, my conversation is less than enthralling and the closest I’ll ever get to Alan Sugar is watching re-runs of The Apprentice, but the sense of shame is all too real.
For if there is one sin that cannot be forgiven, it is that of a Faustian agreement with Piers Morgan. But I do agree. This season must be Arsene Wenger’s last.
Due to not being an Arsenal fan, I’m not prone to the bouts of hysteria, hyperbole and post-transfer melancholy that reach epidemic proportions in the streets of North London every September.
This isn’t a knee-jerk reaction to a failure to sign Karim Benzema, who is hardly the most realistic of targets, or a criticism of Wenger’s inability to win the league. I’m much quieter than Morgan: I will not be seen taking to the streets in demand of Wenger’s resignation.
Rather, in the sleepless depths of the night I’ve stumbled upon an insurmountable truth: that, come 2016, an amicable parting of ways is in the best interests of both the Gunners and Le Professeur himself. This is to be no Russian Revolution; more a Velvet Divorce.
In general, much of the criticism directed towards Arsene Wenger is unfair. Between Arsenal’s last Premier League trophy in 2004 and their FA Cup victory over Hull in 2014, ending a dry spell of silverware that had reached monumental proportions in the minds of the Gunners faithful, Wenger did little wrong.
Given the rise of clubs like Chelsea and Manchester City on a rising tide of money and the changing landscape of the league at the same time as Arsenal’s transition to a new stadium, to expect Arsenal to have won the title is naïve.
Arsenal are a smaller club than they would like to admit. Often, Wenger did exceptionally well to achieve top four status give the limited squads at his disposal and the rise of promising challengers like Redknapp’s Tottenham.
Further, in that trophyless decade, the FA Cup was only twice won by clubs weaker than Arsenal, with Portsmouth’s victory in 2008 and Wigan’s in 2013.
Whilst Wenger can be praised for generally achieving as much with the squads at his disposal than any manager could have done in the same period, he can be criticised for little more than failing to win more League Cups. And, if we’re being unfair, we can pin that one on Laurent Koscielny.
Unlike Morgan, I’m not beholden to a longstanding vendetta against Wenger fuelled by incessant ranting to pass the lonely nights on Twitter. Whilst I’d like to think that this isn’t the only difference between me and the former editor of the Daily Mirror, it’s one worth noting.
I like Wenger’s attention to detail, his at times avuncular manner reminiscent of a relative who means well but can’t quite remember your name and his penchant for oversized apparel.
I like his ability to downplay ‘pizzagate’, I like his ability to shrug off his tag as a specialist in failure and, most of all, I like his ability to encapsulate a bygone era perfectly by chain smoking cigarette after cigarette on a match day at Monaco.
Nevertheless, all good things must come to an end and few know this better than the man who oversaw Arsenal’s move to The Emirates.
The Gunners could have achieved little more at Highbury than they did, but there comes a time to say thanks for the memories but goodbye: it’s time to enter the modern era, and nothing can last forever. Now, it is Wenger who is Arsenal’s white elephant.
Guus Hiddink may have been perhaps the best manager of the century’s first decade. Few could question his Midas touch, his messianic role as a Promethean bringer of light to the outer reaches of world football, serving as the harbinger of hitherto unknown success in South Korea, Australia and Russia.
Come the end of the decade, however, and the sands of time were slipping through the Dutchman’s fingers. He had not the tactical touch of ten years before, and so it is with Wenger.
Wenger’s fault is not so much his transfers. Being the only team in the top five leagues to not sign an outfield player this summer is inexcusable for a club of Arsenal’s grandeur, but ultimately, it would take three or four major signings to raise Arsenal to the level of Chelsea or Manchester City.
What is less excusable is the manner of Arsenal’s failure, in being beaten to Sami Khedira by Juventus, to Pedro by Chelsea and to Karim Benzema by absolutely no one at all. Attempts to deflect attention onto Manchester United now seem desperate where once they proved effective.
All indicators this season, however, point to the fact that transfers would not save the Frenchman, who is no longer the tactician he once was. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect Arsenal to win the league, but Arsenal fans deserve more than to see their team succeed solely as FA Cup stalwarts.
Now, the truth is clear. Wenger is incapable of bringing Arsenal forwards.
The writing has long been on the wall. Arsenal’s home defeat in last season’s Champion’s League round of sixteen to Wenger’s former club Monaco epitomised the Frenchman’s increasing tactical naivety.
Frequently, Wenger’s teams have no plan B; whilst seeking to overload the midfield in order to create majorities in the final third, if resisted by a well drilled midfield centred on as energetic a presence as Geoffrey Kondogbia, the Gunners are highly vulnerable to counterattacks.
With Anthony Martial and Dimitar Berbatov opposed by the lone figure of Laurent Koscielny, few were surprised when the Bulgarian finished with aplomb.
Nor does this require a team of special skill; Arsenal’s opening day defeat to West Ham saw the Gunners frustrated by an organised Hammers side who packed the centre of the pitch. Frequently, Mesut Özil fills the role of scapegoat but this seems increasingly insufficient. Ultimately, Özil is merely a very expensive sacrificial lamb.
Whilst it is easy to criticise the German, a man whose aspirations reach as high as the Ballon d’Or but whose motivation seemingly languishes much lower, Özil was exceptional for Real Madrid when played behind forward players who stretched the defence and created pockets of space for him to drift into.
Reece Oxford played well beyond his tender years but was ultimately the beneficiary of Wenger’s tactical shortcomings: with so little space Özil could do little but concede possession.
Even when Arsenal are not stung on the break, as against Monaco or West Ham, this tactic often proves deficient. Gone are the days, apparently, when Arsenal could reasonably expect to inspire fear at home in a Liverpool side, with one of the most uninspiring Liverpool teams of recent times holding Arsenal to a goalless draw.
Against James Milner, Lucas Leiva and Emre Can it was always unlikely that Arsenal, with so narrow a midfield, would be able to create the space they needed yet it wasn’t until the last quarter of the game that Walcott made an appearance.
It’s not Wenger’s failure to get down and dirty in a sordid world. It’s not his inability to win anything more than the FA Cup. It’s not even his apparent unwillingness to make transfers.
But, Wenger must go: his increasing tactical shortcomings show that he will never take Arsenal any further, his gameplay is increasingly characterised by peculiar shibboleths and the Frenchman is now at risk of tarnishing his own legacy.
With Jürgen Klopp available and master tactician Diego Simeone unlikely to take Atletico Madrid any further, though his ties to the Vicente Calderón are more than professional, there is unlikely to be a better time.
It’s time for Arsenal to say thanks Arsene, we’ve had some good times – here’s a director’s seat and maybe even a statue – but the journey is over.