“Why do you want more time?” In many ways, Craig Pawson’s humorous response to Arsène Wenger’s complaint about the amount of injury time at the end of Sunday’s Carabao Cup final defeat summed up the thoughts of those of us who watch Arsenal with increasing despair.
3-0 down and with very little hope of finding the back of the net, let alone embarking on a late comeback, an extension of the Gunners’ misery was the last thing they, or the fans, needed.
Once again, they were outclassed with consummate ease, piling more pressure on a manager who, once loved, now finds his past achievements being quickly forgotten.
Wenger’s 22-year reign at Arsenal has undoubtedly brought success. An innovator in the fields of tactics, nutrition and recruitment, the Frenchman’s impact on the Premier League is undeniable, and during the first seven years of his spell in north London his side played some of the most beautiful football the English top-tier has ever seen.
The Gunners dazzled with their free-flowing, attack-minded approach, and the beauty of the Invincibles will live long in the memories of all who were lucky enough to witness them.
But those halcyon days are fast becoming a distant memory, and the stability that Wenger once brought is quickly turning into stagnation.
The club’s gradual decline has been evident for several years now, but each time serious questions are raised about his tenure, glimpses of a return to form have quickly brought an end to any serious discussions about his potential departure. 2014’s FA Cup final victory – a rather laborious, and not entirely convincing, one against Hull City – resulted in Arsenal’s first silverware for nine years, and since then they have delivered just about enough to keep the wolves from Wenger’s door.
But has time finally run out? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, of course, but last season arguably would have been the best time for the Frenchman to bow out with his dignity intact.
The FA Cup triumph against league champions Chelsea, played whilst speculation swirled around Wenger’s future, was a wonderful achievement for a manager who had found himself under an incredible amount of pressure throughout the campaign, but it came at the end of a season in which his side placed outside the top four for the first time since 1996.
Despite finishing just one point behind Liverpool, and three away from Manchester City, the Gunners looked tired, disorganised and defensively frail, all worrying traits that have become characteristics of their play in recent years.
It’s understandable – and, in some ways, admirable – that Wenger wanted to put right what went wrong by signing a new two-year contract, but the decision to extend his tenure is one that is proving to be hugely damaging for the club.
Any signs of a return to form brought about by the FA Cup victory have been all but shot to pieces by another worryingly lacklustre campaign, leaving Arsenal in a deep hole from which they may struggle to drag themselves out any time soon.
When speaking about the issues currently facing the Gunners, many view the club as underachievers who, if they could just gain a bit more tactical organisation and defensive solidity, would be top four material once again.
This is understandable, as two decades in the upper echelons of English football has left many believing that is where Arsenal deserve to be.
But serious failings over several seasons have left them with a hugely difficult task ahead of them if they’re to ever regain their position in the top four, and it’s a crying shame that a tactical innovator like Wenger now finds his name linked to the sad decline of the country’s third-most successful club.
Whereas last year one more win – or draws instead of defeats against the likes of Watford and West Bromwich Albion – would have seen them achieve a top-four finish, this season has resulted in Arsenal’s status as a Champions League club all but ending.
A worrying return of just 13 victories from 27 league games has seen the gap between the Gunners and the top four increase at an alarming rate.
With Manchester United, Liverpool, Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea all battling hard for a place in the Champions League, it’s difficult to see where an underperforming Arsenal side fit in.
Compared to those teams – particularly their impressive north London neighbours – they’re moving backwards, and the reason they find themselves in sixth place is because, quite frankly, that’s the highest position they can currently hope to achieve with the squad as unbalanced as it is.
Defensive frailties have been a severe problem for several seasons now, yet the club have consistently failed to strengthen their back line. Wenger’s finest sides have always exhibited a strong core around which attack-minded players can flourish, but an inadequate and error-prone defence, couple with the lack of a much-needed midfield general, has left Arsenal dangerously weak at the back and far too open in the centre.
There are no easy fixes for the Gunners, who, after years of mismanagement, find themselves at their lowest point in over two decades.
Once, fans could at least rely on a top four finish and a decent run in the Champions League. Now, Europe’s premier competition is as far away from their grasp as it’s ever been.
Time is quickly running out for Wenger, one of the Premier League’s finest ever coaches but a sad shadow of the innovative tactician he used to be.