It’s hard to know where to go from here. After watching a young, energetic Tottenham Hotspur rip Arsenal to shreds in their final North London Derby at White Hart Lane, reality upon reality hit hard with dull thuds as the chickens came home to roost. After what now appears to be a phony high in the form of victories against Middlesbrough, Manchester City and Leicester, the confidence in the team was perhaps unjustifiably higher than needed. We were poor, malnourished dying children parching for a sip of ice-cool water, and after we got that, we were foolish enough to believe that it could be better than this.
For years, the Arsenal community has struggled to wrestle with the fact that Arsene Wenger is not good enough to win the league. That fight was lost at Stamford Bridge in February, but it seems that in quicker succession, it has also become alarmingly clear that he is now not good enough to scrape what he always scraped – superiority over Tottenham.
Like it or not, a big pillar of Arsene’s illustrious reign over Arsenal was his record of never finishing below Spurs. That pillar was hacked down in brutal fashion as Sunday brought to the table a unique sort of failure hitherto unheard of in Wenger’s time – the destruction of his fundamental.
What are ‘the fundamentals’? Despite his decline, Wenger has been notorious for managing to ‘achieve’ some bare minimums- something I’ve termed the fundamentals. Examples include:
(a) Finishing in the top four
(b) Making it to the Champions League knockout phases
(c) A perfect run in the CL playoffs
(d) Finishing above Spurs
In recent years things have been bad, but for some reason, Arsenal have always managed to pull it out of the fire to preserve these fundamentals. There were those scrappy wins over West Brom and Newcastle when it felt top four would be out of our hands. There was Wojciech Szczesny’s penalty save in that 3-1 aggregate win over Udinese in 2011, when it felt Wenger’s Champions League playoff record was under threat. There was that 3-0 win over Olympiacos when Arsenal were really up against it to qualify from the CL group stages. And of course, that astonishing St. Totteringham’s Day last year to steal second from Tottenham’s nose.
The warning signs were there, but it always felt that despite Arsenal and their flaws, Wenger would pull no punches and rescue these fundamentals. Granted, the crux of his legacy will always be The Invincibles and the 49-game unbeaten streak, but these fundamentals were also, in a huge way, part of the footprint he’ll leave on the club.
Watching Arsenal get annihilated by an immature yet dynamic Spurs side was more than just a North London record being broken. It was proof that even Arsenal are liable to fall below the fundamentals, and that Wenger’s legacy is reversible.
The perceptive enough will soon realize that yet another fundamental is under threat – Arsene Wenger’s top four record. Manchester’s City and United dropping two points works in our favour, but the battle is still very much an uphill one, especially for a crumbling team. Arsenal are in freefall, and the events at White Hart Lane have shown that if the club lets it, they can fall further and further below to the point of irrelevance, and then some.
We know there’s no way the manager will exit before the final game of the season, but at the very least, announcing prematurely his decision to leave would not be a bad idea. Spurs finishing above him is one fundamental destroyed, but if he’s stubborn enough to believe he can bring a dead body back to life, his top-four record could follow too.
Above incompetence and arrogance, Wenger must realize he still has the chance to cash in and walk away from this. If he announces his retirement this week, at least (most of) the club can reunite for a month and give him a good sendoff. At least veterans like Theo Walcott and Aaron Ramsey may fight for the manager, knowing it’s the last chance they get to. At least there will be the carrot of a Cup Final at the end of May and the opportunity for him to leave on the best high he can get.
Because look, you can bet your bottom dollar it won’t be the board who blinks first. Stan Kroenke and co. are content enough to let Wenger be the poster boy for their failure (not that Wenger is in any way blameless), yet if Wenger gives Stan a call telling him he wants to resign, I would be amazed if Kroenke would turn his resignation letter down. Wenger holds all the cards, and if he plays them right, his legacy could still qualify as passable, if not indisputably phenomenal. From then on should Arsenal fail we can all raise our pitchforks and call for Kroenke or Ivan Gazidis to burn, but that will all be in a post-Wenger era when there will be much more clarity on whom to blame, and different problems to solve.
For now, Wenger has to solve the immediate problem – himself. The best way for him to leave is easy enough, but it involves swallowing his pride and admitting to the world that he cannot cut the mustard anymore. If he does it, at least he’ll be somewhat fondly remembered as a Sir Alex Ferguson figure (regardless of whether he deserves it) and his autobiography will be cherished and read by many.
If not, I hope he enjoys what’s left of his legacy when all his fundamentals are ash and Arsenal find themselves struggling in the Europa League.