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Shortly after Arsenal were mauled 1-5 by Bayern Munich in the first leg of their Round of 16 Champions League tie, Nick Hornby, author and Arsenal fan, wrote on his Facebook page: “It would be great if, one year, Arsenal got as far as the second leg of a Champions League game. I’m not asking for a win or anything. Just some suspense.”This is the seventh consecutive season that Arsenal will go out in the Round of 16. On six of those occasions, they have lost the first leg; in each game, they have conceded two or more goals. They have sometimes bounced back in the second leg (against Bayern, against Milan), but never has it been enough to see them through to the quarter final.Perhaps the most disconcerting thing about the result (identical to the 1-5 defeat to Bayern in November 2015) was the fact that it did not surprise fans. Champions League, Round of 16, first leg. Right, here we go. We know what’s coming. We’ve been here too many times before.We know, too, that freed of European commitment, Arsenal will throw themselves into the end-season dogfight for a top-four finish. Qualify for the Champions League. Again. (Although this season even that is tight.) And crash out in the first knockout phase. Again. Repeat on a loop.As a Wenger admirer, I have pointed out how, in the first decade of his reign, he brought unfettered joy in to our lives, of how he expanded the realm of the possible. Once he showed us that anything (such as going through an entire Premiership season undefeated) was possible. Now he shows us that possibility means only one thing: a top-four finish; and a Round of 16 exit from the Champions League.
Wenger is in many ways now a man out of his time. All the things that he had pioneered in England (scouting from Europe; an obsession with diet and fitness; crunching data) are now routinely done by all the other top clubs. His untrammelled power at Arsenal, a remote owner who seems to care only about the club’s enormous cash reserves, and a board (ever since the departure in 2007 of David Dein – the man who recruited Wenger) that is steeped in neither knowledge of nor passion for the game means that Wenger – unlike any manager in football’s elite – has the most say about his future. His current contract runs down at the end of the ongoing season. Wenger ought to simply walk away.He should have gone after having won the FA Cup in 2014 and 2015, ending the trophy drought in the austerity years engendered by paying for the move from Highbury to the Emirates. He, the most decorated manager in Arsenal’s history, should have left after having accomplished that, and having built a squad with truly world-class players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. He should have left matters in new, fresh hands.After the Munich game, Wenger talked about the “jadedness” of the players. The fans are jaded too. They are tired of more of the same. We know that it may sound churlish: finishing second or third or fourth in the league with the odd FA Cup thrown in is not a catastrophe (look at Spurs). Perhaps Wenger has spoilt us. Perhaps, in that first magical decade, he set the bar too high. We know that the transition will be difficult (yes, we can see what happened at Manchester United after Alex Ferguson departed). We know finding a replacement, a replacement that works for us, will be fraught and tough. But we don’t want more of the same.
Arsenal have gone out in the Round of 16 of the UEFA Champions League for the last six years. (AFP)
We want an end to the predictability that an Arsenal season is freighted with. Go out of Europe? All right, how much of a calamity can that be if we are not in the Champions League with a shot of winning it? Out of Europe, but a decent stab at the Premiership? Why not?Wenger has done an awful lot at Arsenal. The ceiling has been reached; there is little more he can achieve there. We want something different. We want Arsenal to truly challenge for the title; with luck, to win it. We want them to be a top club in European competition.We want things to get better – even if we know that they might well get far worse first.
Alexis Sanchez is substituted as manager Arsene Wenger looks on. (REUTERS)