James Lawton: Sacrilege to say, but is time not up for Wenger?
It may be unsayable, but Arsenal's desperate need now is to move on, with or without Arsène Wenger
No one is any longer unaware of the consequences of drumming up the nerve to say, however sorrowfully, yes, it is indeed time for Arsène Wenger to go. It is to be automatically cast among Brutus and his knife-wielding mates.
Yet who speaks up for the crumbling republic of Arsenal? Stan Kroenke racks up his shares and puts his head over the parapet only to say, briefly, that the manager has his unequivocal support. He says that the republic is serene, even as the blood runs in the streets.
Chairman Peter Hill-Wood, with that insuperable complacency that is one gift of an Eton education, says that missing out on Champions League qualification would not be a disaster. Wenger shrugs away the reassuring hand on his shoulder and begs to differ with some emotional force.
But Arsenal, 10 points behind Spurs, five adrift of Chelsea, are programmed for that specific disaster among others.
These now include the increasingly likely defection of captain Robin van Persie.
For students of body language, the most persuasive comment on the decline of Wenger's empire came last spring when Barcelona-bound Cesc Fabregas, injured and on the sidelines, was caught by the TV camera in the moment of Arsenal's Carling Cup defeat by Birmingham City. Fabregas's expression could hardly have been more eloquently despairing. It said that he had gone beyond hope that Wenger, for so long the brilliant mentor, could halt the drift that had carried Arsenal away from their last major trophy six years earlier.
This was shocking enough at the time but on Sunday evening it was surely surpassed by Van Persie's public agreement with the fans who so vociferously protested Wenger's decision to remove the thrusting young Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in favour of the seriously discredited Andrei Arshavin. It is, of course, true that if you collected together all the football insights of Wenger's critics, including those of Van Persie, they would not brush against the foothills of Wenger's knowledge and achievement.
However, knowledge is one thing and the nerve and the old instinct to move ahead of events, to unleash a succession of game- and power-changing talent, is another. One is for life and the other needs to be summoned again each new season and every fresh challenge.
Those who insist that it is absurd to say that Wenger's meaning today is less relevant than when he assembled his Invincibles neglect the lessons of football history.
Sir Alex Ferguson's achievements are the opposite of commonplace. They are unique in their relentless hold on the realities of winning and losing and if he is fighting for his life this season it is not because of any reluctance to re-cast his team – and his priorities. It is because of new financial restraints that prevented him from resolving his central problem of finding a new heavyweight in midfield. Without them, we know Ferguson would have delivered Wesley Sneijder on a silver platter after the undressing by Barcelona last spring.
We are told that Wenger has money to spend, real money, but if it is true, his response in the summer to the loss of Fabregas and Samir Nasri – and the overwhelming evidence that his defence was not fit for purpose – was wholly inadequate.
The argument that Wenger inevitably knows best continues to be pummelled. When this is conceded, it is not at the cost of a brilliant reputation, a body of work which will always enshrine him among the greats of English football. It does not create any less of a yearning that a great man might just find his way back to his surest touch. Unfortunately this, more than ever, has become an act of faith.
But then who replaces him, who gets the chalice that is currently poisoned? Not a man with superior football instincts, because he may not exist, but maybe someone who has no past to horde, no regrets at its passing, only a feeling for what needs to be done and an ability to see where the work must start. It is not, for sure, in the brief re-incarnation of a Thierry Henry, no more than Andey Arshavin.
Arsenal's need is desperate now. It is to move on, with or without Arsène Wenger.
It may be unsayable, but who cannot but think that circumstances are conspiring to make it ever more likely to be the latter.
Mancini has duty to stamp out Balotelli firework displays
Someone should explain to Manchester City that Mario Balotelli could score a thousand extraordinary goals, exceed Mother Teresa in examples of spell-binding charity, and still have lingering shame against his name and his club's for what he did to Scott Parker.
Not only was the act despicable, so were its origins. They were rooted in a terrible failure of discipline.
It has been said ad nauseam that with Balotelli you have to take the best and live with the rest, but there is a point where the position is untenable if you care seriously for your reputation as champions-elect, as an organisation hell-bent on attaching a certain weight and character to the increasingly brilliant football fuelled by unprecedented wealth.
Whatever remarkable facility he displays on the field – and already he has shown us much of that – he cannot dislodge the fear that when Roberto Mancini sends him out it is with the implicit understanding that anything can happen – and when the manager embraces this reality he surrenders one of the basic tenets of his job.
A manager is obliged to trust each of his players, whatever their individual ability, to operate along certain professional standards. City are blessed with a growing number of players who respond to such expectations.
The recent form of such as Gareth Barry and James Milner, while no doubt overshadowed by the sheer virtuosity of Sergio Aguero and David Silva, has been quite stunning in the absence of Yaya Touré and Vincent Kompany. Their sense of the team's needs has been overwhelming.
Yet Balotelli is allowed to do what comes to him most naturally.
We know now that this includes stamping on the head of a fallen opponent. The incident apparently provoked an onset of myopia among club officials and, on at least one national talk show, City supporters appeared to be lining up in their belief that this was another example of a media vendetta against a misunderstood young man. But what ambiguity is there in the decision, at risk of heavens know what consequences, to bring your foot down on the unprotected head of an opponent? Parker escaped with a cut on his brow. He could have been blinded. That might have been one result of the latest Ballotelli firework show. Such events, we are constantly told, should be tightly supervised.
Unfortunately in this case, what happens is apparently beyond anyone's control or, even more dismayingly, conscience.
Rodgers has to swallow his pride
If Swansea City's impressive young manager, Brendan Rodgers, felt obliged to complain about the relatively low critical acclaim received by his ball-playing team before their upset of the former masters of the genre, Arsenal, he may be thinking again.
The manager's Nuff Respect appeal provoked the kind of rhapsodising some accomplished football men haven't known after decades in the game. Swansea, in some extreme cases, were the new Barcelona.
What they are, of course, is a team with splendid aspirations to play a superior form of football, one with more than a fighting chance of surviving their first season in the Premier League and with the scalp of Arsenal, which just happens to be in some serious need of dandruff treatment.
That doesn't make them putative champions of anywhere much beyond the Swansea valley. This is no doubt something that the knowing Martin O'Neill was at pains to point out to his Sunderland players before their weekend ambush of Barça Mark2.
Ask most managers and they will tell you that a touch of the old siege mentality will beat an onslaught of hubris any old day. Their number, it is reasonable to suspect, may well shortly include Brendan Rodgers.
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