Arsenal's boo-boys reveal Arsène Wenger has lost their trust
Arsenal's manager looks like a man on the edge despite shoot-out win
Sunday 13 April 2014
Arsène Wenger turned his technical area into a prison cell. He paced around it incessantly in ever-decreasing circles, wringing his hands as his life's work hung on a dramatic penalty shoot-out. He turned at the last moment to watch Santi Cazorla keep his nerve and send Arsenal into the FA Cup final. His arms shot up above his head and he briefly embraced Aaron Ramsey, yet failed to dispel the impression of a man on the ragged edge.
This season has not been kind and it may yet contain a cruel twist. In a brutal irony, for someone once identified as an innovator, Wenger finds himself lampooned as the victim of progress. Support and respect have drained away. He seemed a distant, distracted figure even in those final moments.
It is no longer heretical to consider the unthinkable. A first trophy in nine years would be an appropriate way in which to leave the corporate cidatel he has created. Signing a new deal and entering a third era at the Emirates seems needless self-inflicted torture.
"Risk Everything" screamed the advertising hoarding, on the pitch perimeter. If only. Arsenal were poor, lacking movement and ambition. Wenger's team, once associated with technical precision and creativity, has become one-paced and timid. The flaws in his recruitment strategy are personified by his determination to select Yaya Sanogo, a callow striker who lacks the quality to ensure Premier League productivity.
Wigan coped comfortably until they took the lead and tired due to the exertions of a season extended by Europa League commitments. The frantic celebration of their defeat by Arsenal's players was telling; even Championship opposition are intimidating these days.
The cameras inevitably lingered on Wenger's careworn features. The bags beneath his eyes are more pronounced than ever. His facial skin is as pale and creased as ancient parchment. His jerky movements in moments of alarm of frustration gave an indication of the internal struggle.
Despite having the pretensions of a state occasion, the match also had elements of a show trial. Arsenal, and by implication their manager, had to answer charges of a lack of steel and, more damningly, a lack of will. The prosecution case appeared well founded. Arsenal have been thrashed by the genuine title challengers, Manchester City Liverpool and Chelsea.
They were physically and technically inferior to Everton and even lost to a Manchester United side barely worthy of the name.
They have accumulated 11 points from their last 11 Premier League matches. Everton occupy the final Champions' League place. The FA Cup may not be the national treasure it once was but for Arsenal it is the Holy Grail.
The final awaits in a fog of uncertainty. Although signals from the boardroom suggest the Frenchman has retained the faith of the majority owner Stan Kroenke, his dogged refusal to change a long-term strategy that cannot, by its nature, evolve with the required speed, is puzzling.
Arsenal have acquired a reputation as the conscientious objectors of the Premier League; once they get the first whiff of cordite, they down tools and head home for tea. It is a stigma that only silverware can erase.
Wigan, by contrast, were unburdened by expectation. They deserved the poetic vengeance of victory against the side which relegated them from the Premier League last season, 72 hours after they had won the FA Cup.
Only exhaustion can prevent them being a formidable force in the Championship play-offs. They have an excellent chance of playing Arsenal in the Premier League next season.
Momentary, if much needed, perspective was provided by the 96 seats left empty on the halfway line and the silence which mutated into a minute's applause, leavened by muted chants of "Justice for the 96", led by the Arsenal fans.
The managers were also separated by three wreaths, laid between their technical areas.
Wigan's chairman, Dave Whelan, has restored his reputation as a shrewd judge following his error in Owen Coyle by employing Uwe Rösler, a modern, intelligent coach in the mould of a celebrated predecessor, Roberto Martinez, who led Wigan to glory last May.
Rösler's gameplan was founded on Jose Mourinho's example. He sent out his team to press Arsenal into submission where possible and defend deep when necessary. After an initial burst, in which Alex Oxlade Chamberlain was prominent, Wigan were allowed to sit back in their comfort zone.
As the game settled, Arsenal became unsettled. The pace and fluidity of Callum McManaman, with which Thomas Vermaelen patently failed to deal, lured Per Mertesacker into a fateful lunge.
The German's equaliser, following Jordi Gomez's nerveless penalty, represented personal redemption. Collectively, however, the doubts about of his team persist.
The cascade of booing which greeted Wenger's decision to keep Sanogo on at the expense of Lukas Podolski, when Olivier Giroud was introduced midway through the second half of normal time seemed to signal the end of an era. That infamous banner needs to be burned: In Arsène They No Longer Trust.
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