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Where does Arsenal go from here?

Hard questions need to be asked.

Arsenal v Liverpool - Premier League Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

About a week ago, I wrote a thing about the various scenarios under which Arsene Wenger might leave Arsenal. At the time, it was mostly an academic exercise, because while things are somewhat stagnant, it didn’t seem like immediate action or thoughts of next steps were required. But then today happened; Arsenal didn’t just exit the Champions League, they were unceremoniously shoved out the door, falling on their face and breaking a few teeth, like the last drunk at the bar at 2AM.

Were this Round of 16 exit an anomaly, a 5-1 first leg humiliation at Bayern Munich might be cut some slack - I mean, Barcelona got beat up at PSG pretty bad, but they also have a sustained record of Champions League trophy collection, so there’s no such thing as the Round of Barcelona. Everyone knows, despite any one individual year’s struggle, they’ll be back at it and hungrier the next year.

Arsenal have no such cushion - this is their seventh consecutive exit in the Round of 16, and the eighth in 10 years. It’s plain to see that Arsenal, for all their strengths as a club, have hit a very, very hard ceiling that they simply cannot get past. We’ve got plenty of evidence of that.

This is, unquestionably, down to the manager - I don’t want this piece to be another “This is why Wenger must go” piece, though, because we’ve talked about that enough and will no doubt talk about it more in the coming weeks. I want to talk today about the darkest timeline.

In the piece I linked above, we as a staff ranked the various exit scenarios facing Wenger in order of preference. One of the options, which nobody really wanted at the time, was for Wenger to be fired before the end of the season - to me, that was a distasteful option because of its implied lack of respect for the overall body of work Wenger has done. It’s an ugly way to part ways - I’ve been laid off, as has almost everyone who works in an office at one time or another, and it’s awkward and weird and painful and generally best to avoid having to do if possible.

My question is: was the abject surrender of yesterday enough to force the board’s hand and make them do what they seemingly don’t want to do, and change Wenger’s office locks and email login tonight before he gets home? Will there be an HR representative waiting outside Wenger’s office when he gets to work in the morning?

Losing is generally a last straw for a lot of clubs with managers who are in trouble - Bob Bradley at Swansea is the most recent example, but it’s commonplace in all sports that a coach/manager/boss on the ropes gets fired after a loss. And after a loss like Arsenal’s yesterday, in which they didn’t just lose, they were utterly humiliated, the natural reaction is WENGER MUST GO RIGHT NOW.

And for the first time since I joined the Wenger Needs To Go line of thinking, I think I actually agree with that. The team looked disjointed and completely out of their depth, and when a team containing the talents of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez can’t do any better than what they did yesterday, it’s hard to look at the coach’s seat and think it might look better with someone else in it.

Here’s the thing, though: Arsenal replacing their coach mid-season is risky. It might not work. It might result in Arsenal dropping out of the top four for the first time in 20 years. But you know what? That’s OK. The bandaid has to be ripped off at some point, and if the hairs that get ripped off in the process hurt like hell while it’s ripping, they’ll grow back fine.

Which is a tortured way of saying that, no matter what happens, I fully expect Arsenal to take a step backwards when Wenger goes. And I’m increasingly OK with that, because as currently constituted, Arsenal aren’t exactly taking steps forward. That being the case, maybe it’s time to do the damage - maybe it’s time Arsene go now, and go completely. Not become a director of football, not be some sort of minister without portfolio lurking behind the scenes, but to just go.

That sort of complete separation is, for me at least, absolutely necessary in order to allow Arsenal to move forward - if you were a potential Arsenal manager, would you want the job knowing that a club legend were still there, right behind you, grumbling quietly to himself about how he would do things if he were still in charge?

I’m kind of agnostic about the whole concept of a Director of Football going forward, but I am absolutely sure that if Arsenal do go that route, that said DoF should absolutely NOT be Arsene. Arsene built this club into what it is today, for good and for bad; his overall contributions are immeasurable, but the results of his team construction are absolutely measurable, and they simply aren’t good enough any more.

If he were installed as a DoF, he’d continue to build the team in his current style, regardless of manager. And if the manager pushed back, and wanted to build a team in his own style, there would be all sorts of tension, and battles, and guess who would win those political fights?

SPOILER ALERT: not the new guy.

I also don’t have strong opinions about who should replace Wenger, either in the short or in the long term. I do, however, firmly believe that Wenger is the last of a dying breed - Arsenal will never have again, and should never aspire to have, a manager in charge for 20 years. And that’s OK. But it is definitely time that Arsene, with all the thanks in the world and plans for a stand renaming and statue unveiling, be shown the door.