As the seal was set on Manchester City’s record-breaking Premier League title success on Sunday, it would have been fascinating to know what was going through Arsene Wenger’s mind as the Arsenal manager reflected on just how far his team has fallen behind.
Pep Guardiola was on the golf course when Manchester United’s 1-0 home defeat against West Bromwich Albion sealed City’s title. Wenger, meanwhile, was on the journey back from Newcastle after watching Arsenal suffer a fifth consecutive away league defeat — a result which left them 33 points behind champions City, 13 off Tottenham in fourth, and just two points ahead of seventh-placed Burnley.
Back in Wenger’s pomp, it was Arsenal who rewrote the record books and redefined football style, just as Guardiola’s City are doing now.
But the only records that Arsenal are currently setting are the embarrassing ones: such as being the only club in all four English divisions still to win a point away from home in 2018. Even Bury, the first English club to relegated this season, have managed to do better than Arsenal on the road in league during this calendar year, claiming four points away from home since Jan. 1.
Arsenal, mighty Arsenal, are still on zero away points in 2018 and their next game away from the Emirates is against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Still, anything West Brom can do…
To many, the comparison with City under Guardiola will be regarded as baseless on the grounds that Arsenal are simply no longer a club capable of being the best.
Yet City’s rise — undeniably fuelled by the petrodollars of Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed al Nahyan as well as a long-term vision — has coincided with Arsenal’s decline over the past decade and the Manchester club are now the team that is setting the benchmark.
That used to be Arsenal and Wenger was once the visionary who changed the course of the game, just as Guardiola has become at City.
But the drift at the Emirates has gone on for so long, become so deep and entrenched, that Wenger resembles a tired old man out of ideas in contrast to Guardiola.
At any other club, Wenger would not have lasted so long.
Just imagine City winning nothing but the odd FA Cup over the next 10 years, failing to challenge for the Champions League at the same time, yet Guardiola remaining in charge because the football in 2017-18 was so good?
In many ways, Wenger is still managing Arsenal because he built the “Invincibles” — the team which won the title unbeaten in 2003-04 — and there are some within the Emirates who continue to live in the forlorn hope that the Frenchman can turn the clock back to those glory days.
But those people, Wenger included, are living in fantasy land if they believe that the future can be like the past.
The reality should be that, regardless of success in the Europa League, Wenger leaves this summer, midway through the two-year contract he signed last year.
That Wenger’s departure is still not certain makes a mockery of Arsenal’s status as an ambitious super club. No other in world football would put up with mediocrity and decline for so long, but there are no still guarantees that a change will be made in the summer.
If Arsenal win the Europa League, and qualify for the Champions League as a result, it may be enough to save Wenger, but such an outcome should instead be regarded as the perfect platform for his successor to build a new team and start afresh.
There is so much wrong with Arsenal under Wenger and so little for their supporters to be enthusiastic or optimistic about.
One of the biggest indictments of Wenger’s management is the progress now being made by Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Liverpool.
The 24-year-old epitomised the malaise at Arsenal prior to his £35 million move to Anfield last August, with the midfielder’s career having stalled under Wenger’s management. Yet after little over six months under Jurgen Klopp, Oxlade-Chamberlain has become a key figure at Liverpool, scoring goals in Champions League quarterfinals and enjoying stand-out performances at the same time.
Many of Oxlade-Chamberlain’s former teammates at Arsenal also need a new challenge or a different kind of motivation — Aaron Ramsey, Hector Bellerin, Mesut Ozil and Jack Wilshere to name just four — but they could enjoy the bounce that Oxlade-Chamberlain has had by staying at Arsenal under a new manager.
Without a change, it is impossible to imagine Arsenal challenging for the Premier League again next season.
Deep down, Wenger must surely know this himself, so why go through the ordeal of seeing out the final year of his contract when there is no sign of an end to his misery on the horizon?
Instead, he should start the countdown to the end of his reign and try to go out on a high in the Europa League. The alternative does not bear thinking about.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_