Arsenal are standing still under Arsene Wenger, but have no plan to replace him as manager
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By no means could a 3-1 defeat to European champions Barcelona – arguably the best club side in the world – be regarded as anything resembling a disgrace.
Arsenal’s committed, battling performance at the Nou Camp rightly drew plenty of praise, given that few honestly imagined the Herculean task of retrieving a two-goal deficit would be within their capabilities.
So Arsene Wenger’s side at least bowed out of the Champions League with honour. But the fact remains that they did go out, at the first post-group stage… yet again.
Whether Barcelona, Bayern Munich, AC Milan or Monaco acted as the instruments of Arsenal’s demise, the outcome has been the same for the last six years in a row.
It’s hard to escape the conclusion that the Gunners have made no progress whatsoever in Champions League football.
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Yes, as Wenger proudly points out at every opportunity, they qualify for the competition year after year. But, aside from financial considerations, how is that relevant if winning it – or even coming close – remains pie in the sky?
That might not matter if Arsenal were at least getting closer to winning another Premier League crown – something they managed three times in six years during the Frenchman’s first decade in charge.
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But, while Saturday’s 2-0 victory at Everton was an extremely welcome end to a patchy run of league form, it still looks something of a long shot to suggest the Gunners might yet overhaul front-runners Leicester.
And, with no disrespect intended towards Claudio Ranieri’s remarkable Foxes, this was surely Arsenal’s best chance of becoming champions for the first time since 2004.
For several years, the Gunners’ title hopes usually foundered against the comparative superiority of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea or more than one of the above.
That has not been the case this time. Neither will there be any FA Cup success to alleviate the pain and keep Wenger’s critics at bay, as was the case in each of the last two seasons.
Yet, despite what will almost certainly be a season devoid of silverware, the chances are that the 66-year-old will still be in the dugout at Emirates Stadium come August.
The reason is simple. Wenger is the last of a breed of supremely powerful managers in English football who were far more than mere employees of their clubs but dominated them and wielded enormous authority.
The likes of Bill Shankly, Brian Clough and Sir Alex Ferguson all came into this category. They ruled the roost and were answerable to no-one, certainly not a chairman or chief executive.
Each of these managers enjoyed enormous success over a long period of time. But each of them eventually faced the same dilemma – how to sense when his time was up and smooth the path for his successor.
Shankly, who established the renowned ‘Boot Room’ at Liverpool, was the only one who succeeded in that respect, with his assistant Bob Paisley stepping up to steer the Anfield club to even greater heights both at home and abroad.
Rather like Wenger, Clough enjoyed extraordinary success – in the shape of a league championship and two European Cups – during his early years at Nottingham Forest.
While he retained a core of loyal backroom staff, none of them seemed to be earmarked as Clough’s replacement and, by the time he announced his retirement in 1993, Forest were sliding towards relegation from the Premier League.
But nobody on the City Ground board would have dared to contemplate sacking their legendary manager, partly because of his past achievements and partly because of the aura that surrounded him.
Ferguson did at least try to cultivate potential successors at Manchester United – the likes of Steve McClaren, Carlos Queiroz and Brian Kidd.
But the Scot’s lack of clarity as to when he would stand down – and then a complete about-turn – meant that those candidates were lured away from Old Trafford by managerial opportunities long before his eventual departure in 2013.
Wenger is a very different character to either Clough or Ferguson, but it appears he has done nothing to groom his eventual heir at the Emirates, certainly not within the club.
While Wenger’s former players speak fondly of him and Arsenal, there are relatively few who have been embraced into the coaching fold to any degree.
The likes of Tony Adams and Patrick Vieira – who might have been seen as potential replacements – went elsewhere and, while Steve Bould was promoted to be assistant manager, it is hard to envisage him ever taking over.
Wenger, it appears, is certain that he remains the only man for the job – and believes just as fervently in his ability to return Arsenal to the level of glory they last sampled more than a decade ago.
Those who share that belief are becoming fewer and fewer, with good reason. But that will make no difference to Wenger, who knows the job is his for as long as he wants it.
And, while he continues to deliver the guaranteed revenue of Champions League football, nobody among the complacent Arsenal board will want or dare to tell him otherwise.