Heart Of Football

End may be nigh but swan-song could still have a fairy-tale end

The British National Health Service, once the envy of the world, is creaking, and blaming the elderly for living to an age that they become a drain on resources.

Arsenal are just like that. This is the time of year when cold winds blow, the team wobble in the Premier League, and the media cry is for Arsene Wenger to go.

Calling time on the manager is a perennial issue.

The man is 67, making him the last geriatric in the post after Alex Ferguson finally vacated the chair at Manchester United in 2013.

Fergie was 71. The fire wasn't out, but he was persuaded to retire while his team was on top.

As regular as snow during winter, the usual pundits in the media and fans in the stands holler for Wenger to depart, and though none of those armchair critics are a patch on him in terms of record or reputation, they keep preaching the mantra.

The Champions League is the one big trophy that Wenger has never won. If Arsenal get past Bayern and go on to the Champions League final, would that be the time and place to hand over the baton?

One day, of course, they will be right. He will be gone.

The Manchester United accountants blame Brexit, and the fall of the pound against the dollar, for the net debt of £409.3 million (S$726 million) reported to the New York Stock Exchange last week.

Jose Mourinho will have to spend a whole lot more if he is to stand a chance of emulating Sir Alex at Old Trafford.

Meanwhile his old team, who failed to even qualify for Europe last season, are now so revitalised that the Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich is thinking of doubling (at least) the £6.5 million, three-year contract that manager Antonio Conte signed last April.

The word in Italy is that Inter Milan, floundering but now wealthy again under Chinese ownership, would tempt him back to Italy at the drop of a hat.

Conte's stock rose appreciably after last week's 3-1 thrashing of Arsenal at Stamford Bridge.

When Arsenal won the reverse fixture at the Emirates last September, we didn't hear the too much noise from the Piers Morgan brigade and the interminable "Arsene Must Go" campaigners.

Last week's defeat for Arsenal at Chelsea was chastening. Wenger could not explain it away in his usual poised manner.

He was seated up high in the stands, serving out his touchline ban in the Naughty Chair, because of a peevish push at a fourth official during the match against Burnley.

But there was no hiding place at Stamford Bridge for Wenger. The cameras were on him.

Losing to Chelsea will have galled Wenger more than he let on because it was Chelsea, bought by Russian oligarch Abramovich, who changed the dynamics of Premier League financial power.

From 2003-2004, the Arsenal Invincibles, coached by Wenger, went unbeaten. Abramovich then began the wanton spending that Wenger viewed as false as building up a team on steroids.

Wenger had a stadium to build, and in any case he clung (perhaps too long) to his own notion that a team has to first and foremost play in the right way.

The Style is the Man, as the French say, and Wenger believes in it to the point where he would (still) rather mould a player than buy one.

Thierry Henry was his classic example. He had the talent, but didn't know it, when Wenger took him as a winger from Juventus and converted him, liberated him, into being the Gunners' all-time record striker, roaming all across the front line.

Ironically, it was ex-Gunners striker Ian Wright, who was in the autumn of his Arsenal career when Wenger arrived, who triggered a fresh round of speculation that the manager is beaten down and ready to abdicate.

"I get the impression that that's it," Wright said during a BBC chat show on Friday.

He said he had spent two hours in the company of "The Boss" on Thursday, and "he looks tired. You just feel that he looks winded. He actually mentioned that he is coming to the end, and I feel he will go at the end of the season."

He gets the impression. He feels that the end is nigh.

I like Wright, a lot. He is one of the old players who will say what he is thinking without holding back, in case his words limit his chances of being employed somewhere.

He also has that knack, especially when talking about strikers, of sensing the moment when instinct puts a forward into position to score a goal.

He can "feel" for all he is worth that Wenger's mind is made up.

But this is a seasonal guessing game. Wenger is a clever orator himself, but his face (perhaps especially when he is hung out to dry in the stands) reveals the torment he goes through watching his team underperform.

For years, the critics urged him to stop penny pinching and to spend some of Arsenal's cash pile.

He did that in the last few years. He signed Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid and Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona.

Sometimes they flatter to deceive. Sometimes, like at Stamford Bridge, they seem anonymous.

And sometimes, Wenger loses the player he, and just about every manager in the Premier League, know they need to do the grafting in midfield, and to make others play.

N'Golo Kante powered Leicester's astonishing run to the Premier League title last season.

He is powering Chelsea now, and odds on to win back-to-back Premier League titles with two different clubs.

Wenger has been criticised for being the Frenchman who couldn't persuade his fellow countryman to join him. How did he fail?

Salary has a lot to do with Kante's preference to join Conte rather than Wenger.

Long before any decision is final on the Arsenal manager's future, the team that appears to have lost the scent of Premier League success has urgent business in Europe.

Arsenal play at Bayern Munich on Wednesday.

The Champions League is the one big trophy that Wenger has never won.

If (and it's a long shot) Arsenal get past Bayern and go on to the Champions League final, would that be the time and place to hand over the baton?

We're all guessing, probably even Arsene Wenger.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 12, 2017, with the headline 'End may be nigh but swan-song could still have a fairy-tale end'. Print Edition | Subscribe