The sorry decline of Arsenal under Arsene Wenger continued on Sunday with a 2-1 defeat to Newcastle at St. James’ Park.
Although Wenger has made no secret of the fact that the club’s eggs are now firmly in the Europa League basket, to see the Gunners be swatted aside so meekly (by an admittedly spirited Newcastle side) was a jarring reminder of just how far they have fallen.
For football fans, anger is not the opposite of joy. The contrast in emotions is a stark one, but there is feeling there nonetheless. No, the opposite of joy for supporters is nihilism. Fatalism. Futility. The patches of empty seats that have become more and more prevalent at the Emirates since the turn of the year are the worrying result of a support base’s dwindling interest, where not even a European semi-final can rouse them from their lethargy.
The architect of Wenger’s downfall on this occasion was Rafa Benitez, a manager that was tasked with keeping Newcastle in the Premier League on a shoestring budget and a slightly-above-Championship-level squad. Not only has the Spaniard achieved this pretty comfortably, but five wins in a row mean that the Magpies could well finish in the top half in their first season back in the top division.
As far as Arsenal are concerned, the Wenger era is running on fumes and has been for some time. The general level of brittleness in the squad that was once only reserved for when they faced other big teams has now become so ingrained in the team that they’re wilting against the likes of Swansea and Brighton (with the greatest of respect to those clubs). Their away form is putrid to the point of record-breakingly horrid, and on current form it seems only a matter of time before they are overtaken by Burnley in sixth place.
Wenger will leave Arsenal in a better position than when he took them on over two decades ago (even if that scale has dipped massively in the past ten or so years), but his devotion to self-reservation means that they are in danger of losing their status at Europe’s top table. A second consecutive year outside of the Champions League might not sound like much, but consistently qualifying for that competition was all Wenger had left.
To that end, they could do an awful lot worse than look to the man that orchestrated their defeat on Sunday. Benitez, for whatever reason, seems to be habitually underrated by a sizable amount of the footballing public in England. The simple truth is, he has as impressive a CV as any manager that Arsenal could hope to attract in the near future, has seasoned Premier League experience and is a master of European matches.
Paul Merson on Talksport was asked on Monday about the possibility of Benitez taking over at the Emirates this summer, and seemed to turn his nose up at the idea. Rafa, he argued, doesn’t play an exciting enough brand of football for the Arsenal fans to get behind, that setting teams up to avoid defeat was his main footballing principle.
To put it bluntly, Arsenal are the only side in all four English divisions to have not picked up a single away point in 2018 so perhaps not being beaten is a good place to start.
Benitez’s teams are organised, conservative even, but is that level of organisation not exactly what Arsenal have been crying out for in the last few years? Are they not in desperate need of a general to deliver some home truths about their soft underbelly and actually start to look as though they have some semblance of a game plan again?
One glance at Shkodran Mustafi’s performances this season alone should be enough to convince anyone that Arsenal are sorely lacking in defensive organisation.
Benitez won La Liga twice with Valencia (the last of which was thirteen years ago, granted, but that was also the last time Wenger won a league title), he turned Liverpool into one of the best teams in Europe in the 2000s, he went to Chelsea under the backdrop of a fanbase that despised the very ground he walked on, steadied that ship and delivered another European trophy, and had a big hand in laying the foundations for where Napoli are now.
His experiences at Inter and Real Madrid are obvious drawbacks but they should not be in any way dealbreakers, because almost every manager Arsenal will be looking at to replace Wenger when that time comes will have been sacked at some point.
The fact is, Arsenal really can’t afford to turn their noses up at managers of that calibre at this point in time. They might like to think otherwise, but they are not above Benitez.
He may not want to go, of course, and he seems perfectly content where he is at Newcastle even in spite of Mike Ashley’s continued troubling presence at the club – but if he does want want one more crack at conquering the big time, Arsenal could do a whole lot worse.