Arsenal's latest humiliation vs. Bayern shows change must come from top
LONDON -- Just after Bayern Munich's fourth goal went in at the Emirates, a small pocket of Arsenal supporters began to chant, "There's only one Arsene Wenger."
With a small but vocal group of fans marching from Highbury to the Emirates prior to kickoff to protest against the manager and call for him to leave the club, the show of support within the ground felt almost apologetic -- pitying, even.
It did not develop into a louder, more widespread show of support. Instead, it melted away as a more vociferous section turned on Arsenal's majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, by calling for him to "get out of our club," only in more colourful, belligerent language.
Whichever side of the divide Arsenal supporters find themselves standing on, there can be no doubting the passions being aroused off the pitch. It is just a pity that so few of the players on it seem to be galvanised into fighting for their own cause -- that of proving Arsenal are more than a club that falls by the wayside at the same stage every season.
Arsenal have now lost 5-1 to Bayern on each of their past three encounters with the Bundesliga champions, and one of England's biggest and wealthiest clubs should be so much better than this. The failings and shortcomings are the same, year on year, in the team, in the manager's office and in the boardroom. But this defeat, which secured a 10-2 aggregate victory for Bayern in the Champions League round of 16, carried the air of a pivotal moment in Arsenal's history.
After so many annual disappointments -- this is the seventh consecutive season in which Arsenal have been knocked out at the last-16 stage -- the fans have had enough.
Wenger is the target of many of them, who regard the manager as having passed his sell-by date after almost 21 years in charge. But Kroenke is also beginning to feel the heat from those supporters who pay to sit in the most expensive seats in English football.
They pay fortunes to watch Arsenal, but all they hear from Kroenke's executives is how much money the club has in its cash reserves. They want to hear of Arsenal out-bidding Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United for star signings or giving the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil the kind of contracts that would prevent them from thinking of moves elsewhere. They also want Kroenke and chief executive Ivan Gazidis to show some leadership by not allowing Wenger and his players to settle simply for Champions League qualification while their rivals are winning trophies.
Many fans have turned on Wenger because they have become exasperated by what they perceive to be his stubbornness and refusal to move with the times in the transfer market. But there remains a loyalty toward Wenger, even an affection, because of the glory and joy he brought to the club during his first decade in charge: the great double-winning teams of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Tony Adams and Dennis Bergkamp and the Invincibles of Thierry Henry, Sol Campbell and Robert Pires.
Wenger has etched his name in Arsenal's history, and it will never be erased, but Kroenke has done nothing to earn the respect and adoration of the fans, and that is why he is now finding himself in the eye of the storm.
Kroenke is a difficult man to read because he says so little and rarely gives any indication of what he is thinking, in terms of the club's future. But he is the one who holds Arsenal's destiny in his hands.
Wenger might want to decide when he goes and the manner of his departure, but only Kroenke can grant him that wish. If he takes time to consider the footballing decline at the Emirates rather than the upward trajectory of the club's finances, he might well choose to display the ruthlessness of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich or his fellow American owners at Liverpool and Manchester United by changing the manager after failure on the pitch.
But there is little sign of him doing so, and the supporters are turning against him because they see a man who cares for only the bottom line, rather than the silverware in the trophy cabinet. The fans want glory, but Kroenke seemingly thinks only in terms of growth in a financial sense. The end result is drift and the comfort zone that Wenger and his players have fallen into -- not that it is proving too comfortable right now, with humiliation suffered twice in the space of three weeks against Bayern.
On and off the pitch, these are turbulent times at the Emirates, and it is difficult to see how Wenger can salvage something from this season. Out of the Champions League and facing a battle to qualify again via the Premier League, even a 13th FA Cup triumph would feel hollow at the end of a campaign that promised so much.
Wenger spoke of the "unexplainable and scandalous" decisions that cost his team against Bayern, but that was an attempt at smoke and mirrors, to shift eyes from the real problems at the club.
But he summed up why the supporters have had enough and why many of them have placed him alongside Kroenke as the root of the problems, when asked what must change at Arsenal during his postmatch news conference.
"What must change?" Wenger said. "This club is in a great shape. It is just going through a difficult situation."
Sorry, Arsene, but Arsenal were in great shape when they were winning major trophies and reaching Champions League finals.
And those days seem a long, long time ago.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_