Arsenal must clear the rubble of Arsene Wenger's fallen empire
MADRID -- Even in the end, Arsenal and Arsene Wenger allowed themselves to believe in the fantasy of a silver-plated finale and glory -- one last trophy for the Frenchman -- by winning the Europa League in Lyon later this month.
That has been one of the problems at Arsenal during the autumn of Wenger's reign, which will now officially come to an end at the John Smith's Stadium against Huddersfield Town on May 13. For too long, they have indulged the idea that Wenger's way will come good in the end and silence all of those doubters who have long suspected that there was a footballing version of the Emperor's New Clothes being played out at the Emirates.
Now, though, the fantasy is no more. Diego Costa's first-half goal in the Wanda Metropolitano was enough to secure a 2-1 aggregate victory in this semifinal for Atletico Madrid and send Diego Simeone's team to the final.
Costa killed off any hope of a glorious farewell for Wenger, so all thoughts of a fairy-tale ending have gone.
Cold reality is now staring Arsenal in the face. The Wenger era has three games left to run -- Burnley at home, Leicester away and then the long goodbye at Huddersfield -- and the future must now be about the rebuilding job that lies ahead for the club and whomever they appoint to clear the rubble of Wenger's fallen empire.
Because there is no point attempting to continue the fantasy now. Wenger will be leaving behind a mess for his successor, despite the belief of some within the Emirates that the squad is a good one to inherit.
Wenger insisted after this game that his players "can compete next year" with the "right additions this summer," but it is not merely an issue of recruiting better personnel.
There also needs to be a completely new attitude instilled within the squad; if that happens, then there can be a future for some of those who have let the club down in recent seasons. But the new manager will find a squad that is compromised by a lack of depth and players who are under-performing or simply not good enough.
Arsenal's 1-0 defeat in the Spanish capital was no surprise considering Atletico's formidable home record, but Wenger's team had opportunities to hurt the hosts, yet they continually failed to take them.
A new coach may yet drag something out of these players, but there is a mentality problem rooted in years of malaise at the club. Arsenal's squad is soft. The players do not rise to the occasion against better opponents and they coast, lazily at times, against weaker teams. So Wenger's successor must not only identify which players he believes are worth keeping because of their ability, he also has to assess which of them are strong enough mentally to play and prosper for Arsenal.
It is a big club, only Manchester United and Liverpool in England have a greater history of success than Arsenal, and they need to start punching their weight again. So where does the new coach start? What are the key issues waiting in his in-tray?
Improving the mentality is the priority, because a new mindset will set the tone.
Some of the players who have failed to deliver under Wenger could become key figures under a new man; the vast improvement of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain under Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool is an example of how a player can rediscover his spark with a change of manager.
A different voice on the touchline might encourage Mesut Ozil to try harder and work smarter, or hone Nacho Monreal's wayward crossing. Hector Bellerin is a player with talent who has stagnated under Wenger, but again, a new man can revive the Spanish full-back and make him the player he should be. Aaron Ramsey, Danny Welbeck and Jack Wilshere are others who can yet have a bright future, but while improving the attitude and mentality is the most important building block, new players are also absolutely vital.
But not only players -- Arsenal need leaders, too.
This is not a new realisation. Arsenal have lacked leaders for the best part of this decade and Wenger has chosen the players who have arrived, so he is at fault for the absence of powerful characters on the pitch. A leader at centre-half and in midfield would have a transformative effect on this team and raise the standards of those around them.
Whatever shock therapy that the new man inflicts on the squad, it will not turn Arsenal into winners and contenders straightaway. Another year in the Europa League will not help, but that is the reality that Arsenal have to deal with.
Yet, with this season's Europa League journey at an end, planning for the new era has to start now.
The Wenger era is done, and the end cannot come quickly enough, because every day that is wasted on the old regime is one day fewer for the new one to get working.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_