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Transfer Rater: Chris Smalling to Arsenal

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 By Ian Darke

Arsene Wenger deserves to leave Arsenal with dignity and acclaim

Former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson believes Arsene Wenger may be on his way out.

It was Ian Wright who first noticed the haunted, distant look in the eyes of Arsene Wenger, prompting him to declare: "I think this might be his last year." Another of his old Arsenal players, Martin Keown, said Wenger resembles a fighter who has taken too many punches. Then the 5-1 hammering at Bayern Munich happened. 

Arsenal's embarrassing Champions League loss does indeed look like the beginning of the end for a great man and manager.

After 21 years, three titles and six FA Cups, Wenger -- who revolutionised the way English football clubs approached the game -- deserves to go with dignity and acclaim ringing in his ears.

But it is time, just as it was for even the most accomplished managers in the end. No shame in losing to a very good Bayern team. But the manner of the second-half collapse confirmed that Wenger's side lacks steel, leadership and mental fortitude. 

Rio Ferdinand, accustomed to the ear-bashings of Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United, wonders if Wenger can provoke a reaction in his players any longer.

Have they heard it all before? Perhaps they, too, have been wearied by the near civil war among Arsenal fans over whether the long-serving boss should stay or go. 

From the outside, it looks like a club in some turmoil, especially with the doubts hanging over the futures of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil. For a time this season it looked as though those two were determined to break Arsenal's title drought. They appeared to have the "eye of the tiger." Yet, once again, a promising Premier League campaign has faded to the point where the title is out of reach as it has been every season since the Invincibles of 2004.

Ozil's disgraceful display at Bayern said it all. The gifted but frustrating playmaker looked as if he was in training for the London to Brighton walk instead of a spot in the Champions League quarterfinals.

The truth is Arsenal have become complacent citizens of Easy Street. They're simply too content with finishing each season in the top four to qualify for the lucrative Champions League, even if they have exited at the round-of-16 stage six (soon to be seven) years running.

In his early trophy-laden years at Arsenal, Wenger had men of steel in Tony Adams, Sol Campbell, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit. Everyone knew that Arsenal could look after themselves as well as play magnificent football.

But then Wenger seemed to start believing he could dispense with big characters and win with a team of poets, passers and dreamers. Lovely to watch. At times brilliant. But not winners like those Gunners of 1998, 2002 and 2004.

ESPN FC's Julien Laurens assesses the reasons Arsene Wenger might want to stay at Arsenal.

It may be that the current team will bounce back from the Munich mauling. But the club gives the impression of needing a hurricane to blow through it.

As with the post-Ferguson era at Manchester United, it may take time for Arsenal to be successful again once Wenger has gone. Within months there may even be fans calling radio stations pining for his return.

But it is time for them to try a new way. Wenger's race -- and in many ways it has been a magnificent one -- has been run. Arsenal should build a statue and name a stand, maybe even the ground, after him. But nothing lasts forever, and the look on Wenger's face in Munich suggested this highly intelligent but proud and stubborn man now realises it.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.

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