FA Cup success won't help Arsenal, Chelsea prove change is the only way
LONDON -- There was a time when Arsene Wenger played the role of the slick, vibrant, bold, fresh-thinking foreign coach in the Premier League, winning a league and FA Cup double in his first full season as Arsenal manager and leaving his rivals trailing in his wake.
Wenger was 48 at the time, so hardly a coaching novice, but by guiding Arsenal to the Double in 1998, he injected English football with something new and set the club on course for almost a decade at the top, jostling with Sir Alex Ferguson's Manchester United in a two-way battle for supremacy.
But as the "Wenger Out" banners and chants at the Emirates show, those days are long gone and Wenger is now a man clinging on to his job as younger, more confident rivals, breeze past him, almost failing to notice the 67-year-old on their way.
Little will highlight the shifting sands under Wenger more than the presence of Antonio Conte prowling the Wembley touchline on Saturday, with the Italian attempting to drive Chelsea on to the league and cup double in his first season in charge at Stamford Bridge.
At 47, Conte is the ambitious, driven, but experienced, coach that Wenger was when he arrived at Arsenal from Japanese club Grampus Eight in 1996. He has energised and renewed Chelsea, just as Wenger did at Arsenal 21 years ago, and it is he who is now attempting to create his own dynasty in London.
Conte has not yet been the transformative force at Chelsea that Wenger was at Arsenal or within English football, though. Whatever becomes of Wenger after the Cup final -- and few expect him to leave the Emirates this summer -- he was broke the mould when he arrived in England; he was a force for change and altered the game beyond recognition.
But Wenger is now the man under threat of being blown away by the winds of change - and the likes of Conte, Pep Guardiola, Jurgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino -- because he has stayed on for too long and failed to evolve.
That is why Saturday's trip to Wembley may become an ordeal rather than a cause for celebration for Wenger, even if Arsenal win. When Louis van Gaal walked up the Wembley steps as Manchester United manager last May to collect the FA Cup after his team had defeated Crystal Palace, the Dutchman, who was sacked within 48 hours, was booed by his own club's supporters.
Perhaps that is an indictment of the modern game and the insatiable, unrealistic demands for success from supporters of the biggest clubs. But after failing to guide Arsenal into the Champions League, an FA Cup win will not appease those fans who want Wenger to go and he might find himself subjected the same treatment as Van Gaal, simply because so many Arsenal supporters have had enough.
They look at Chelsea's ability to renew themselves and win major honours, regardless of the countless managerial changes at Stamford Bridge; they see Tottenham emerging as a potential force for the next decade; they see United go through a painful post-Alex Ferguson transition, yet still manage to win three major trophies in 12 months -- as many as Wenger has brought to Arsenal in the last 12 years.
Under Wenger, Arsenal have had stability, but it has only brought malaise and stagnation. The view is now that managers and coaches work best in cycles of three to four years; that players and squads become stale without some change during that timescale. And there are few exceptions to this theory among the game's biggest clubs.
Over the past three years all of Arsenal's domestic rivals, plus Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, have changed their manager at least once and they are all in a better position than Arsenal right now.
The situation that Arsenal and Chelsea now find themselves in sums up the argument quite nicely.
Chelsea, a year after finishing in mid-table after their woeful title defence cost Jose Mourinho his job, are now on the brink of the club's second league and cup double under Conte. The former Juventus and Italy coach has given the whole club a jolt, brought a positive energy, new ideas and demands, and the players have responded.
But Arsenal? Once again, it has been the same old story. Their annual failure to get past the round of 16 of the Champions League and mount a serious Premier League title challenge has become so predictable. Year-on-year there are the same flaws, the same excuses, the same ups and downs, but nobody at the club seems prepared to do anything about it.
Wenger must see it, but he doesn't act. The same applies to the board and majority shareholder Stan Kroenke, also. It has become a comfortable club, one too ready to accept the bare minimum as success.
But Arsenal and Wenger have failed to deliver the bare minimum this season, and not even winning the FA Cup will make up for that. As Wenger stands on the Wembley touchline, many fans will be looking over to the opposite dugout where a hungry club led by an ambitious and driven manager will highlight what a difference a change can make.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_