When Arsenal arrived at Selhurst Park on Monday night, their task could hardly have been clearer. After weekend victories for Liverpool, Manchester City and Manchester United, nothing less than all three points would do for Arsene Wenger’s men in their pursuit of a place in the top four. Instead, the Gunners proceeded to plumb new depths, as a flat and feeble performance saw them comfortably beaten 3-0 by Sam Allardyce’s resurgent Crystal Palace outfit.
The gap separating Arsenal from the Champions League qualification spots now stands at seven points, but the biggest issue surrounding the club goes far beyond the outcome of this season. Wenger once again dismissed questions related to his future in his post-match press conference – “I think it would be inconvenient to speak about me tonight,” he told reporters – but even a manager who has famously suffered from defective vision when it comes to spotting his players’ misdemeanours on the pitch must be able to see the damage that such uncertainty is doing to his team.
Arsenal have been extremely poor for much of 2017. A shock 2-1 loss to Watford in late January began a dismal run of results which the Gunners have still not ended: their last 12 matches in all competitions have yielded just four wins – and two of those came against non-league opposition in the FA Cup. Chelsea, Liverpool, Bayern Munich (twice), West Bromwich Albion, as well as Walter Mazzarri’s Watford, have all got the better of Arsenal in the last couple of months, but Monday’s setback at Selhurst felt like the nadir.
Arsenal were well beaten by a team who were not just sharper and hungrier, but also more coherent and better coached. Christian Benteke bullied centre-backs Gabriel Paulista and Shkodran Mustafi; Wilfried Zaha and Andros Townsend terrorised Hector Bellerin and Nacho Monreal on the flanks; Yohan Cabaye took advantage of acres of space to continually drive forward both with and without the ball; Luka Milivojevic put out fires in front of the back four; and Mamadou Sakho completely dominated his own penalty area. Arsenal, meek and toothless, managed a grand total of zero shots on target in the second half. At the other end of the field, they have now conceded three goals in four consecutive away league games for the first time since 1929.
For the last few seasons, the argument in favour of retaining the Frenchman has centred on his remarkable consistency in guiding Arsenal into the Champions League. Yet even that rather modest objective looks unattainable this year, and it must now be obvious to even the most ardent of Wenger loyalists that the only way to end the staleness and stagnation engulfing the north London outfit is to make a change in the dugout. The assertion from some that this will inevitably lead to the sort of dramatic drop-off that accompanied Manchester United’s first post-Sir Alex Ferguson season is unfounded, and there is even an argument to be had that a brief absence from the Champions League while a rebuild is under way would be preferable to the persistent and predictable cycle of failure of present times.
But despite all that, well-informed reports suggest that Wenger is much more likely to stay than go. A two-year deal has supposedly been on the table for months, and the manager’s repeated insistence that he will announce his decision soon shows exactly where the power in this arrangement lies. There has been talk of various conditions being inserted into the new contract – including a potential overhaul of the coaching staff and the provision of a sizeable war chest to spend in the transfer market – but the bottom line seems to be that Wenger will be permitted to extend his reign by another two seasons.
If that is indeed the case, it is a damning indictment of the dysfunctionality of a club that, much like the players who represented it on Monday evening, looks utterly rudderless and lacking in ideas. Wenger may yet cling on, but there will be no happy ending to this story.