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Mar 24, 2014

Has Arsene Wenger stayed too long at Arsenal?

I once asked Arsene Wenger if he had a Plan B going into high-stakes away matches. Before deigning to descend from the high moral ground at Arsenal's training center, he looked at me as if I was something that had just been scraped off the blood- and mud-soaked studs of Ryan Shawcross' boots.

"We have only one plan," he said, voice dripping with Gallic hauteur, "and that's to play the right way."

Ah, the right way, which, of course, is Arsene speak for his way -- always going forward with pace, power and panache, the three P's that drove the Invincibles, the best league team in English history, an outfit that went a season unbeaten, won a boatload of major trophies, always played in Europe and more often than not produced the most beautiful soccer this side of Barcelona.

Well, Arsene, allow me to condescend to you this one time -- "Your right way has gone all wrong, garcon." If, God forbid, Arsenal loses to Wigan in the FA Cup -- or some other lesser team that the Gunners should pummel by six goals -- it will mark a milestone almost as remarkable as that of Wenger's 1,000 games in charge of North London's non-Europa League club.

Yes, that would make it nine years -- one short of a full decade! -- since Arsenal had won a trophy you can actually hoist rather than the metaphorical kind you get for finishing in fourth place. No wonder the Chelsea fans at my local pub were chanting "We want you to stay for another thousand games" before Saturday's match was even 10 minutes old.

- Mangan: Arsenal's fragility laid bare - Delaney: A day to forget - Worrall: Hapless Gunners shot down - Highlights: Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal (U.S. only)

What was once fresh and dazzling about "Wengerball" has become old-school and inflexible. And now that the sample size has reached its historic watershed, the ugly side of the Frenchman's taoism shows that it doesn't matter how pretty you play -- you're going to suffer for your art.

And I mean, really suffer. As in Saturday's 6-0 disemboweling at Stamford Bridge, which completed (or so Arsenal fans hope) a hat trick of humiliations in yet another season of stylish underachievement.

That it came on Wenger's landmark day -- when the script clearly called for his Gunners to remind themselves of their glorious Henry-Bergkamp-Pires heights of yore and slay chief tormentor Jose Mourinho -- only underlined what some Wenger critics (OK, Piers Morgan) have been saying for years: that a once great manager has become a victim of his own blinkered romanticism. Or narcissism.

The choice of terms depends upon the number of psychology courses you took in college. (I dropped out of Psych 101 once I confirmed that there's no cure for being a Spurs fan.)

The painful irony is that this is the same sophisticated technocrat who, almost 18 years ago, ushered in a revolutionary approach to how Arsenal players -- and by extension, every player in English soccer, with the possible exceptions of Tony Pulis' Stoke City -- ate, slept, drank, trained, rehabbed and dove. How could a man so sweepingly innovative be so utterly clueless when it comes to tactics and strategy against the so-called big teams? The numbers are brutal in their starkness. In matches at Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea, Arsenal were outscored 17-4. They were also outplayed, outfought and, perhaps most alarmingly, outwitted.

Kind, objective people (you know, the opposite of Jose Mourinho) would point out that the 64-year-old Frenchman is not the one losing the ball in midfield, getting twisted out of shape on defense or shanking shots into Heathrow flight paths. Nor, these same rational souls would argue, is Wenger responsible for Arsenal's wretched injury luck, although let's face it: the team physio is far busier than the trophy cabinet duster.

Against Chelsea, the Gunners were without their best (Aaron Ramsey), their fastest (Theo Walcott), their most expensive (Mesut Oezil) and their most hyped (Jack Wilshere) players. You can't expect Kim Kallstrom to compensate for all that missing talent unless you're Wenger, who still hands a paycheck to Nicklas Bendtner every week.

But even the sanest mustachioed analyst blames Wenger for his player selections and tactics. His decisions in this domain smack of a hubris that makes the Special One seem self-effacing by comparison. It turns out that his ludicrous, oversized sleeping bag coat is not nearly as puffed up as Wenger's confidence in his tactical judgment.

The only notion more blindly optimistic than starting Yaya Sanogo ahead of Olivier Giroud in successive games against Liverpool and Bayern Munich is believing that any single striker can carry the team's water across the rough terrain of a 50-60 game campaign. Thinking that a raw Ligue 2 20-year-old is somehow adequate cover for your regular 15-goals-a-season striker is just the cherry on the self-delusion sundae.

On Saturday we were treated to Wenger's next bit of strategic genius -- leaving midfield hit man Mathieu Flamini on the bench against Chelsea. After all, why would any manager want a player who could halt the Blues' breakneck counters with borderline legal tackles?

Instead, Wenger's game plan left Chelsea free to launch sweeping attacks as Arsenal continually coughed up the ball in the middle of the park. His longstanding maxim that possession is nine-tenths of the soccer law seemed about as effective as the Rogaine I use on my mustache. (I've taken it hard ever since Tom Selleck called it "weak.”) If you've been forced to watch Arsenal as long as I have, you know that the Gunners' other annoying maxim is "Why shoot the ball when you can walk it into the opponent's goal?"

The problem with this premise is that when you don't control the orb, as Arsenal failed to do against Chelsea, the only thing that walks into the net is your goalkeeper to retrieve it. Which is precisely what Wojciech Szczesny did on six different occasions Saturday, exerting himself to such a degree that he apparently couldn't even summon the energy to take one of his hilarious trademark selfies.

What makes Wenger's intransigence so vexing is that it fails to take into account the quality of Arsenal's opposition. Whether it's a hapless outfit like Fulham or a tactically astute team like Chelsea, Arsene's blueprint changes as frequently as the menu at Ray's Pizza.

The single drawn-out note of "attack" worked better in the Charge of the Light Brigade than with the jerry-rigged central midfield of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Santi Cazorla and Tomas Rosicky. The trio were predictably bullied by the defensive muscle of Nemanja Matic, David Luiz and the expletive-deleted John Terry.

This midfield mismatch, combined with the not-so-brilliant idea of playing a high defensive line against as speedy and gifted an attacking tandem as Eden Hazard and Oscar, had as much chance of working as I do when Arsenal play Wigan at Wembley on April 12 in the FA Cup semifinal.

There are only two possible explanations as to why Wenger simply will not learn. The first is that he is committed to the purity of his approach, that to veer away from perfection and beauty to the practical and banal is a crime against humanity. Or his level of myopia has reached Mr. Magoo levels.

The Arsenal manager's obdurate refusal to acknowledge the areas in which his rivals enjoy a tactical superiority and to adjust accordingly is enough to drive even the most Tebowish of Gooners to several sinful beverages before 9 a.m.. Take Ray, for instance. A Ph.D. candidate at Duke's engineering school, he was making his first visit to New York's Football Factory and immediately raised the IQ of the room a good two dozen points.

Ray had mercifully missed Duke's merciless first-round NCAA tournament loss to Mercer the night before, but the indignities he suffered in the first seven minutes of the Chelsea game more than made up for it. After watching the Gunners go down 2-0 and enduring the heartless cries of "Specialist in failure" from the baying Chelsea mob, Ray felt compelled to drink something stronger than the Arsenal Kool-Aid.

"It's the first time I've ever had a beer in the morning," he sheepishly admitted as if he had committed research plagiarism. I blame Wenger for corrupting the innocent among us.

Shorn of his most dangerous attackers and forced to deploy several jaded, exhausted and toothless replacements, he could have gone the Mourinho route and opted to keep things tight. After all, hadn't Arsenal's gritty, resilient defense dug in heroically the previous week against Spurs and withstood a second-half assault to preserve a 1-0 victory?

But Wenger's jogo bonita must be played, and since Chelsea is both more talented and less despicable than Tottenham, the die was cast as soon as the starting XIs were announced.

The fight was out of Arsenal well before the Great Penalty Farce, and anybody stating matters to the contrary is grasping at the wispiest of red cards. If anything, losing Kieran Gibbs was hardly a hammer blow given that he was lolling around in a different zip code for the first two goals. And while Ox wasn't much better, at least he was responsible for the one acrobatic save made by an Arsenal keeper, as once again it's obvious that Wenger needs to add a goalkeeper to his summer shopping cart.

That item can be placed right next to the requests for a left-back, a striker, a surly defensive midfielder and a left-sided player with some modicum of guile and athleticism. And if he uses Amazon Prime for shipping, he can probably get a couple of obscure French teenagers thrown in for good measure.

In his first year with real money, Wenger pulled off the magnificent coup of bringing Ozil to the Emirates but at the same time stubbornly resisted crossing off the rest of the team's needs on his shopping list.

As always, the rumors of the $100 million summer transfer kitty abound, and as usual, I expect that Arsene will leave most of it behind the sofa cushions. If that happens, then I suspect you'll see a lot more variations of my favorite sign from Saturday: "In Arsene Wet Rust."