It was a fitting epitaph for a season of missed opportunities. Arsenal have been unable to take their chances all campaign, unable to assert themselves when openings have presented themselves in matches and beyond, and so it proved again when Danny Welbeck inexplicably contrived to miss from seven yards out in the dying minutes of their 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat to Watford.
This has been a season of squandered open goals – most notably in the Premier League. Leicester City’s ascent has been characterised as a modern day fairytale; at Arsenal it is only a painful story of what could have been in the most open season the Premier League has experienced. Even in such fortuitous circumstances, Arsenal have wilted. And now their season lies in tatters.
If Welbeck’s late shot had gone in it would have rescued a 2-2 draw for Arsenal and forced a replay, but in all likelihood such an event would only have served to prolong the club’s suffering. The current squad are not immune from the endemic frailty which has characterised the second half of Wenger's reign, and 2015-16 is unmistakably a disaster to rival any other.
Technically, Saturday’s loss to Watford narrows Arsenal’s chances of winning a trophy by 33% with the Premier League and the Champions League in play; realistically, it leaves them with no chance of a redeeming feature to their season.
Possessing a 2-0 lead from the first leg in London, Barcelona can be comfortably expected to knock Arsenal out of the Champions League on Wednesday night. Before that match even kicks off, they could be 11 points behind leaders Leicester City should Claudio Ranieri ruin Rafa Benitez’s Premier League return on Monday night.
Since beating Leicester City 2-1 at Emirates Stadium – one late Welbeck chance which did go in – Arsenal have won just one and crucially lost four of seven games in all competitions. Even by Wenger’s exalted standards, it is quite the collapse. In the season which has made you question everything you know about football, one comforting constant has remained: Arsenal’s ability to implode in the spring.
In a fortunate piece of timing ahead of a match which has brought Wenger’s value into sharp focus, Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke gave a very rare insight into his thinking just this week. “For me, being an individual owner, I have to have some sort of reality involved,” he said, speaking at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. “If you want to win championships then you would never get involved.”
Kroenke is not a man engaged in the glory game; for Arsenal’s American majority owner, trophies are not the stated business goal. This is important because it explains why Kroenke will never sack Wenger. His hope for Arsenal is presumably that they enjoy the cash windfall of competing in the Champions League every season, and Wenger has reached the group stages for the past 19 seasons in a row. No manager has ever been as successful at doing so. No-one else in football has this record.
When you further consider that Wenger is not a man likely to agitate for the club to spend their cash reserves of £135.9 million, it is transparently clear that Kroenke could hardly envisage a more perfect manager to handle one of the key investments in his portfolio. Asking him to sack Wenger is like asking a Wall Street broker to dump stock that has performed every year for two decades.
Arsenal shareholder Stan Kroenke (left) with Chairman Chips Keswick
Image credit: PA Photos
The trouble is that Kroenke’s priorities are almost diametrically opposed to those of the supporters. At a club which charges the highest ticket prices in Europe, it is unconscionable to hoard so much money. But even more significant, on an emotional level, is the lack of ambition when it comes to winning the two titles which really matter: the Premier League and the Champions League. Two FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015 have not been enough to shield Wenger from deserved criticism.
Given his enduring value to Kroenke and the owner’s business model, it seems likely that the only conceivable scenario in which Wenger will leave Arsenal is if the atmosphere becomes so toxic that he is forced to step down in an attempt to protect his own dignity and that of the club. It is not unthinkable, especially if Tottenham take advantage of the Premier League power vacuum and win their first title since 1961.
Because nothing would accentuate Wenger’s failings more, and turn public opinion against him even more profoundly, than Tottenham finally finishing above the Frenchman in the Premier League for the first time. That is the moment when maddening stasis becomes unacceptable regression.