Wenger's legacy is at stake as Arsenal reach a crossroads
Gunners boss must adapt his approach or risk tarnishing his reputation as Man Utd come calling
As Arsenal welcome Manchester United to the Emirates this weekend Arsene Wenger, once again, finds himself at a crossroads with his reputation and legacy at stake.
Despite a summer spending spree, which brought some talented players to the Emirates but failed to plug the gaping holes in this squad, Wenger's side have stalled and stumbled this season, and they are eight points off their position this time last year.
Wenger himself has admitted that the Gunners' title challenge is already over, and if the Frenchman is to claim another Premier League crown before his expected retirement in 2017 it is becoming clear he will have to make concessions to the realities of the modern game.
Defeat against their traditional enemy on Saturday would leave Arsenal languishing below Louis van Gaal's side in the table, and it would raise a legitimate question: which of these two sides is the one in crisis?
The answer appeared obvious only a few weeks ago. After a disastrous season under David Moyes, Louis van Gaal's Manchester United started the campaign in woeful fashion. The era of United appeared to be over. Now, though, Van Gaal has started to turn the ship around. Despite an injury crisis worse even than the one affecting Arsenal, his side have ground out results and clawed their way back up the table. The momentum is with Old Trafford, while Arsenal are still treading water.
The key is that the United boss has shown himself willing to adapt, for example ditching his preferred 5-3-3 formation in favour of a traditional back four. It is an approach Wenger should learn from, for his idealism is in danger of destroying his reputation.
Indeed, the Frenchman faces a paradox. If he sticks to his principles of free-flowing football played by home-grown stars free to express themselves in all areas of the pitch then his prospects of winning an elusive fourth title by in the next three seasons appear slim. Arsenal's main rivals know how to nullify the threat, the side appears unable to close out games and the academy has failed to produce a generation of stars.
Today only three Arsenal regulars (Wojciech Szczesny, Jack Wilshere and Kieran Gibbs) came through the youth system. Wenger's philosophy has borne little fruit over the last decade and he is in danger of going down in history as a stubborn idealist whose star shone brightly but waned.
But if he accepts the realities of the modern game, plugs the gaps in his squad, adopts a more tactical approach to games and picks his teams accordingly, then he could yet secure another Premier League crown and at the same time cement his reputation as one of the great, visionary managers.
Even Wenger loyalists agree that things need to change in the final years of his stewardship. Writing in FourFourTwo, Chas Newkey-Burden accepts that Wenger has drifted towards "stubborness" in recent years. "Left to his own devices, Wenger's regime has increasingly been defined by eccentricity and oversights," he says.
He needs guidance, for without change he risks "a regretful, Thatcherseque end to his reign", says Newkey-Burden.
There are also similarities with Brian Clough, whose latter years were less than successful and left a stain on his career. Wenger will not finish in the same way that Clough did, but there could be a similar number of regrets.
In another paen to Wenger, Arsenal fan John Henson, writing for the International Business Times, compares Wenger's influence to that of Johan Cruyff at Barcelona, where the Dutchman is credited with laying the foundations of the club's recent dominance. He also notes that Cruyff was twice sacked by the Spanish club.
Not being in the hotseat when success arrived did not do Cruyff's reputation any harm. And there could be a lesson for Wenger. The time is fast approaching where, if he continues to dream rather than scheme, Arsenal's French manager has more to lose by remaining in charge than he has to gain.