Arsenal finish fifth as time catches up with Arsene Wenger
Liverpool win on the final day to finish fourth as Gunners miss out on Champions League football
The last time Arsenal failed to qualify for the Champions League Princess Diana was still alive and Tony Blair was the dashing new Prime Minister.
Twenty years on and the world has changed in every which way but one - Arsene Wenger is still Arsenal manager.
In 1996-97, his first season in charge of the Gunners, the Frenchman guided the north London outfit to third in the Premier League, not enough in those days to merit a place in the Champions League. In 2016-17 Wenger's Arsenal finished fifth, ending a sequence of 20 consecutive seasons in Europe's premier competition and condemning the Arsenal faithful to the ignominy of Thursday night football.
For tens of thousands of Gooners it will be a novel and nightmarish experience, to play in the continent's tier two competition against clubs they've never heard of and, in one or two cases, countries they've never heard of.
But they will have to get used to it, because if Wenger stays at the helm next season then Arsenal can expect to finish outside the top four once more. Old Father time caught up with the Frenchman several seasons ago, 2013-14 to be precise, when Manchester City, Liverpool and Chelsea all put five goals and more past Arsenal.
Most managers would have realised their day had passed and resigned with their honour intact. Not Wenger. An FA Cup final win over Hull in May 2014, a top four finish, and it was business as usual the following season when exactly the same scenario unfolded.
In 2015-16 there was no FA Cup with which to fob off the fans but there was a second-place finish, ten points behind little old Leicester.
This season Wenger has failed to fumble his way into the top four although he could yet finish with his third FA Cup title in four years.
Can Arsenal beat Chelsea? It's unlikely given the Blues barnstorming form this season. On Sunday they gave Sunderland a one goal start before thundering to a 5-1 victory to set a new Premier League record of 30 wins in a campaign.
Across London Arsenal were easing past Everton - despite the early dismissal of Laurent Koscielny for a reckless challenge - but their 3-1 victory became irrelevant once Liverpool got into their stride.
For the first 44 minutes the Reds were wracked with tension at Anfield against Middlesbrough but then Georginio Wijnaldum scored on the stroke of half-time and two more goals shortly after the restart secured the three points that guaranteed Liverpool fourth place and condemned Arsenal to fifth and the indignity of the Europa League.
"I am really happy about this," said Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp. "A club like Liverpool needs to be in the Champions League. Other clubs have the same target so it is not easy to be there consistently. I am proud of the boys, we worked a lot and everything is good. Now we have to build on it."
Pride was a word also used by Wenger in his post-match analysis but for the Arsenal manager there was no accompanying smile. "It is annoying but we had a spell during the season that was difficult and it was difficult for me in my personal situation," he said in a response to a question about the failure to finish in the top four. "The players came back stronger in the last two months and I'm very proud of them for doing that."
Were he not so proud himself Wenger would step down and allow Arsenal to usher in the change that is so urgently required. Inept in the transfer market and on the tactics board, Wenger has been left behind by the new generation of coaches. Antonio Conte, Mauricio Pochettino, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp are the managers of the clubs that finished in the top four, and they are in their forties. Wenger has twenty years on them all, and it shows.
Arsenal crisis: What does Arsene Wenger offer as a manager?
Following Arsenal's abject defeat to Crystal Palace yesterday it seems that Arsene Wenger has reached the "point of no return" with Gunners fans. The club's supporters showered the players and manager with vitriol after another awful display – their fourth consecutive away defeat in the league.
"The abuse that came Wenger's way as he boarded the bus was savage – the players also copped it – while up in the Sky TV studio, even Jamie Carragher struggled to keep a lid on his anger," says David Hytner of The Guardian.
The idea that the Frenchman will be given another two-year contract is "crazy" says Henry Winter of The Times.
And it begs the question: What can Arsene Wenger offer Arsenal in the future?
Wenger supporters may argue that success is relative and the Gunners consistency counts in their favour, but the trophy count has dwindled since the turn of the century. It is 13 years since Arsenal last won the league and while three FA Cup wins since 2004 is not a bad return, an inability to win the Premier League or challenge in the Champions League does not reflect well on Wenger.
Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League in every full season under Wenger. Yet they have got to the final only once and in the 11 years since that defeat to Barcelona they have been knocked out in the last 16 on eight occasions. Indeed they have not made the quarter finals since 2010.
The Gunners seem destined to miss out on the Champions League next season, and on current form may struggle to qualify for the Europa League. But that could be a good thing as far as English football is concerned. "They have had plenty of chances and squandered every one," says Mike Anstead of MailOnline. "It's all too polite, too predictable. Move along, let someone else have a go."
Wenger has a reputation for spotting and developing young players. But it's almost 20 years since he was uncovering rough diamonds like Nicolas Anelka and Thierry Henry. Players like Aaron Ramsey and Theo Walcott are notable more for their lack of progress than their development in recent years. After a promising start last term Alex Iwobi has all but vanished this season.
Other recent graduates of the Arsenal academy include Emmanuel Frimpong, Chuks Aneke and Craig Eastmond.
Of the starting XI against Crystal Palace only goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez, full back Hector Bellerin and Walcott could be considered Arsenal products. The average age of the Arsenal team this season has been 26.7, according to the website TransferMarkt. That is marginally younger than Manchester United but older than Sunderland, Liverpool, Southampton and Spurs.
He attracts players:
For many years Wenger was accused of being too cautious in the transfer market, but in recent seasons he has begun to spend big, attracting the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to the club. Trouble is they are both set to quit at the end of the season, and few expect the likes of Monaco sensation Kylian Mbappe to choose the Gunners this summer.
It's claimed that Wenger's methods help lure big names, but given the number of players the Gunners have missed out on in recent seasons (from Julian Draxler to N'Golo Kante) that's open to question. Last season his marquee signing was Granit Xhaka, who has made little impact this season.
Last month the Daily Mirror published a team of players that Wenger failed to sign, featuring Lionel Messi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Luis Suarez.
Arsenal's once famed scouting network is due for a major revamp. It's telling that the Football London website says Wenger will be tasked with bringing Arsenal "in line with how most of the elite clubs work around Europe", if he stays. That suggests the Gunners have fallen behind the times.
"A sporting director will come in and the club's scouting network across the world will be given a fresh shake-up," says the website.
Tactics and motivation:
There is no doubt that Wenger is a proponent of the beautiful game, but his two most recent defeats in the Premier League have been inflicted on him by Tony Pulis and Sam Allardyce.
Against Crystal Palace Arsenal were worse after half time, which is a damning indictment of the manager's ability to get his team working. They also appear to have lost their fight.
"A collective flaw in the Arsenal team appears to be more psychological than a case of inferior technical ability, as it's evident that this current group of players possess enough skill and ability to contend for the major trophies," says Goal.com.
Arsenal Supporters' Trust finds 78 per cent want Wenger out
The extent of the revolt against Arsene Wenger at Arsenal was laid bare ahead of the Gunners' crucial clash with Man City this weekend when a survey by an influential fan group found 78 per cent of supporters wanted him to leave.
Arsenal Supporters' Trust has now joined the chorus calling for the manager to resign after 20 years in charge of the Emirates. It has called on the board "not to renew" his contract at the end of the season.
"Although Wenger has faced protests from small sections of supporters organised by minor fans' groups in recent weeks, the AST's opposition to the 67-year-old signing a two-year extension is significant given they are the most influential and recognisable voice of the club's fanbase," says the London Evening Standard.
"For the first time, the AST decided to ballot their members during the season amid mounting concerns over the disunity in the stands and the team's disappointing form.
"A total of 550 members took part in this month's poll and the results underline how support for Wenger has waned - in the last survey of its kind 18 months ago, 84 per cent backed the Frenchman to continue."
It amounts to "a vote of no confidence" in the manager and board, says the Daily Telegraph. Not only did 78 per cent of fans reject the idea of a new contract for Wenger, 86 per cent felt the management was not acting in the best interests of the club.
The situation is "alarming", says the Daily Mirror. Wenger is widely expected to sign a new two-year deal, although Arsenal has insisted "it will be a mutual decision with the views of supporters one of the factors taken into consideration".
Tensions are high at the Emirates over the issue, with fans seen fighting among themselves this season.
In addition to calling for a new manager and an overhaul of the board, the AST said it wanted to "reiterate the importance of this debate taking place in a civil and responsible way".