The Premier League has been awash with impressive managers this season, but Arsene Wenger is struggling to justify his place among them, writes Rob Conlon.
Two-nil up and cruising, Arsenal were playing with a confidence and attacking verve recently rediscovered thanks to morale-boosting victories over Everton and Watford, and their insistence they could still win the title was starting to gather a little credibility.
And yet could anything more predictable have taken place?
While West Ham had defended poorly, Slaven Bilic’s men had already caused their London rivals problems going forward. Manuel Lanzini twice picked up on a loose ball inside the Arsenal penalty area – only an incorrect offside flag prevented the Argentinian from opening the scoring.
As soon as Andy Carroll grabbed the Hammers a lifeline with a powerful header in the 44th minute, an air of inevitability surrounded Upton Park.
Arsenal’s defence were rattled. Nine minutes later, the England international had completed his hat-trick.
160 – There were just 160 seconds between Andy Carroll’s first and second goals against Arsenal. Riposte.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 9, 2016
Credit must be given to Arsenal for the fight they showed to recover from their collapse and earn a point. But sides which want to be taken seriously as title contenders simply do not switch from quality to calamity so readily.
And throughout one of the most pulsating encounters of the season, the two dugouts produced an equally fascinating battle. One which points towards a wider theme across the whole of the Premier League.
West Ham’s appointment of Bilic last summer was met by little fanfare, but the Croatian can feel aggrieved that only the spectacular achievements of some of his peers will prevent him from being in contention to be named Manager of the Year.
That’s not to say he has been faultless. On Saturday afternoon the 47-year-old’s decision to start with a back three was punished by Arsenal’s opening two goals, with the Gunners’ midfielders given far too much time on the ball and James Tomkins looking particularly uncomfortable.
But Bilic rectified his error at half-time, replacing centre-half Tomkins with striker Emmanuel Emenike. With the north Londoners’ defence struggling with the brute force of Carroll, Laurent Koscielny and co. suddenly had a second burly presence to worry about. Bilic’s decision paid dividends immediately, as Carroll was afforded the space to peel off to the back post and tower over poor Hector Bellerin.
With the busy Lanzini always menacing and Dimitri Payet playing with the majesty to match his recent plaudits (the highlight of which a nonchalant nutmeg on Francis Coquelin), such a gung-ho approach from the Hammers was almost unfathomable under Sam Allardyce last season.
And Bilic is part of throng of managers currently showing up the old guard. Mauricio Pochettino, Eddie Howe, Alex Neil, Quique Sanchez Flores and Ronald Koeman have all inspired greater results than their resources suggest plausible. Of course it would be unfair to ignore the fact that league leaders Leicester are led by 64-year-old Claudio Ranieri, but with Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp – the poster boys for the new breed of manager – having summers to transform Manchester City and Liverpool, respectively, only further enterprise and innovation is going to be injected into the Premier League.
Wenger, meanwhile, has run out of excuses. The Frenchman’s reasoning in the past that Arsenal have only failed to get their hands on silverware due to the financial doping of the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City is no longer applicable now the Gunners are once more capable of splashing the cash.
When taking into account Wenger’s argument that those who spend the most will win, Arsenal’s likely failure to win a single trophy this season becomes even more damning. Judging by last term’s figures, Arsenal had the fourth highest wage bill in the Premier League. Only Chelsea, City and Manchester United spent more. Those three sides have all endured one of their worst campaigns in recent years. Wenger had the opportunity to win the title almost by default, yet is set to be trumped by two clubs which spend considerably less.
In one of the most turbulent top-flight seasons of all-time, a campaign in which their traditional rivals have either imploded, stagnated, or flattered to deceive, Arsenal remain nervously peering over their shoulder with their place in next season’s Champions League still under threat. Ahead of them? One of the favourites for relegation and their arch rivals. The more things change, the more they stay the same at the Emirates.