LONDON (AP) - Arsene Wenger is the last of a dying breed, the soccer coach who can establish a long-standing dynasty at a club and seems to be able to decide for himself whether or not he leaves.
In the 21st year of his Arsenal reign, Wenger is the longest-serving manager in a leading European league.
Whatever pressures counterparts face, Wenger seems to emerge largely unscathed within the hierarchy regardless of the setbacks on the pitch, of which there have been many during his second decade.
The succession of silverware - which peaked when the “Invincibles” side went unbeaten throughout the whole season in the 2003/04 campaign - has been replaced by a cycle of capitulations, the latest a 5-1 humiliation in the Champions League at Bayern Munich.
The ownership is more forgiving than the fans, rigidly standing by the Frenchman who was once a trailblazer but who has now been overtaken by a new generation of more tactically-flexible, innovative coaches.
“We are all very high on Arsene,” Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke said in a rare interview with The Associated Press recently.
And for all Wenger’s shortcomings he has delivered Champions League qualification in every season in charge, guaranteeing the comfort blanket of the UEFA windfall for Kroenke by finishing in the Premier League’s top four.
But how healthy is it for any business when an employee appears able to set his own departure terms rather than his bosses calling the shots?
“No matter what happens I will manage next season … is it here or somewhere else?” Wenger said Friday, toying with Arsenal and asserting his power.
Perhaps he’s just waiting to be begged to stay. There’s often a convenient array of stories linking Wenger with leading jobs, including Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain in recent years, whenever the pressure from fans starts to intensify, showing he’s a man in demand.
The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and Wenger reminded Arsenal fans of that.
There was also a history lesson. Arsenal has failed to win the European Cup under Wenger but it didn’t under any predecessor - or qualify as often. However, Wenger’s only Champions League final appearance in 2006 ended in a loss to Barcelona.
The Champions League now often determines the fates of the elite managers in a way it didn’t in the pre-1992 format where only the national champions made the European Cup.
Louis van Gaal was fired by Manchester United after two seasons despite lifting the FA Cup in May because he failed to secure a top-four finish to make the Champions League. Successor Jose Mourinho will survive in the job if his sixth-place side misses out again but patience will eventually wear thin at Old Trafford where Alex Ferguson ruled for more than 26 years until his retirement in 2013.
The post-Ferguson troubled succession rang alarm bells at Arsenal, with Kroenke reflecting in October that it underlined how replacing Wenger would be “very hard.”
Continental sides are more accustomed to managerial churn. Wenger’s decision over his Arsenal future could dictate Barcelona’s thinking over Luis Enrique, although he has the cushion of delivering a treble and double in the past two seasons.
Barcelona striker Luis Suarez reflected Friday how his coach was “under attack” amid uncertainty about his job.
“Our coach is grown up, mature and aware enough to know his current situation and which decision he should make,” Suarez said. “He must know the decision he has already made or will make and we will accept it … if he continues or not.”
Like Wenger, Enrique is facing exiting Champions League at the start of the knockout round unless he can also overturn a four-goal deficit against PSG.
It was a particularly gratifying success for Unai Emery, who replaced Laurent Blanc as PSG coach last year - even though his predecessor had won back-to-back domestic trebles.
It was Blanc’s failure to steer PSG beyond the Champions League quarterfinals that opened up the vacancy for Emery, fresh from a treble of Europa League titles with Sevilla.
Four league defeats late last year put Emery under huge pressure, but the Qatari owners backed Emery and PSG produced victories in 11 of its last 12 games.
But not only are five-time European champions Barcelona facing missing the quarterfinals for the first time in a decade, they are also trailing Real Madrid in the Spanish league.
Zinedine Zidane, that rare commodity of a club great who makes a success at coaching, has encountered no such difficulties in Madrid’s European title defense.
Instead the 3-1 victory over Napoli put counterpart Maurizio Sarri on the receiving end of a tirade of criticism from owner Aurelio De Laurentiis.
“The lads lacked the usual Neapolitan grit,” De Laurentiis said, while questioning Sarri’s team selection. “They were frozen when faced with these sacred monsters of Real Madrid.”
It was forthright and brutal, but a typical tirade from such a volatile owner.
In Germany, the public statements are more restrained, but the clubs are no less ruthless behind the scenes. A series of reports indicate that Bayer Leverkusen is already looking at replacing Roger Schmidt at the end of the season.
With more losses than wins in Bundesliga, the team is 22 points off the pace. Ultimately it could be the Champions League that determines his fate, with Atletico Madrid up next.
In Diego Simeone, Atletico has Spain’s longest-serving current coach, having just entered his sixth year with the team.
Twice, Simeone has reached the final of the Champions League, eclipsing Wenger’s record in the competition. And he’ll be top of the list if Wenger vacates what seems one of the most secure jobs in European soccer, belying his European record.
The quick-fix at a club is replacing the manager. It’s also the toughest decision to make.
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.twitter.com/RobHarrisReports
Jerome Pugmire in Paris, Andrew Dampf in Rome, Ciaran Fahey in Berlin, and Joseph Wilson in Barcelona, Spain contributed to this report.
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