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Sport

Needed: Change of personnel at Arsenal

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AGE. . .  Arsene Wenger at the Arsenal touchline during his first season in charge in 1996 (left), and (right) cutting a lonely figure in 2013

Wenger changed the history of Arsenal and its style from defensive to fast, fluid and engaging. But even he appears gray and red-eyed now...

It feels like the end of an era around Arsenal. A 3-1 loss in London at the Emirates, to Bayern Munich in the Champions League earlier this week deepened the debate on whether Arsene Wenger still had the ability to rebuild and sustain his own legacy at Arsenal. 

"Let's not hide the truth, " Wenger, Arsenal's manager for 16 seasons, said after the beating. "Bayern is a quality side. It can beat anybody in Europe, but we are in a vicious circle. We need results to build confidence before the second leg in three weeks' time, but we are not getting the results we deserve. " Ever the believer. Sounding as if he had faith, as he should, in the players, every one of whom he has personally chosen and coached. But, as he said, let's not hide. 

We won't. His current squad has no player powerful and strong as a beast, as Patrick Vieira once was for Wenger's "Invincible" Arsenal. It has no Dennis Bergkamp to invent and to inspire in attack. Not even a Cesc Fabregas or a Robin van Persie, the world-class players who left Arsenal with little choice but to sell them in the last two seasons. 

Keep on shedding outstanding individuals, and the team and the confidence that Wenger has worked so long to inculcate will dry up. 

As many people suspected would happen, Bayern rolled over Arsenal. The score barely reflected the dawning reality. In organization, in desire, skill and yes, in confidence, there was only one likely winner. 

"This season (it) is very difficult to score against us, " said Jupp Heynckes, Munich's coach who, at 67, is four years Wenger's senior. Heynckes has a side that has effectively already won the German league, but it is bent on going one step further that it did last season in the Champions League, when it was beaten in the final, in its own arena. 

Difficult to score against used to be an Arsenal trait. Scoring at will at the other end of the field is now a useful Bayern habit, and a fading Arsenal dream. 

When one side eclipses the other so comprehensively, it is perhaps unkind to pick out individuals. But let's do that anyway. 

From the seventh minute on, when Toni Kroos scored the opening goal for Bayern, it looked as if he were coming of age. Ever since Kroos was 17, and a budding member of the Munich youth system, experts have expected him to mature into something special. 

Now 23, he has caught up to and may be ready to overtake faster-maturing players, like Thomas Miller, who came from the same soccer school. The Kroos goal, volleyed from the edge of the penalty box, was handsome enough, but Arsenal's defense was in disarray then, and again at 21 minutes when M?ller stole the second. 

Lukas Podolski, an Arsenal player who didn't make it in Munich, popped up to head the first goal Bayern has conceded since mid-December. But any suggestion of a comeback, any hope of the renowned Wenger stardust's enabling his team to escape the hole it had dug for itself, disappeared when Mario Mandzukic spun in his customary goal in the second half. 

Arsenal's brightest young talent, Jack Wilshere, toiled in vain. He stood up manfully at the end, saying, "We're not out of it yet. We didn't start well, and we got punished. " And Wilshere tried to shield Wenger from what everyone outside the team is saying. "I don't think, " said Wilshere, "it has got anything to do with the boss. He's been here for 16 years and done a great job. We players have to take responsibility. " Wilshere, bless him, turned 21 in January. He would have been 4 when Wenger started as Arsenal manager - and 13 when Arsenal last won a trophy. 

Wenger is a philosophical coach who has changed the history of Arsenal and changed its style from defensive to, at its best, fast, fluid and engaging. But even he appears gray and red-eyed now. Even the alchemist of Highbury, the former ground where Arsenal flourished before it moved to the swanky new Emirates stadium, must fear that his formula is not working. 

Gordon Strachan, the Scotland team manager, summed it up from a television studio at the stadium Tuesday: "We all go through spells as players and as managers when we're not so good. Wenger is a better manager now than he was 10 years ago because he's got more knowledge. But he had better players then than he has now. " In a nutshell. Wenger is responsible for the players he has now, nobody else.

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