We speak in defence of Arsene Wenger, and why Arsenal Football Club would do better to stick with him in turbulent times.
I am planting my flag. I am drawing my line in the sand. I am #WengerIn. There, I said it.
I am certainly in the minority here. In fact, I very well might be on my own. Most Arsenal fans, pundits, journalists, bloggers, Piers Morgan, what’s-his-face from Arsenal Fan TV; all seem to agree that Wenger’s time is up. He’s lost it. He’s no longer the great innovator he once was. The game has caught him up, and passed him by. He is tactically inflexible. His teams can’t defend corners. They can’t do it on a cold Tuesday night in Stoke.
I know criticisms of Wenger aren’t all without merit. He is not the perfect manager. He has weaknesses – weaknesses that have become more apparent this season than any other.
In my defence of Wenger, I won’t discuss the highlights of the first ten years of his reign; the League and FA Cup double in his first full season in charge, the great Wenger-Ferguson rivalry, the Invincibles, that oh-so-close night in Paris. I won’t discuss those points here for two reasons. Firstly, better and more knowledgeable writers than I no doubt have their eulogies prepped and ready to publish the second Wenger does leave the club. Secondly, Arsenal fans already know about these successes all too well. It’s these successes that are now the rope around Wenger’s neck. For ten years, Arsenal fans were spoiled rotten by the gifts that Wenger bestowed upon us. For a whole decade, along with Manchester United, Arsenal were the best club in England.
For reasons well recounted, the second period of Wenger’s reign (marked by the move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006) has not been as successful as the first. Arsenal no longer has the first or second best team, but the third or fourth. The intricacies of the WengerIn/WengerOut argument are varied and lengthy, but, in the end, it all really comes down to this drop in status.
My rebuttal to all this is based on some super-advanced statistical analysis: in the years between 1950-51 and 1996-97, Arsenal’s league position, taken as an average (and rounded down by 0.13 recurring), was 7th. For much of the second half of the 20th century, then, Arsenal was a distinctly average team. Go and look it up if you don’t believe me. Arsenal once finished 17th. In 1994-95, Arsenal finished 12th.
For the twenty years Wenger has been in charge, Arsenal’s average league position has sat exactly between 3rd and 2nd. Taken as a whole, these twenty years have been the best in Arsenal’s history since the 1930s. Even in Wenger’s years of want, between 2006 to the present, Arsenal’s league position has been between 3rd and 4th. Still significantly better than 7th.
Arsenal has no inalienable right to be regularly competing with the top teams. Sure, Arsenal had success before Wenger. Most significantly in the late 80s, in which George Graham built a team that won the league twice, in 1988-89 and then again in 1990-90. The following years however (and those preceding Wenger joining the club) saw Arsenal finish 4th, 10th, 4th, 12th and 5th. What does that average? You guessed it, 7th.
Here, then, is the crux of the matter – I would rather take the average of 3rd and 4th, with the occasional tilt at the title, FA Cup wins, and one or two memorable nights in the Champions League, than ever risk being a seventh-in-the-league side. The gap between a side that finishes in the top four and one that finishes seventh isn’t just three places. It means no longer even being in the hat at the start of the season of those teams expected to compete for the title. It’s playing on artificial pitches on cold Thursday nights somewhere in Eastern Europe on Channel 5. You think players like Alexis Sanchez would join an Arsenal that finishes seventh?
And that is a real risk. My fear is that without Arsene Wenger, the club and the team collapses. Manchester United still hasn’t recovered from the loss of Ferguson. Wenger, like Fergie at United, is so influential, so dominant within the Arsenal hierarchy, makes so many of the decisions at the Club – what happens if he leaves this summer? Who takes over this responsibility? Does the owner or the board have any inkling of what to do post-Wenger? It seems unlikely.
We all know that the team is not in a good place right now. The recent uplift in form that we’ve seen over the last few games aside, I can’t remember an Arsène Wenger team playing so badly for such a prolonged period of time. The 2-0 loss to a very good Tottenham side was as expected as it was galling. However, given the importance of Wenger to the running of Arsenal, this surely is the worst possible time for him to leave.
Consider, for a moment, the following. Having just missed out on the top four places, Arsenal lose conclusively to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final. Wenger, Arsenal’s most successful ever manager, doesn’t sign a contract extension and leaves the club under a cloud. Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez immediately hand in transfer requests. Héctor Bellerín’s head is turned by an offer from Barcelona. One of the rich French clubs comes in for Laurent Koscielny. Jack Wilshere decides to stay at Bournemouth. What do the likes of Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Aaron Ramsey think at this point? ‘Sod-this-for-a-lark’, probably.
We know that Wenger’s intervention was key in securing both Alexis and Ozil. We know how much the current players admire and respect him. Players want to play under him, want to be coached by him. Without Wenger, without Champions League football, can we continue to attract these types of players? Would anyone sign for an Arsenal team that has finished 5th, just lost its best players and most successful manager, a club which is owned by Stan “If you want to win Championships then you would never get involved” Kroenke; whose fan base, angry and frustrated, is quicker to boo than cheer, which doesn’t pay as much as its rivals?
Where will going Wenger-cold-Turkey leave us next season? Certainly not 4th. Maybe 7th. Maybe lower. It seems to me that Wenger is the one man who can stop this collapse.
I’m not saying change, in the long term, isn’t necessary. After all, Wenger has to retire at some point. The Club should be readying itself for life without him, identify a long term replacement, and slowly reduce his responsibilities. A Director of Football would be a step in the right direction. Popular in Europe, this type of role is becoming the norm in the Premier League, too: Chelsea, Everton, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester City, Southampton, Stoke, Sunderland, Watford, and West Brom all have similarly titled individuals – Technical Director, Director of Football, Chief Football Officer, Sporting Director.
The days of the manager having totalitarian oversight of all aspects of the club is over and Wenger is a relic in this regard. The idea is provide some stability in an age where managers rarely stay in the same job longer than a few years, to maintain a long-term strategy. Once Wenger does leave, having a long term sporting vision for the club will be vital.
It’s also worth remembering that it has been nearly four years since Ivan Gazidis’ infamous “we can compete with Bayern Munich” comments. Judging by this season’s 10-2 aggregate defeat at the hands of the Bavarian club, we’re still a fair way away from that. Wenger rankles at the idea of a Director of Football but given our successive Champions League failures, he must cede on this point. The club’s structures need evolve to keep up with Europe’s elite.
But here’s the thing. If I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that these arguments are a post-rationalisation of something that I just feel with my gut. I started following Arsenal in 1997, when I was 8 years old. I literally can’t remember a time without Wenger being in charge. I don’t even know what Bruce Rioch looks like (I just Googled it, so now I do). To me, Wenger is Arsenal. Like the Board, I can’t imagine Arsenal without Arsene. Come on, even his name sort of sounds the same.