By Bert Huff
Following a second morale-sapping home defeat to Watford in two seasons plus the inevitable loss to Chelsea, which many believe ended the club’s chance of winning the league, the now familiar anguish of the fans quickly came to the fore. With every damaging result the vociferous ‘Wenger out’ faction gain ever more momentum.
In the thirteen years since the club won the league the stadium has been financed and the club’s accounts are apparently healthy. Yet the widely reported ‘soft centre’ of the team has not been addressed, and is regularly exposed. So is it time for new management?
Those hostile to Wenger claim nothing changes; Wenger maintains his philosophy and keeps making the same mistakes season after season, whilst expecting a different result – insane! It’s time for somebody new, with fresh ideas and a tactical plan B. Somebody prepared to be adventurous in the transfer market and not scared to jettison dead wood. Their calls of Arsenal FC not Arsene FC are getting louder and harder to ignore.
The mainly quiet ‘Wenger in’ camp are struggling to drown out his detractors while hoping he does nothing to tarnish a wonderful legacy. Yes, results aren’t as what they were in the halcyon Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp years or when Marc Overmars was in his pomp but Wenger’s still a wonderful manager, capable of winning trophies, and must be given the respect to leave when he sees fit. They’ll argue the better the devil you know and cite examples like when Sir Alex left Manchester United and their subsequent downturn.
In spite of the fans’ bubbling discontent, the club are reportedly eager for the manager to sign a new contract. Arsenal, like any other club, is a business first. And, like any other business, the goal is a healthy bottom line. While Mr Kroenke and the board would be delighted with silverware, they do not share the same priorities as the fans.
Under Wenger’s stewardship the club has an unblemished twenty-year record of lucrative Champion’s League qualification. Top four finishes and cup runs, generally achieved playing attractive football, result in the Emirates being at capacity for virtually every game. Being in London and tantalisingly close to silverware allows the club to charge the highest ticket prices in not only England, but all of Europe (so surely the most expensive in the world).
If Wenger were to go, would star players like Mesut Ozil (as he’s hinted at) and Alexis Sanchez be reluctant to sign new contracts? Who could be trusted to fill his shoes? Guardiola, Klopp, Conte and (dare say it) Mourinho are all otherwise engaged. Would it be worth the risk of going for an unproven foreign manager, unfamiliar with the league and the language, such as Diego Simeone or Massimo Allegri? Or even taking a chance on a young British manager such as Eddie Howe.
They may smash though the glass ceiling and bring home a huge trophy or more probably results would fall off during a transition phase. With the crescendo building, Arsenal must soon decide whether to stick with a dependable manager at the helm or twist and go for broke.
Since first starting to write this article, Arsenal were outmuscled, outrun and outclassed by Chelsea, thus giving even more force to the swelling tide against Wenger. Gary Neville lambasted a fan calling for Wenger’s head, Arsenal TV got involved defending the fans’ right to criticise and even a Wenger ‘diss track has been dropped.’ Both sides have a relevant argument, which deserve to be heard. And as with all debates the solution, most probably, lies somewhere in the middle ground.
Gary Neville described the protesting fan (it was surprising there weren’t more!) as ‘embarrassing’ and said of Wenger that ‘he’s done an unbelievable job.’ It’s interesting how Neville did not say Wenger was doing an unbelievable job. This seems to be the crux of the argument. Following the Watford game, Arsenal Fan TV did an interview with an animated and distressed fan who described Wenger as a ‘fraud’, whilst being encouraged by other, predominantly young, Arsenal fans. If these fans were raised on the Arsenal of the late 90’s and early 00’s no wonder the present Gunners, in their eyes, are not up to scratch. The older fans, who remember the defensive football of George Graham, the Wrexham game and have seen the eye-watering amount of money that has poured into football over the past five years, may have more patience. However, is being patient and understanding of Wenger’s plight, in the hope that he will do an unbelievable job again, misguided?
Football is like a shark that must keep moving forward. The game is constantly evolving and it’s highly debatable whether Wenger is keeping pace. Top teams adopt different formations and styles of play, whereas Arsenal don’t exhibit the same versatility. If plan A doesn’t work, there’s little alternative. But, even in Sunday league, an inferior team with limited tactical acumen has a chance if they work harder than their opponents. Yet, Arsenal are regularly outrun (often by a number of kilometres). This is a failing that has to be addressed and must come from the management. The players not working hard enough, not giving their all to the fight is a real concern. Are they not playing for the manager? Or are they not working as hard as their opponents as they know there’ll be no repercussions from the management? Either way, the answer is worrying.
While the risk of asking Wenger to step aside now would be too great, by the end of the season he may have made his own position untenable, in which case he will undoubtedly fall on his sword.
Some fans won’t be appeased until Wenger has gone, for others there’d be a lot more patience and understanding if Wenger met them half way. When Arsenal trounced Chelsea early in the season, Conte saw it wasn’t working so changed the system. Wenger needs to be more proactive to keep the fans onside. There’s an infuriating sense of stubbornness which does him no favours. He doesn’t appear on the touchline berating the players or cajoling the fans. Whenever he feels injustice and his blood is up, he wrings his hands then takes it out on the officials.
Mismanagement from a manager is inexcusable. And it seems Wenger is making more and more mistakes, both on and off the field. Sending Wilshere on loan following so many injuries and a central midfield consisting of players such as Carzola, Coquelin, Ramsey, Xhaka, Elneny and the Ox is understandable. Not including a recall clause following the inevitable injury crisis (Cazorla), African cup of nations (Elneny) and loss of form (Ramsey) is negligent.
The biggest bone of contention with Wenger and the fans must be transfers. Unfortunately for him, if this season tails off, he may have left it too late to address this shortcoming. Wenger announcing that he’d made bids for Kante and knew about Messi, Ronaldo, Varane etc doesn’t appease fans. The ‘what you could have had’ eleven merely riles fans into thinking if you knew about them why didn’t you buy them?
Anyone not managing the club or on the Arsenal board cannot really know how much cash is available to spend on transfers or how much effort is put into pursuing top targets. But Wenger does seem to have missed a trick by regularly insisting there’s no value in the transfer market. Paying a couple million over the odds would be unthinkable for the average citizen but is necessary for a competitive team aiming to be one of the best in Europe. Instead of breaking the bank for game changing players like Hazard and Kante, Wenger opted for the workmanlike yet uninspiring, Coquelin. Rather than address the lack of steel in midfield, that’s been apparent since Vieira left, Wenger signed the regularly suspended Xhaka who, by Wenger’s own admission, can’t tackle.
Seeing Fabregas lob an underwhelming Cech was a very bitter pill to swallow. He left Arsenal following wonderful service, for his boyhood club, and when he was made available by Barca (apparently Arsenal had first refusal) he went to Chelsea. The ire of the fans was misdirected at Fabregas instead of Wenger, following this baffling decision. Fabregas went on to win the Premiership with Chelsea, collecting a record number of assists along the way.
Paying the extra millions for the world’s best players would provide intangible benefits such as raising the levels of the players around them and lifting the fans. However, with so many missed opportunities to do this, Wenger may just have left it too late.