Ahsan Naeem asks what the future holds for one of the most respected managers in the British game and his perennial bunch of nearly men.
Having so spectacularly imploded in recent months the question once again on the lips of many of the Emirates faithful is ‘what next for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger’?
I must confess to having a deep, deep respect for what Arsene Wenger has achieved at Arsenal. He arrived on our shores a complete unknown and set about revolutionizing the premier league. Over the years I’ve watched his teams dazzle us with a kind of football previously unseen on our shores. A throwback to the great Dutch sides of years gone by, they have played with style, with flair, and with an unwavering belief that their way is the right way. But most importantly, for a long time, as well as being pretty, they were effective.
Times have changed though. First came the Russian charge at Stamford Bridge, which led Wenger to his famous “football doping” quote. Now with the inevitable rise of Manchester City thanks to Sheikh Mansour’s investment, and the continued trophy drought at the Emirates, Arsenal supporters are beginning to question the professor’s methods.
An Arsenal supporter I know asked me recently “well, would you be happy with Wenger right now?” Truth be told, probably not, I’m reminded of the Nietzsche quote “Many are stubborn in pursuit of the path they have chosen, few in the pursuit of the goal”, when I think about Wenger’s recent history. To my mind his biggest crime has been his dogmatic faith in a group of players who have shown in recent years to have neither the ability nor the stomach to deliver when it matters. The point was rammed home by their ineffectual performance against Birmingham City in this season’s Carling Cup final.
From front to back, the team lacks a spine, and lacks leaders. Neither William Gallas nor Kolo Toure have been adequately replaced. Shockingly, not since Patrick Vieira, a player who incidentally has won 7 major honours since he left, have Arsenal had an engine in midfield. His worst crime though has to be his continued faith in Van Persie and Bendtner (and latterly Chamakh) to provide the killer instinct in the final third of the field. In a sport where goals mean points, and points mean prizes, Wenger has shown a shocking blind spot, to the point where he allowed the sale of Adebayor as much as anything, to give Van Persie the top billing he craved, then replaced him with the sub standard Chamakh.
To mitigate Wenger’s lack of major spending, it is of course true that the move from Highbury to the Emirates was a costly one, and it cannot be denied that at a time when so many clubs are floundering from financial excesses, and drowning in interest payments on their debts, Arsenal are on a sound financial footing. I’ve often mused as to whether Wenger has actually been hamstrung by his own board in terms of transfer budgets, and has chosen to take the Slur Alex route of shielding his paymasters from criticism by suggesting that not spending is his choice rather than a necessity.
The question now is what next? The rumblings of discontent have gotten increasingly louder and being beaten to 3rd by Manchester City could lead to a summer of all change at Arsenal. I know little of Stan Kroenke, their new owner, but US owners of premier league clubs don’t have a great history of backing their managers with the kinds of sums we’ve seen City and Chelsea spend in recent years. More importantly, I don’t see Wenger suddenly abandoning his principles and splurging on the three or four top class players he needs to turn his current squad into genuine contenders on a domestic and European front.
Of even greater concern are the impending departures of Fabregas and Nasri. Cesc has had a patchy season and looks to have mentally left the club last summer. His transfer is as inevitable as Arsenal’s lack of killer instinct in the final third of the season was. Nasri has 12 months to run on his current contract and has so far shown little inclination to sign a new one. Losing their two most gifted and influential players in the same off season would be a devastating blow for the Gunners, yet it would be difficult to argue with their decisions if the club don’t intend to invest heavily in the playing squad this summer. It’s a rare breed of player who’ll choose a club over winning things.
I started writing this piece thinking I’d make a case for why it would be tantamount to suicide for Arsenal to sack Wenger. But when you look at their failings on the field, the competitiveness of the Premier League, and Wenger’s aversion to buying his way out of trouble, I’m ending feeling quite the opposite. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest, and maybe it is time Arsene and Arsenal parted ways. Maybe the school needs a new professor as much as the professor needs some new students.