Every time Arsenal stumble, the knee-jerk reaction is a call for Arsene Wenger’s head. But the man has become so integrated into Arsenal’s existence that it feels like blasphemy just thinking about a life without him steering the once almighty ship of Islington. His previous achievements – both in terms of trophies and players – have made him the most successful manager in club history, but is it time for Wenger to step down and infuse new life into the first team?
With only 15 points from the first ten games of the 2012-2013 Premier League season, it’s been the worst league start under Wenger. The defeat at Old Trafford currently means Arsenal are seven points away from the top three: again dominated by the ever-challenging Manchester United and the newly rich duo of Chelsea and Manchester City.
When Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003, the balance of the Premier League switched from a Man Utd/Arsenal dominance into a more competitive landscape, and even more so when Thaksin Shinawatra acquired Manchester City in 2007. The influx of world-class managers and players into the Premier League has forced the other teams to step up their game. And somewhere along the line, Arsenal were left behind.
Having said that, Wenger always find a way to end up in the top four, which really is quite an achievement if we’re looking at what clubs in fifth place and below are spending on improving their squads.
It’s hardly Wenger’s fault that Chelsea and Manchester City were bought by bored billionaires, and the fact that we keep selling our best players means we constantly have to re-build team cohesion.
The question is; what is the ultimate reason for players wanting to leave, and how much of an influence does Wenger have in that area? When the players have reached the point where they want to leave there is little we can do – we can’t force them to play in today’s legal climate, nor would we want to. But surely there must be a way to prevent those thoughts from appearing in the first place.
Cesc Fabregas only left because his hometown club were doing extremely well. He wanted taste of success and was willing to do anything to make that happen, including going on strike and allowing his friends and desired employer to insult Arsenal over the span of several years. He tries to pretend he’s still an Arsenal supporter – though obviously not enough of a supporter to stay and help the club to win something – but it’s fair to say Fabregas, and to a certain extent Alex Song, were special cases.
But in terms of recent departures like Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy or Emmanuel Adebayor, it’s safe to assume that money wasn’t the single reason for wanting to leave, no matter how much we want to believe that these quislings are only money-hungry mercenaries. When the pattern keeps repeating itself that players leave once they become good, it’s time to investigate the actual reasons why.
And I fear that Wenger’s good guy routine that has vastly improved the dressing room atmosphere is also the exact reason why good players want to leave: there is no pressure on them or their teammates to perform above what is expected of them. And the expectations are low due to us playing a lot of young players that we can’t expect the world from.
The compromise solution
I’m a huge Wenger supporter, both in terms of previous achievements and current approach. I think the switch from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1 was a sensible and well-timed decision, and I think Wenger has an excellent analytical side to him that allows him to see things from a good perspective. But I also think he has some weaknesses that will never be corrected, such as failing to tactically adapt to opposition, or giving tough love when needed.
I personally don’t think a trophy is important. I think giving 100% is the only thing that matters. And I’m also convinced that if our players gave 100% in every game the ultimate result would be a trophy. It’s a bi-product of devotion. But our players aren’t giving 100% in every game, and lately I’ve started questioning how much Wenger controls that. The good guy routine, although excellent for dressing room morale, can’t possibly give players a kick up the arse if needed.
If players perform below par, they’re usually given a second, third, fourth and fifth chance to better themselves…and sometimes they do, but by then it’s too late and we’ve lost points. Wenger isn’t the person who will tear players a new asshole at half-time, make drastic early changes or take risks. But that is what this group of players need: fear of what happens if not giving 100%.
Maybe the best solution for Arsenal Football Club is for Arsene Wenger to slowly transition into a Director of Football role, overseeing the development of the club in a visionary position, becoming a guardian of the club’s values. No one can possibly argue he hasn’t done a great job in that capacity so far, having transformed the club from top to bottom on a level only Herbert Chapman could rival.
In his current place we’d install a head coach that is more hands-on, driven and not scared of applying some hairdryer treatments here and there. Ask Sir Alex Ferguson if coddling his players was the key to twelve Premier League titles, five FA Cup trophies and two Champions League titles. Or Jose Mourinho if being a good guy was the reason for seven domestic titles, nine domestic cups and two Champions League titles in the last ten years. I would argue that these two managers are the best and most successful managers in the history of the sport, and the one thing they have in common is that they don’t accept anything less than 100%.
People are calling for Pep Guardiola, but that is a huge mistake in my opinion. The only thing he achieved was to pick an obvious fist selection of world-class players for every position, having supernatural luck with (lack of) injuries. If we’re replacing Wenger – and I’m still not convinced that is the best idea – I think we need to find a tougher manager: someone who won’t be afraid to become the bane of our players existence if they make mistakes, and someone who is ok with not being everyone’s best friend.
However, there is also a quite big possibility that without Wenger, our true performance levels would shine through. Perhaps we’re too blind to see what Wenger is actually doing with this team, maybe we’ve been punching way above our weight for some time. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to replace the boss. Are we ready to take that chance?