THERE is something slightly undignified about a man of Arsene Wenger’s stature having to defend himself in the media. As he rightly suggests, his record speaks for itself. Not only has Wenger outperformed Arsenal’s recent managerial incumbents such as George Graham, but he has also achieved more than the legendary Herbert Chapman. He’s won more titles than any other Arsenal manager, has a better win rate than anyone else and his average league position is between second and third. If the Cadbury’s Smash aliens were watching us from above, they would be rolling around with laughter at any hint of people doubting a manager that has even had an asteroid named after him.
|From||To||Average League Position||Trophies||Win %|
|Herbert Chapman||June 1925||January 1934||5.56||FL Champions 1930-31, 1932-33
FA Cup 1929-30
|Bertie Mee||June 1966||May 1976||8.81||FL Champions 1970-71
FA Cup 1970-71
Fairs Cup 1969-70
|Terry Neill||July 1976||December 1983||6||FA Cup 1978-79||44.95|
|George Graham||May 1986||February 1995||4.25||FL Champions 1988-89, 1990-91
FA Cup 1992-93
FL Cup 1986-87, 1992-93
|Arsene Wenger||October 1986||To date||2.78||Premier Champions 1997-98, 2001-02, 2003-04
FA Cup 1997-98, 2001-02, 2002-03, 2004-05, 2013-14, 2014-15
Football fans are fickle and the relationship between certain Arsenal fans and their long-serving manager seems to have an annual soul-search these days. As soon as it looks like Arsenal are wobbling, the odd banner gets unfurled at the Emirates. And each year, the great debate “should he stay or should he go” gets tabled, and gets a little more assertive. Almost every club would be delighted with a manager that gets them top four each season, takes them on a UEFA Champions League journey to the last 16 and has a stab at silverware in the FA Cup. Two clubs would not be happy with that, however: Chelsea and Manchester City, and both of these are thorns in his side. It’s fair to say that Wenger’s record over the past decade or so would be rewarded with the sack at either of these clubs. And therein lies the problem – they are also Arsenal’s chief rivals.
If you divide the Premier into sub-groups (based on 2014-15):
Champions League contenders
Europa and Cups
|Arsenal (3)||Liverpool (7)||Crystal Palace (15)||Aston Villa (20)|
|Chelsea (10)||Tottenham (2)||Everton (12)||Bournemouth (14)|
|Manchester C (4)||Southampton (9)||Leicester (1)||Newcastle (19)|
|Manchester United (6)||Swansea (16)||Stoke City (8)||Norwich (18)|
|WBA (11)||Sunderland (17)|
|West Ham (5)||Watford (13)|
Arsenal are competing with Pot 1 and more often than not, they are at the bottom of that mini-league – therefore, they are benchmarked against City, Chelsea and United – along with Liverpool and Spurs, at a push. The 2015-16 season has upset the accepted order.
So Wenger is not necessarily compared with any other clubs outside that top bracket but clubs with more cash and clout. And then there’s Europe, of course.
When Arsenal were laying the foundations of their superb stadium – arguably the best in Britain – they couldn’t prevent a string of top players leaving on an annual basis. This meant Arsenal fell behind their rivals, especially those that were the recipients of vast sums of “investor” cash. This also partly explained Arsenal’s lack of silverware between 2005 and 2014. But once large sums of money started to be spent again – £42m on Mesut Ozil, £30m on Alexi Sanchez and £16m for Danny Welbeck – Arsenal could no longer claim that they did not have the resources to buy top talent.
Wenger continued to come under pressure for his reluctance – or inability – to lure players in key positions to Arsenal. The Wenger footballing philosophy remains intact, but the lack of striker and a commanding central defender means that they fall short of the top class.
The record books will show that Wenger’s way has been successful, but he has been a victim of consistency of the kind that is frustrating for many – being among the big boys, but being on the fringe, watching the party from the outside. And because Arsenal’s peers have been successful, the Gunners compare unfavourably. It’s not entirely fair, but it very much reflects the age we live in.
Nobody wants to be too critical of Wenger because (a) performance record (b) his football ideaology and (c) he’s been around for a long time. In more gentle times, Wenger would have a job for life (he may yet have a job for life at Arsenal) and he would be universally revered. Broadly speaking, he is highly respected.
But long-service doesn’t mean you are always the right man. And that’s why the rumblings about Wenger’s way are starting once more. Yes, he’s got Arsenal to a certain level. A certain expectation and a certain style of play. But it isn’t enough for today’s “winners takes it all” culture. Long-service doesn’t get you promotion in the corporate world. Invariably, in the cut-and-thrust of the financial world, long-servers are looked upon negatively as staid, stubborn and lacking in imagination. Could those same comments be directed at Wenger today?
There’s a strong argument that, to remain fresh, creative and industrious, people – in any walk of life – need a change sooner than once every 20 years. Look at all the great managers, and most have declined over an extended period. Wenger has been at Arsenal for almost 20 years and he’s still at a very, very high level.
Sir Matt Busby, Bill Shankly and Bill Nicholson all got out before any serious decline set in. Brian Clough went on for too long. Sir Alex Ferguson remained successful but should have handled succession better. Wenger still has mileage in him, but for how much longer? How long will Arsenal give him, or will he know when to stand down? He should certainly stop wasting his time defending himself.
Arsenal are not in crisis – they are just not that type of club – but somebody, somewhere, in the bowels of that great stadium might just be wondering if the Gunners are perpetually stuck in the land of “just so”. If they’re happy with that, then the status quo can continue playing. But the supporters – weened on Premier League glitz and the excesses of the modern game – may just be bored with Wenger’s way. They will look at Leicester City and wonder what Arsenal have been doing so wrong this past decade. The sad thing is, they haven’t been doing much wrong, it’s just others have done it [slightly] better.