Football management produces stereotypes, geniuses, interesting characters and complete enigmas, in equal measure, but trying to fit Arsene Wenger into a single category is a challenge.
I should preface this piece by declaring that, as a Man Utd fan, given the fierce rivalry of recent years and some of the unsavory scenes at the end of matches (or in the case of ‘pizzagate,’ overly savory scenes!), I have always liked Arsene Wenger, while not always understanding the complexity of the man.
The fact that Wenger played just 12 times for Strasbourg and spent the rest of his playing career at amateur level is not unique, but an interesting side to the man. With a degree in engineering and a Masters in Economics he clearly has an intellectual side to him that is rare in his chosen field.
His early managerial career was not outstanding. Departing Nice after 3 years, when they were relegated, he made his name at Monaco where he won Ligue 1 in 1988. Later sacked by Monaco in 1994, his next move was risky, taking him to the relative obscurity of the Japanese League where he brought Grampas Eight from obscurity to runner-up and won the cup, but it was hardly a breeding ground for up and coming management talent.
However, having befriended David Dein along the way, Wenger was offered the Arsenal job in 1996, no mean testament to Dein’s judgement, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Or is it?
Well the book is obviously not closed yet.
Wenger did the Premiership a favour by producing a team(s) that was the only serious challenger to Utd for several seasons. With players like Petit, Vieira, Ljungberg, Pires, Bergkamp, Anelka, Adams, Overmars etc., he created a succession of attractive and competitive teams that produced skill and grit and genuine quality. Quickly establishing himself as Alex Ferguson’s nemesis, Wenger delivered three league titles and four FA cups in his first eight years at Arsenal and rightly was granted a seat at the top table of all time great English League managers, the most successful manager in Arsenal’s history.
Interestingly, despite presenting well and giving the impression of being both intelligent and approachable, Wenger has always remained detached in his relationships with other managers, and it is rumoured that he is not well liked in managerial circles, something I find hard to understand.
Having built a succession of great teams, Wenger took the accolades for having an eye for young emerging players and bringing them on to greatness. It is beyond question that he has excelled at this but the question is, has he become obsessed with his own greatness in this regard?
While this phenomenon was less obvious in his earlier years at Arsenal, it has come to the fore maybe more through necessity than desire. Having forged ‘The Invincibles’ who won the title, undefeated, in 2004, Wenger was faced with an unprecedented exodus of top talent and had to rebuild to stay competitive. In a short space of time, Pires, Bergkamp, Vieira, Lauren, Keown, Cole and Henry all departed. At the same time Arsenal were (rightly) investing in a new stadium which put pressure on finances.
It was a huge ask for Wenger to replace the players who left in these circumstances and Arsenal fell off the pace for a couple of years before returning with a vengeance last season.
With a combination of youth and youth, Arsenal produced some outstanding displays. The CL ties with AC Milan stand out in my memory, but they ultimately came up short; the combination of lack of experience and not enough strength in depth taking its toll, and, in truth, justifying the opinions of the ‘experts’ who refused to make them favourites, even after their outstanding start.
According to club officials and Wenger himself, there has been transfer money available every close season, but Wenger – much to the fury of some Arsenal fans – seems reluctant to spend too much.
All of which leads to the enigmatic side of this complex man. Arsenal have now gone four seasons without a title and three without any trophy at all. Has Wenger lost his touch?
I believe there are two key points worth exploring.
The first is this: statements are regularly reported in the media where both Wenger and various Arsenal players go out of their way to praise the fact or assure us that the team spirit in the dressing room, the togetherness, the family atmosphere (chose your own quote), is beyond question at Arsenal. You sometimes feel that if they say it often enough they might actually start to believe it themselves. Why then the departures of Vieira and Henry (both captains), sagas that ran over a couple of close seasons before actually happening? Then there was the acrimonious departure of Cole and, more recently, Flamini and Hleb. Of course Adebayor would have been hot on their heels if anyone had rated him as highly as he rated himself. With a young team potentially on the verge of great things you have to question the team togetherness at Arsenal and Wenger’s ability to instill loyalty and a ‘love of the badge’ mentality.
The second point is the bigger one of Wenger’s refusal to spend money. Even today it has been made clear that transfer funds are available but Arsene has come up with a lame statement about the risk of trying to integrate established players into his young side and style of playing. Sorry Arsene, but the statement is nonsense.
It more and more appears that Wenger has been seduced by his own publicity and is doggedly determined to do it with youth and beautiful football. I believe that he came as close as he ever will last season and that it’s an equation you can no longer square in the high stakes game of today. Arguably, with two additional quality players last year Arsenal may have gone all the way. Wenger had the money but refused to spend and Arsenal’s trophy cabinet once more remained bare. He has failed to adequately replace the players who left, in most observers’ opinion, and Arsenal may well go backwards this season.
Certainly few fancy them for the title and so by the end of the season it looks very likely that Wenger will be five seasons without a title at Arsenal and possibly four without any silverware at all. The longer you are off the pace the harder it is to regain your position and the more your rivals pull away.
So, assuming the undying loyalty of Arsenal fans and hierarchy alike retain Wenger in the job, it is not inconceivable that Wenger may be staring down the barrel of a seven year stretch at Arsenal without a title, having had such success in his first seven years. If that scenario unfolds then Wenger’s place at the top table of all time great English League managers will be seriously in question and, for my money, will not be merited.
Spend now Arsene, before your ego consumes your potential greatness. It’s a beautiful philosophy but one that can’t overcome in the modern game. Many may lament the fact but reality does not pay homage to romantic ideas and you owe yourself and the Arsenal fans more than a pipe dream.