It was Mark Lawrenson who once said that he didn’t concern himself with the League Table until 10 or 12 games into the new season. Until then, Lawro suggested, no pattern has formed, as teams are finding their feet early on, often facing the challenge of introducing new players, managers or formations.
Wise words indeed from a man who is not everybody’s ‘cup of tea’ as a pundit but you only need to look at seasons past (take the last 2 for example) to see the evidence. So yes, I’m steering well clear of revising my pre season predictions based on the action so far and will leave that to the (many) others out there who enjoy such perilous pursuits!
As we turn into the international break ‘Big picture’ subjects are far safer… with the season but a fledgling. But that’s a loaded word… ‘safer’! Taking another glance at the title of the article I’m all but certain that somewhere out there in cyber space erwf and his ilk are lying in wait, carrying weapons…equally loaded!
There’s no doubt that many of the top managers in the game make fascinating case studies. Let’s face it; they don’t get the job in the first place unless they have proven quality. Most are their own men, tough and idiosyncratic, constantly in the spotlight, with their every word reported (and often twisted). It’s no place for the faint hearted.
Of course as fans we love them and hate them depending on our allegiances but we can never ignore them. Ultimately, most managers survive or perish on fan loyalty. It remains one of the few great powers that fans have and any manager worth his salt knows this.
So let’s put fan loyalty under the microscope with one of my favourite case studies…Arsene Wenger.
I’ve written about Arsene before (Arsene Wenger: Legacy at the Crossroads), invoking both the wrath and the agreement of Arsenal fans in unequal measure. My main point was hardly original; being that Wenger has possibly become obsessed with proving he can take Arsenal back to the heights through youth alone. Seduced by the (deserved) lavish praise his team has received over the past two years for their fluent, passing football, Arsene seems intent on refusing to buy in the 2 or 3 players who could make the difference between producing the best team in a generation…or not.
In the last two seasons Arsenal have at times been sublime and a joy to watch but ultimately strength in depth, particularly in defence, and most obviously last season the lack of a quality defensive midfield player, have proved their undoing. The most telling moment in Arsenal’s season for me was Wenger’s interview following the Champions League exit to United. Having watched the Emirates’ faithful flood the exits with 20 minutes still to play, Wenger portrayed the figure of a haunted man and his disappointment was palpable.
It was at that moment I felt that the penny had finally dropped….where he secretly conceded to himself that he did need to buy in some solid defensive cover to go with his wealth of attacking flair. And so, when the transfer market opened I expected Arsene to be quick out of the blocks scooping-up a quality DM and a couple of extra defenders quicker than Perez could utter 80 million! The Arsenal fans were expectant and ‘money’ was apparently available.
Two months on and we’ve seen one quality defender arrive and another one leave, along with an unloved striker. The money-in column alone suggested that Arsene had what he needed to make a move. And the argument that nobody of quality was available falls on deaf ears with me. There are always decent players available, especially if you’ve 40 million to spend! No, the only conclusion I can make is that somewhere between that defeat to United on the 5th of May and the opening of the transfer window on July 1st, Arsene convinced himself that he could still do it his way and reap the rewards and glory that he craves. It’s a huge call he has made, one that frustrates many Arsenal fans, but the jury is still out and right now I refuse to predict that he can’t do it.
Wenger is a man under pressure, as are most managers, but in terms of putting pressure on yourself it’s hard to think of another case in recent history as profound as this. Similar to Wyatt Earp at the OK Corral, Arsene is backing himself to the hilt on this one and as we all know, Wyatt came up smelling of roses back then. So can Wenger shoot down his critics? Can he take this team to the Holy Grail of the PL or CL titles? If he does, the accolades will be unprecedented and then some…and every single one will have been hard earned and fully deserved.
In his first nine seasons at Arsenal Wenger delivered 3 PL titles and 4 FA Cups and established Arsenal as the only real rivals to United. He put together some formidable teams in that time and achieved enough to establish himself as an all time legend at Arsenal. A ‘job for life status’ was bestowed upon him…and rightly so. But those years of plenty have been followed by 5 seasons without the title and 4 without any silverware at all. The ‘Invincibles’ imploded and broke-up, and since then Arsene has started and stuck with his crusade. (admittedly the investment in the new stadium was a catalyst in this at the outset.)
But is it conceivable that the Arsenal fans could lose patients and turn against him?
Personally, I think that would be a tragedy. I like Wenger! Despite all the rivalry over the years I think he’s intelligent, has a good sense of humour and is one of the icons of the Premiership era. Sure he goes off on one every so often….but name a manger who doesn’t!
Reading the musings of the Arsenal fans in recent times it is clear that there are two factions out there. The first refuse to criticize, often making the point that they are happy having a team that tries to play the game the ‘right way’, and believe in Wenger’s ability to succeed. The other group remain unhappy with Arsene’s refusal to spend and believe that greatness is just around the corner if he would just loosen the purse strings a little. Few though have lost faith and frustration does not mean lack of loyalty.
But how far will this go? Each faction beats-up on the other on a regular basis….and that often becomes the festering sore that leads to unrest. How far can Wenger go before the ‘untouchable’ tag he earned in his first 9 years starts to erode? How much rope does he have before he hangs himself in the eyes of the fans…if ever?
Well here’s my theory.
Firstly, I wouldn’t bet a red cent against Wenger delivering this season or next but if he fails to do so the prognosis may be terminal. I think he can afford to come-up short again this season, as long as Arsenal have a decent campaign and are involved at the ‘business end’ in one way or another. The risk with this though is the potential for further loss of key players. We’ve seen the ‘drip drip’ effect in the past few seasons where some (not insignificant) Arsenal players seem to lose faith and move on. How long before Fabregas, or others, take the same path? Certainly, another trophy-less season will bring some pressure to bear in this regard but Wenger has enough credit to survive this.
But what if Arsenal remain without a trophy this season and next, while Wenger sticks to his obsession? Where is the point where the straw breaks the camel’s back (the camel being the Arsenal fans in that analogy)? I believe that it’s right there! Two more barren seasons and I think Arsene may just have used up his credit with the Arsenal fans. That would be 7 seasons without the PL title and 6 without any silverware at all. Not that the club would ever sack him….it would be a disgrace if they did, but if Wenger knows that he’s lost the fans (and managers always know when that turning point arrives) he’ll surely walk.
And that will be a sad day for English football if it ever comes to pass. As a Man U fan I don’t ever wish Arsenal success but if Arsene realises his dream…achieves the Holy Grail on his terms…and remains an icon of the Premier League, then something within me will be delighted for the man.
Many perish on the rock of misguided idealism but for those who succeed it is both churlish and shallow to deny them their moment of glory based on bias or rivalry…. and I will be the first to applaud.
But if the worst happens it will be down to the Arsenal fans and their mood. Their catch phrase is ‘Arsene knows’. Whether he does or not, his heart is undoubtedly in the right place.
Hopefully, they’ll make the right decision….. but the wants and emotions of fans, coupled with loyalty, can make strange bedfellows!