Since Arsenal’s embarrassing 5-1 loss to Bayern Munich in the Champions’ League, there has been an increasing sense that time should be called on Arsene Wenger’s 21-year reign at the club. There were some voices after the 3-1 loss to Chelsea that effectively ended Arsenal’s hope of winning the Premier League this season. But now it’s more than a “small minority” of disgruntled fans.
But the case is far from clear in my view and it’s worth recalling the reasons Wenger should stay.
Firstly, Arsenal aren’t doing badly at all if you look at the big picture. They are near the top of the Premier League and reached the knock-out stages of the Champions’ League. Neither of those things are easy to do but Arsenal manage it year after year. Of course, it’s frustrating not to win either of those competitions and all Arsenal fans hope for more but the situation is nowhere near disastrous. Occasional humiliating defeats happen to all clubs; sometimes you have to look through them. I would rather be losing to Bayern in the Champions’ League than to Gent in the Europa Cup as Arsenal’s traditional rivals Spurs did the next day. I am not picking on Spurs because I dislike them but because historically they are on a similar level to Arsenal in several ways so they are a useful comparison.
Secondly, Wenger is more than a manager. He helped build Arsenal from a well-supported and moderately successful North London club into a member of the international elite of clubs. The building of the Emirates Stadium is the visible monument to his ambition and achievement: a modern stadium with greatly increased capacity located in the heart of North London. But you could also note how he kept the club successful financially over his whole reign. He managed this while the cost of building the stadium restricted the club’s spending power and while the earth shifted beneath his feet, as billionaire sponsors catapulted Chelsea and Manchester City to major footballing powers. Football fans don’t typically look at the balance sheet much, but fans of certain teams can tell you that it matters when your club is poorly run. Blackpool, Portsmouth and Charlton spring to mind along with Aston Villa (another club historically pretty much on a level with Arsenal, now languishing in a lower division).
Thirdly, I don’t think he is quite as inflexible as is suggested. He is often accused of refusing to change even when his actions aren’t producing results. For years, he was said to be trying to build a team on a shoestring, signing only young, unproven players who we dreamt of nurturing into world-beaters. (Actually, he nearly succeeded in that except that key players were constantly poached by teams offering vastly better wages at just the moment they reached their peaks.) Yet the signings of Ozil and Sanchez in recent years were big budget events, proving he was willing to splash the cash.
Fourthly, to some extent Wenger’s faults are admirable. If I were asked to criticise him I would say that he keeps faith with players who let him down, gives them too long to deliver and is even forgiving when they betray his faith by swanning off to rival clubs (yes Robin, I mean you). Another fault is that he keeps trying to produce pure football, to endlessly entertain when sometimes you have to “win ugly”. (I miss the George Graham era sometimes.) Yet if these are faults, they are endearing faults. I wouldn’t know where to start on the faults of Jose Mourinho or Sam Allardayce.
Lastly, the big question is who is this better manager we want to replace him? We can see what happened at Manchester United when Sir Alex Ferguson left. I think Spurs have an excellent manager right now but it took them a long time to find him. I believe Wenger has outlasted 12 Spurs managers (not counting caretaker managers); none of whom brought Spurs as much success as Wenger’s Arsenal in any single season.... and most of whom came in wanting to clear out old players and a budget to buy the new players who would make Spurs great. So changing managers is a risky and expensive business, as clubs pay top price for the players they want and don’t get a great deal on those they want to get rid of.
Of course, there is one manager that Arsenal fans would love to replace Wenger: the Arsene Wenger of his first ten years, the one who won the double twice, went a whole season undefeated and did it with stylish exhilarating players. A generation of fans have grown up with higher expectations and even veteran fans can forget that, for example, Arsenal finished 12th in 1995. In a sense, Wenger’s problem is his own success.