Arsene Wenger; 20-years into his Arsenal project and things are eventually coming to an end. The annual talk of a Wenger contract extension coming from the board has gathered more negative momentum than ever before. Fuelled by the rants of the powerful Arsenal twitter contingent and the infamous ArsenalFan TV – for the first time – ‘Wenger Out’ appears to have engulfed ‘Wenger In’ brigade.
This is something the media hasn’t ignored either. For the first time, the media is starting to apply pressure on Wenger and asked the difficult questions, such as; “isn’t it about time you moved on Arsene?”. Following Gary Neville calling a fan an ‘idiot’ live on Sky, for holding a banner, which prompted Arsenal Fan TV’s Robbie to upload a surprisingly brilliant reply. A toxic atmosphere at the club with fans fighting in the stands with Arsenal stuck in a 13-year cycle of finishing in the top four, getting knocked out of the Champions League, then being praised and taking selfies for qualifying for said competition.
20-years is a really long time to manage one team, especially in the current modern climate where managers are getting sacked at an alarming rate. When Ranieri can win the league with Leicester then face questions on his future the season after, it’s astonishing how Wenger gets away with the same script year after year.
One quote that stuck out to me from Gary Neville was the “Grass isn’t always greener” argument – I feel this is influenced by the downfall of his own club, Manchester United, after Alex Ferguson left. Going from league champions to the Moyes and Van Gaal years can be a lot for any fan. The major difference is Sir Alex won the league in his final season; along with 6 Premier League titles, 1 FA Cup, 3 League Cups and a Champions League in his last 13 years. Wenger only has two FA Cups to show for his last 13 years of work, with both of those coming in the last few seasons. So I believe Arsenal fans would take a new manager acclimatising to his new club and finishing 7th or 8th while he rebuilds the squad. Unless Arsenal hire Steve Bould, Tony Adams, Paul Merson or some other underqualified ex-player to try and appease the fans I think it is very unlikely they could finish outside the top 6. Arsenal have a squad packed with individual talent, could another manager have come in and got more out of those players than Wenger did? Almost certainly in my opinion.
Tactically, football is a sport that is consistently evolving. Trends come and go, Wenger was once the trendsetter. Clubs across the Premier League wanted to replicate his fluid 4-4-2 with a Support Striker playing similarly to a modern Number 10. When Pep’s Barcelona had the world infatuated with tiki-taka, and 4-3-3 Wenger followed suit. Messi and his many, many world class striking partners carried more attacking threat than Bentdner, Arshavin and van Persie. Barcelona also identified the importance of a defensive midfielder who could play the Half Back role well in Sergio Busquets. Arsenal tried with Alex Song (who eventually moved to Barcelona?) but failed to find a Gilberto Silva replacement.
Times moved on and Jurgen Klopp’s Dortmund helped revolutionise English football. High pressing and 4-2-3-1 became the fashion and Wenger’s signing of Mesut Ozil (who had previously played on the right wing in Mourinho’s Madrid 4-3-3) gave him a number 10 to build his team around. However, it wasn’t until Coquelin was recalled from Charlton, after a rarely mentioned fairly successful season on loan at Freiburg did he finally have a ball winner in his double pivot.
Antonio Conte has caused another tactical shift in the Premier League bringing 3-4-2-1 to the mainstream. Clubs in the league have jumped on the wave of this new system; Tottenham, Everton, West Ham, Stoke, Bournemouth, Hull, Crystal Palace and Sunderland have all tried to replicate the system at some point this season. Some clubs have squads better suited this than others, some squads have simply tried to match Chelsea when they played them. Pochettino at Spurs had adopted this system and he has the personnel, arguably better suited than Chelsea to make it work. Bellerin and Gibbs/Monreal have the skill set to play wing back. Attacking talents that are used to playing between the lines like Alexis, Ozil, Iwobi and Ramsey. The often criticised Ramsey flourishes for Wales in the same system. It is genuinely baffling why Wenger hasn’t once thought to try a change in tactics. Reverting to 4-3-3 for the 5-0 cup win against Southampton was a surprising change. Then back to 4-2-3-1 for the loss at Watford, then again starting with 4-3-3 (before switching back to 4-2-3-1 early in the first half) shows Wenger’s tactical limitations.
At a time when tactical fluidity is at an all time high in the premier league, it appears to be that issue of flexibility to be Wenger’s biggest hindrance. Failing to get the most out of this individually talented squad would make the second half of Wenger’s Arsenal career a failure. Consumed by his own philosophy to the point where change is no longer possible and the club is stuck in an eternal cycle.
When Wenger does retire, it’s inevitable that ex-players will come flooding in with plaudits about how he revolutionised the game. Many of these same players; Patrick Vieira (Manchester City & NYC FC), Thierry Henry (Belgium) and Dennis Bergkamp (Ajax) being the most high profile ones have gone on to continue their careers coaching at various clubs. After Henry was told his punditry role was no longer compatible with his U18 coaching role at Arsenal, another club legend had to find employment elsewhere. One major difference between Sir Alex and Arsene, ‘The Class of 92’ were all handed coaching roles within the club while Ferguson was still there. Having past winners at the club can only improve the winning mentality. They could hold the key to the ‘mental strength’ that has been missing for many, many years at Arsenal.
“You either die a hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become a villain” – You can credit that quote to Batman or Jay Z either way it fits Wenger perfectly. A man who was idolised is now the cause of his own downfall. How Arsene Wenger will be viewed once the dust has settled is intriguing. He deserves respect for his achievements, but does this make him immune to criticism? Football is an unpredictable game, there’s still time for Arsenal to win the Champions League and Wenger be remembered as a Legend.