J.J Lee examines Arsene Wenger's management of Arsenal, and whether it's time to give up the ghost.
Arsene Wenger is a gentlemen subjected to so many vitriolic and hate filled comments, you’d assume he’d inflicted grievous bodily harm on someone. The man from Strasbourg has become the definition of a divisive character in the last 10 years or so. Wenger took Arsenal to the highest of highs in the late 90’s and early 00’s but now the romance with the Arsenal faithful seems to be well and truly gone.
Christened ‘Le Professeur’ by the English media in his heyday, Wenger was almost infallible amongst his own supporters, and the attractive brand of free flowing football the Frenchman brought to Highbury was a breath of fresh air for any soccer fan. His astute and studious eye was lauded by journalists and punters alike due to the signings of players like Viera, Petit, Henry, Overmars and Anelka, who truly invigorated the Arsenal team. Wenger went on to dominate English football, becoming the first foreign manager to win the Premier League in the 97-98 season whilst also securing an FA Cup victory. Wenger led Arsenal to another domestic double in 2002 and most impressively of all, the Frenchman masterminded the incredible Arsenal ‘Invincibles’ team of ’03-04.
The Gunners under Wenger’s stewardship reached the 2006 Champions League final but ultimately lost to a strong Barcelona side, and a move from the hallowed turf of Highbury followed, with Arsenal moving to the brand new 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium at the beginning of the ’06-07 season. Wenger had transformed a club, he had steadily guided them to success on the pitch and now was overseeing an important move off it. He was a trusted hand and had the full support of the board. However, a decade of stagnation followed.
Wenger’s Midas touch began to wear away in the following seasons as Arsenal famously became marooned in 4th position in the Premier League. The North London outfit never truly challenged in any cup competitions, domestic or European either. The team was in a state of flux and key players like Thierry Henry and Ashley Cole were sold, with the latter becoming crucial to Chelsea’s following successes. The team would continue to play a signature brand of attacking football but would be culpable of overplaying to a degree, and with a leaky defensive line, this also led to more and more animosity growing towards Wenger.
In hindsight, one can argue what truly made the fans turn on Wenger was his willingness to let key players leave and not spend money to replace them. Stars that had established themselves and were integral to the team were repeatedly allowed to leave, notably in the summer of 2011 both Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri left with no suitable replacements acquired by Wenger. The following season, Robin Van Persie and Alex Song really came to the fore; they were the driving force behind that Arsenal team but amazingly, both were sold the following summer, again with no adequate replacements brought in. Farcical transfer dealings like the Luiz Suarez £40 million and £1 bid only went further to damage Wengers’ reputation.
Despite brief glimmers of hope, like the back to back FA Cup victories, Arsenal have gone nowhere in recent times under Wenger’s leadership. Every season there are repeated calls for his head; a loss against a top 6 rival will spark a debate, an inevitable exit of the Champions League at the Last 16 stage will most definitely cause more outcry for change, however, Wenger may have ridden out the storm. In the current climate, there are no real suitable managers to replace the current longest serving Premier League manager. Jurgen Klopp would have been an ideal replacement, arguably so would have Antonio Conte but both of those have settled into new positions. Diego Simeone springs to mind but one can’t help but feel at this point trading Atletico Madrid for Arsenal is a downgrade. Wenger will fight to live another 2-3 seasons in my estimations, much to the sheer frustration of Arsenal fans, but if Alex Fergusons retirement was anything to go by, you don’t really know what you have until it’s gone.