Wenger out! Having finished second in the Premier League, which, as fantastic an achievement as that might be for most clubs, is a grave disappointment for the supporters of Arsenal Football Club. This is understandable, for Arsenal have everything they need to win the league, financial muscle, a new, gargantuan stadium, affluent and ardent support, players of talent, guile and experience, promising youth pushing the veterans, consistent entry into the continent’s most prestigious and profitable competitions, etc., etc. ad nauseam. And yet, Arsenal have finished second.
Think of a football club as a person, head, heart, arms, legs, all of it. The supporters are the heart, ever vital, beating, driving the club forward. The board and management are the head, navigating the way, trying to stay sharp, to harness the heart’s energy. For the purposes of this analogy, we’ll stop there, but you can fill out the picture with the club’s commercial arms and legs, with their geography and history as the body.
Arsenal Football Club are, by all measures, healthy, fit, and brimming with energy. Why can’t they win the race?
Here are the factors working against them:
1) The other mega clubs, backed by billionaires, are not sitting still. They are veritably spraying money at every aspect of their growth and development, competing for the best players, pushing the most modern methods, bringing in cutting edge managers. Each of them have accelerated the cycle of trial-and-error that used to last a season, but can now see a club’s entire playing strategy overhauled in the space of 10 games.
2) Many of their competitors have adopted the methods they pioneered. When Arsene Wenger came to the Premier League, a somewhat puzzling hire fresh from a spell in the Japanese J-League, he brought with him a philosophy and way of working that shocked England’s stodgy, kick-and-run approach to top level football. Wenger’s technical, passing game, wed to steely, physical, English defending became the template for success in the late ’90s, with even Alex Ferguson himself cadging many of Wenger’s basic ideas (and taking credit for them).
3) For the most part, evolution works slowly in football. Reinvention is difficult. Having changed English football once, engineering the next game changing idea is a bigger challenge than most supporters are willing to allow.
Despite all this, Wenger has achieved something no other manager has, consistency, that least sexy of all charms. Ironically, it’s this consistency that really highlights Arsenal’s lack of a championship. Greater oscillations in finishing position might produce something closer to joy among supporters for a second place finish.
Instead, the club’s fans seek explanations for the failure to crest that final rise. The common denominator is Wenger. If all the ingredients are there, and still no Premier League trophy arrives, the problem must be the manager, an easy target now at retirement age.
But this is the challenge of balancing the head and the heart. Ungoverned, the heart will beat itself to exhaustion and collapse. As the heart of the club, the supporters can’t see, won’t see, the future. That’s management’s job.
When you’re as good as Arsenal are, at some point you win the league. The bookies will tell you that. But it’s also true that, again at some point, they’ll fall out of the top four, and the consequences of that are both diminished financial means AND reduced ability to recruit the best players. It can be argued that Arsenal don’t do the best job of marshaling their resources, but it’s likely better to have the money and not maximize it, than not to have it at all.
Supporters need look no further than their most-hated foe in Manchester to see the consequences of parting ways with an iconic manager. United have finished 7th, 6th and 5th over the last seasons. Everyday is turmoil at Old Trafford as the Red Devils consider parting ways with another manager. Once a team is untethered from the sort of stability Wenger delivers, the results become less and less predictable. No doubt Monsieur Wenger allowed himself a satisfied chuckle, for example, at the sacking of old friend Jose Mourinho.
The heart wants what the heart wants, and Arsenal supporters aren’t wrong to bemoan their club’s seeming inability to reach the heights Wenger taught them to expect. But the head knows that it’s a shorter distance from second to first, than from 10th to 4th.