Home > Football > Is the end nigh for Arsène Wenger?

Is the end nigh for Arsène Wenger?

September 4, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Since Arsène Wenger took hold of the reins at Arsenal way back in October 1996, he has helped change the club beyond recognition. Under his predecessor Bruce Rioch, the North London club had finished fifth in the Premier League, 19 points behind champions Manchester United. Within two years, the Frenchman had assembled a squad awash with quality and delivered a league and FA Cup double. Under his guidance, the Gunners became perennial title contenders and went on to achieve the double again in 2002 as Thierry Henry took England by storm. Wenger’s Arsenal career reached its zenith during the 2003/2004 season as his side achieved the unthinkable and went an entire 38 game season undefeated. No side has yet been able to match the feat achieved by the team dubbed The Invincibles. Arsenal’s place atop the Premier League table was soon usurped by José Mourinho’s billionaire-funded Chelsea but the silverware continued to find its way in to the club’s trophy cabinet in the form of the FA Cup in 2005.

During this period of almost uninterrupted success in one competition or another, Wenger’s teams garnered a reputation for playing football which was easy on the eye, football for purists some might say, a style surpassed perhaps only by Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona. The manager himself became known as a supreme talent spotter plucking the likes of Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit out of relative obscurity and rescuing the wonderfully talented, but at the time still very raw, Thierry Henry from his Italian nightmare at Juventus. He seemed to work wonders on a limited budget, particularly in comparison to the money afforded the likes of Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson and very nearly led the club to European glory in 2006 before a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona came from one goal down to deny the Frenchman his crowning glory.

The club’s success on the pitch has led to almost unchecked growth off it. Arsenal has become a major sporting brand with global appeal and the club is now one of the world’s most profitable. The money generated by on-field success facilitated the club’s move to its new home – the fantastically modern Emirates Stadium.

In short, Wenger has presided over a period of unprecedented success at Arsenal yet now, in 2011, he finds himself under extreme pressure, the likes of which most of us would find insufferable. Fans who for so long have shown an unwavering faith in his managerial abilities are now starting to question him. Some are even calling for his head. Every move he makes is now being scrutinised even more intensely by the world’s sporting media, particularly with regards to his dealings in the dizzying carousel that is the transfer market, and some are even questioning whether he has lost sight of the most important thing in sport; winning.

So why does the man who has worked wonders for a club, which 15 years ago found itself sliding towards mid-table irrelevance, suddenly find himself being attacked from all sides? This is a question to which the answer is far from simple.

One could argue that, to an extent at least, Wenger is a victim of his own success. The silverware flowed in to the club’s trophy room on the crest of an irresistible footballing wave in the late 90s and early 00s at a rate rivalled only by Manchester United. However, it may not have escaped your attention that in the paragraphs above outlining Wenger’s achievements there is no mention of anything beyond the Champions League Final in May 2006. There is no mention of any trophy after the 2005 FA Cup, as not since then has the Frenchman seen his captain lift a major trophy. With the exception of the 2007/2008 title race and this year’s League Cup final, Arsenal have not looked like adding to their Wenger-inspired trophy haul and, if truth be told, they have looked in recent years like a car stuck in neutral, the driver of which is desperately seeking first gear.

For so long Arsenal were Manchester United’s main and perhaps only serious title contenders. So intense was the rivalry between the two clubs that matches between them often descended in to ill-disciplined farce, most notably during the infamous 2004 post-match pizza throwing incident. The days of watching those two titans of midfield, Roy Keane and Patrick Vieira, tussle for supremacy in what served as a microcosm of the clubs’ own titanic battle now seem like a distant memory. The chasm that has opened between the two clubs was revealed with startling brutality last Sunday as the defending champions romped to an emphatic 8-2 victory at Old Trafford. There is of course an argument to be made for the away side as they were without a whole host of first-team players and forced to thrust the likes of Carl Jenkinson and Francis Coquelin in to action against a rampant Wayne Rooney and co. What will concern Wenger more, is the anonymity of senior players such as Andrey Arshavin and Tomáš Rosický in that match, both of whom looked like they would rather be anywhere other than Old Trafford even before Danny Welbeck opened the scoring. Arshavin in particular has performed in this manner for some time now and Rosický looks like the injury-ravaged player that he is.

Not only have Manchester United pulled far ahead of Arsenal, but so too have the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City. Whilst Manchester City were putting their petro-dollars to good use by buying Sergio Agüero, Arsène Wenger was handing Charlton Athletic a £1 million cheque for Carl Jenkinson. This contrast was enough to convince Samir Nasri to swap the Emirates for the newly named Etihad Stadium. In doing so he followed Arsenal’s best player, Cesc Fàbregas, out of the exit door leaving Wenger with two huge gaps to fill in midfield, a situation made worse by the news that Arsenal’s next best midfielder, Jack Wilshere, is out until November. Chelsea and Manchester City are now the pretenders to Manchester United’s crown, not Arsenal, and with Liverpool having invested heavily this summer and Tottenham Hotspur always dangerous, it is not unthinkable that the Gunners may fail to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

 

Arsène Wenger was forced to look helplessly as his side were torn apart by a rampant Manchester United (This image is the property of the Guardian)

Arsène Wenger can of course not be blamed for Fàbregas wanting to return to his homeland or Samir Nasri having his head turned by a reported £180,000 a week contract, but the reason for leaving given by both players is telling: ‘I want to win trophies.’ Evidently neither felt this was a possibility at Arsenal and judging by what we have seen so far this season, it is hard to disagree.

As mentioned above, the issue is that Wenger has had to play the likes of Jenkinson, Frimpong and Coquelin and for this he must take some of the blame. Whilst these players are undoubtedly talented and may well go on to become world-class, they are simply not yet ready to play game in game out in the Premier League. Where are the experienced back up players? There aren’t any. In the last two or three years, Wenger has let his squad become ultra thin and he is now reaping what he has sown.

This summer, Gael Clichy, Cesc Fàbregas and Samir Nasri have all left and one could reasonably argue that none of them have been replaced. Given Arsenal’s lack of midfield options, it seems odd that Denilson has been allowed to return to Brazil on loan and apart from Robin van Persie, what does the Frenchman have at his disposal in terms of attacking options? Nicklas Bendtner departed for a season long loan to Sunderland on transfer deadline day vowing never to return and the club’s only fit left-back, Armand Traoré, was sold to QPR just a day after a horror showing at Old Trafford. The likes of Abou Diaby, Kieran Gibbs and Thomas Vermaelan seem to be incapable of staying fit for any length of time and Wenger has failed to legislate for this.

For too long the manager has promised the Arsenal faithful that ‘this team will come good’ but Jack Wilshere aside, none of those who have recently come in to the side look up to scratch for a club with serious title ambitions. For some time those same fans have admitted a need for their team to play more direct football at times, but the Frenchman remains married to his belief in what some see as ‘walk it in the net’ football. Stubborn to a fault some might say.

It is for his signings, or lack of them, that the most vociferous criticism has been reserved however. This summer illustrated the point perfectly. It was certainly no mystery that Wenger was going to lose both Fàbregas and Nasri and so he had plenty of time to weigh up and prepare reasonable offers for replacements. Big names such as Mario Götze of Borussia Dortmund and Eden Hazard of Lille were bandied about but neither deal materialised. Wenger instead found himself involved in the mad scramble that drives Sky’s Jim White to near combustion: transfer deadline day. In the end, he was able to recruit two experienced midfielders, Mikel Arteta from Everton and Chelsea’s Israeli international Yossi Benayoun. These will no doubt prove good additions to Wenger’s squad, as will German centre back Per Mertesacker, also signed on deadline day, but if truth be told, neither has produced his best form in the last two seasons and they are not the stellar names Emirates regulars were hoping for. In fact, the Arteta deal, which was finalised right on the cut off time of 11 p.m., smacked of desperation somewhat. Some were also left wondering why the club had not bought a midfield general, the kind of player lacking since Patrick Vieira’s departure a full six years ago.

 

For too long Wenger has refused to roll his dice and go big in the transfer market and there are various theories as to why. There is a long held belief amongst some Arsenal supporters that Wenger has lacked an ally on the board since David Dein’s departure and that consequently, they will not sanction the kind of six figure weekly wages needed to attract the world’s top players. Some even question whether he has the funds to buy such players in the first place with much of the blame being put on the cost of the new stadium.

 

Perhaps the most compelling argument however, is that the manager himself is reluctant to spend big as he seeks to do it his way, i.e. buy young and cheap. He has on occasion ventured in to the transfer market for big money buys, but more often than not, they have ended in disappointment. Sylvain Wiltord was a club record signing and whilst solid, he did not pull up any trees. Andrey Arshavin has failed to consistently show the form that made him so sought-after in his Zenit St. Petersburg days and José Antonio Reyes came and went having barely left a mark on English football. There also have to be question marks over why he spent a reported £12 million on 18 year old Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain this year (did he really need a pacey attacking player in the mould of Theo Walcott?), especially when one then considers he offered a paltry £6 million for Bolton and England centre back Gary Cahill. Wenger’s better acquisitions have been for the most part bargain buys and this is perhaps why he is reluctant to ask his chairman for big money signings. Whatever the case, it has left his squad thin and his task difficult.

 

A fourth title of the Wenger era is well beyond Arsenal this year as they will need to rely on young, inexperienced players such as Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey, but those calling for his job should proceed with caution. Whilst it is true that one can only live off past glories for so long, nobody should forget how far Arsène Wenger has brought the club. Then there is the matter of who would replace him, something which very few consider when yelling ‘(name of manager) out. There is no obvious candidate, so let’s hope Arsenal do the right thing and keep the faith. If they do, Wenger will need to repay that faith and finally showing some flexibility on the style of football played and in the transfer market would be a good start.

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Categories: Football
  1. Nim Harindra
    September 6, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Nice article Nick.

    I think the financial situation has to be discussed too though. It is pretty hard to tell whether the lack of spending from Wenger is down to him not wanting to spend big, or not having the capabilities to do so. It just seems to be that United, City and Chelsea are operating on a completely different scale in this regard. He does spend a fair bit on young players now and then such as Oxlade Chamberlain, but at least there’s resale value there. The board every now and then comes out saying that the money is there to spend but you get the feeling he can have it if he wants it, but it maybe wouldn’t be a financially sound move. I think keep Arsenal in title contention/champions league while the club moved to the Emirates is one of Wenger’s best achievements.

    Even if they can spend 30-40 mil on a player, the wage structure certainly isnt there. How many Arsenal players would be on 100k a week. I reckon Van Persie, maybe Arsharvin. Players at City and Chelsea get £80k to sit on the bench. If a player is really worth £35 million, they are probably going to want a hefty wage packet to go with it. I think this is why they can no longer attract that marquee established signing that the Arsenal fans always talk about. It seems as though if he has to find the next big thing as he can afford their wages (and even when he does, their heads get turned when a Man City offer to double them).

    I heard one reporter put it quite well when he said Arsenal were in a better position than they were a week ago, but worse than a month ago. All the signings are decent players, but maybe needed to go along with a in-his-prime creative centre mid (though as stated above its not as easy as it sounds). Wenger made an error in waiting so long to sell Fabregas. He was trying to get more money from barca but since he didnt manage that anyway should have sold him earlier and then maybe they could have got Mata.

    I’m probabaly in a minority who think the creativity and someone to supply balls to Van Persie is more of an issue than a holding midfielder. Parker is a good player and had a great year last year, but he was at a relegation side. Is he that much better than Song? I dont think so. Furthermore Wilshere is not an out and out attcking midfielder so with those two together i think you have enough cover. Arteta will go some way to covering the creative gap but as you say its been a couple of years since he played his best football and he is injury prone. Maybe an option would be to try Arshavin there who can play those through balls, and it might snap him out of his slump. Alsio if/when Van Persie gets injures they could have some real problems.

    Anyway I think their demise has generally been slightly exaggerated (i know this may sound strange after you lose 8-2), but to put it into perspective, they are 3 games in and two of those have been against Man Utd and Liverpool. They are still in the champions league and have a lot of players to come back from injury. I still expect them to push hard for 4th.

  2. September 5, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Just to add: I checked Arsenal’s site and Diaby had ankle surgery, he’s expected back this month. I think given options this seems like Arsenals best side: Wojciech Szczesny, Andre Santos, Thomas Vermaelen, Per Mertesacker, Bacary Sagna, Vassiriki Diaby, Mikel Arteta, Aaron Ramsey, Yao Gervinho, Robin Van Persie
    Theo Walcott. As for Rosicky & Arshavin, it would be up to Wenger to sit them down and explain they will have to get their form back to push for a place in the side, i’m sure if they are professionals they’ll put the effort in during training and the chances they get during games.

  3. September 5, 2011 at 5:55 am

    I’d mostly agree with this article. I’ll begin with the players, even though it’s only placed an unstable ‘IF’ in terms of fitness, I think the signing of Arteta could be a masterstroke by Arsene. We only have to look closer to home to see signings made by Ferguson that didn’t perform after being ravaged by Injuries (Saha). Arteta I don’t think has played his best football recently, but supposing he actually becomes fit again and plays alongside Diaby or Song in midfield? Are we arguing or disapproving that Mikael Arteta doesn’t have the quality? I think Arteta has the experience and ability to play and control the game at Arsenal, the only suspect is the fitness of him, if he can stay fit, given a little time he’ll do wonders for Arsene.

    I do agree totally with what has been said about the Transfers in general though, it’s worth thinking about if your a Gunners fan, They already have Walcott, at times he looks a fantastic player, he’s the only one at Arsenal in any form at the moment. So why agree to spend £18Million on Chamberlain but only offer £6Million for Cahill?

    I think there can’t be any one defining reason, its a culmination in all of the above you’ve mentioned, Deins departure, and sometimes Wengers stubborn resolve. You’re also right that he seems to have better success with players in turmoil or unknowns rather than established players. I think thats what makes the Mertesacker deal and the Arteta signings interesting, he did also sign the fullback from Fenerbahce remember? He’s a straight swap for Clichy/Traore’s position. I do hope at least for Arsenal fans they allow the compulsory 15-20 games before calling for his head. It seems there is no loyalty in football now, after everything the manager has transformed Arsenal, are they not allowing him even this season to pull it together?

    I know that alot of fans will be frustrated by the transitional period, but if you have a look at the last 5-6 seasons, they’ve always had to deal with being tagged as the ‘almost side’ and quite often theres a reason for it, during the summer give or take a season he’s had to deal with a major player leaving, it’s hard for a manager to establish any balance or consistency in the team when a major player leaves the team. For this i’d argue that Wenger is having to consistently have his side perform in ‘Transition’ – whilst this is effecting their seasons because they haven’t won anything, they haven’t yet capitulated like Leeds Utd, they remain successful to a degree they have a great stadium and when on form can still compete in games. They have qualified through the back door of the champions league.

    I still think that he needs to be at least given until January to see how Arsenal are performing, playing. See how the new signings are bedded into the team (or in case with injuries, how they aren’t). – What is the alternative? Sack Arsene Wenger or have him resign after just three Premier League Games?
    Supposing that happened in either circumstance, no manager in the world knows that team structure and playing staff the way Arsene does, so sacking him now wont do anything. The new manager would also need time, to get used to the structure and playing staff, and also want to rebuild the side, most likely from scratch. That would put the squad even further back, I think if Arsenal finish this season outside the top 8 and haven’t qualified for Champions League, then maybe the board and him should consider his resignation in the summer, I’m not overly a big fan of a manager leaving mid-season let alone 3 games into it.

    I think if fans want him to resign now, they will have to consider the prospect that things at the Emirates would get much much worse before they get better. I know that sounds ironic from a United fan, considering the 8-2 demolition, but the result was under extreme conditions, even Ferguson did have sympathy for his opposite number. If the players he’s brought in establish themselves, Arsene will have time to establish some ideas and solutions for dealing with those senior players mentioned, Rosicky to be sold or allowed to leave on a free and Arshavin to be sold, neither now look remotely interested in playing or fighting for the Gunners.

    I’m quite surprised by the quick demise of Vassiriki Diaby, from what i saw of his midfield performance for France in the World Cup he looked like the only player trying, on the back of for him what was an impressive season for the Gunners he’s slipped down the pecking order in midfield, I thought his performance against United was reminiscent of the Patrick Vieira you spoke of, fans on 606 called for Scott Parker, someone to be physical in midfield, Surely Diaby would be a shoe-In. I appreciate you will feel differently, but at this stage he’s leaned on Coquelin, when I think theres a better alternative? Maybe Diaby isn’t fit, or injured I’m unsure, but it seems if you could get both him and Vermaelen playing again, Vermaelen alongside Mertesacker and Diaby in with Arteta I still think theres a season with potential.

    Whatever happens will happen, Arsene has spoken out saying he will not resign, I admire that in him, he’s not giving up when things are extremely tough, I didnt expect him to if i’m honest, I hope the fans give him the time to sort this out.
    Good Article.

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