There has always been a reason for Arsène Wenger to stay in charge at Arsenal.
Over the course of the last decade, some fans have lobbied for his departure, which has never felt as close as it does now. They had their reasons, some ridiculous, some fair, some not really thought through. Now approaching 20 years as Arsenal manager, the boss may have run out of legs to stand on.
When the best reason you can think of for keeping the manager is ‘there isn’t an obvious replacement’ you’re in trouble and right now that’s about all a lot of fans can come up with to support Arsène. And they’re the ones who love him.
Point is, there has always been a reason to defend him and reasons to stick with him. The last decade has not been a failure, not by any stretch of the imagination.
Arsenal moved stadium and had incredibly restricted finances, meaning we had to develop cheap and young players before selling them at a profit to pay for the new stadium as quickly as possible. Had we not sold those players, we wouldn’t have been ready to comfortably sign Mesut Özil by 2013 and Alexis Sánchez a year later.
In that time, we played the best football in England. We were the most fluid attacking unit in the country, playing the most attractive stuff but lacking defensively and struggling without much experience. Referees didn’t protect our young side from clubs who would bully us, we picked up injuries and we couldn’t afford the squad depth to cope with long-term fitness troubles. Arsène Wenger’s young Arsenal side didn’t win things, but the truth is we were unlucky not to.
Arsenal don’t play nice football anymore. Sometimes functional, often dysfunctional, sometimes we win and sometimes we don’t. Teams aren’t afraid of coming up against us. It’s rarely fast, it’s certainly not clinical, it isn’t very exciting.
Wenger’s early sides looked to counter at breakneck speed. We moved stadium and the younger players we brought in weren’t as physical but had incredible technical ability; Wenger had foreseen the type of football Barcelona and Spain went on to dominate the world with and he came close to winning the title with it.
In the last few seasons pressing has swept the game across Europe, mainly with Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp as the face of the style. Both coaches had their sides structured to swarm the ball as soon as they lost it, forcing turnovers and launching new attacks instantly. It’s something Arsenal both haven’t mastered and haven’t been able to figure out a way around when implemented by opposition sides and I’m afraid that sits with the manager. Arsenal look a little lost tactically when anyone has something resembling structure; these players don’t know how to play against a low block and have no idea how to play through a press.
Arsenal have no style. The team doesn’t press, doesn’t play possession football, and rarely counter-attacks (it’s even rarer that we specifically set out to do so).
We don’t play good football anymore, nor do we play modern football. When we weren’t winning things the ability to do both was something Wenger could always fall back on. The Frenchman’s Arsenal teams were always entertaining. Now they look lost.
One of the other reasons for keeping Arsène was his trust in young players and the way they developed under him. Throw into the same bracket the idea that no player ever quite seemed to play the same after leaving Arsenal. Well, are these things true anymore? Young players aren’t developing so much and some of our more proven talents are stagnating.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain has probably regressed in the last three years, Theo Walcott certainly has. The development of Aaron Ramsey has stuttered as he’s been moved around rather than partnered with someone who suits him and his style of play. Alexis Sánchez looks a shadow of the player we signed and nothing has been done to rectify his form – why hasn’t he been tried in another position by now?
Nacho Monreal has come on superbly but much of that was thanks to a forced spell at centre-back, which made him a more proactive defender.
Young players aren’t even receiving as many opportunities as they did in the past. Jeff Reine-Adelaide hasn’t been close to the team. Despite continuing to impress, Alex Iwobi has only been trusted in FA Cup matches at home or against weaker opposition. Last season Héctor Bellerín emerged but only after Mathieu Debuchy picked up a serious injury and Wenger decided Calum Chambers couldn’t be trusted. Had Debuchy stayed fit the Spaniard, who is far more talented, wouldn’t have been close to the team. If you don’t believe me look at how he started just one of one of the next nine games in the Champions League and Premier League after his debut in Dortmund.
Over the past year or two Arsenal have had more money but squad planning has been negligible at best. A midfield of Francis Coquelin and Santi Cazorla was settled upon with both players required to take on incredibly specific duties that nobody in the squad could replace if something happened to one of them. Obviously, they both picked up injuries and Arsenal have spent months looking a little startled because players are being asked to do things they aren’t capable of. We had all summer to fix this. I would rant about it a little more but Michael Keshani has already done that for me excellently here.
So Arsenal don’t play attractive football, we don’t even really have a philosophy at all, young players aren’t trusted, the squad doesn’t look very well assembled, and players aren’t developing.
Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez signed for us because Wenger wooed them but how much longer will they stay for? How much longer will top players want to play for him?
With Leicester City and Spurs above us in the league, we can’t say finances are holding us back. We can say that Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United should be equally disappointed (and Wenger has said that on a number of occasions) but three have already decided to change their manager and the fourth is likely to do so this summer.
Personally, I fear we don’t have a board with the footballing insight to replace the manager intelligently. Unless you’re a keen viewer of German football you’re unlikely to have known much about Thomas Tuchel before this season. You’re even less likely to know anything about Julian Nagelsmann, who looks like he could be the next big thing.
No, the Arsenal board are likely to give the job (should Wenger leave) to a safe pair of hands. That means the tactically poor Joachim Löw or another similar appointment. Louis van Gaal’s work at Old Trafford has shown that established and proven managers are not necessarily the way to go anymore, but does anyone at Arsenal have the knowledge of football to look outside the box and evaluate a long shot? Do the fans have the patience to get behind an unproven new manager if it doesn’t work right away?
These are things I’ve been wondering a lot lately, and the questions now seem more likely to be answered in the near future than they ever have.
Last of all it needs to be said that Arsène Wenger has given us memories, success, and a platform to win that fans of most clubs could only a dream of. There may be more to come yet, but that feels increasingly unlikely. Nonetheless, we’ve enjoyed the most successful period Arsenal have managed since the 1930s and are in a new stadium with the financial strength, squad and academy to become one of the biggest and best clubs in Europe for a very long time.
Am I disappointed with the season? For sure. Heartbroken by the manager’s work right now? Absolutely. Grateful for everything he’s done? Forever.
Nothing is over yet and it may not be next season either, but we’re approaching the end.