Wenger has performed miracles to get Arsenal where they are, yet is he the man to take Arsenal forward?
On May 19th Arsenal will be watching the Champions League in both trepidation and envy; worried because their Champions League qualification may rest on Bayern winning and envious because they wonder when the next time Arsenal will be appearing in a Champions League final, or any final at all.
It is quite remarkable that Arsenal are in any position to be challenging for a Champions League position this season. Last summer was one of the most traumatic of Wenger’s time at Arsenal, early results indicated as such and at that point Wenger had a real challenge on his hands; losses to Liverpool, United, Blackburn and Spurs meant Arsenal had 7 points from 7 games. For the first time, the fans were showing their discontent with the board and the manager, Arsenal looked in a perilous condition and hopes of getting near the top four were slim.
The amazing thing about Arsenal, of all the problems they encountered, is that they are lying in third with a game to go. They say judge a side at the end of the season, yet to think Arsenal would be where they are would have been seen as a crazy prediction. They have achieved it by managing to put together winning runs and have been lucky that teams like Liverpool and Chelsea have not been particularly potent in the league.
Since the loss to Milan at San Siro Arsenal have appeared a rejuvenated side, I guess it couldn’t have been any worse, the performance that night was disgraceful, yet their run in has seen them get back into contention for the Champions League. As always with Arsenal though, the past four games have shown Arsenal’s inability to cross the finish line with any belief and strength of will. And it is this lack of mental strength which I hold Wenger accountable.
Wenger - Master of deception?
When people talk of Arsene Wenger he is widely regarded as one of the world's best managers. He has been dubbed a "miracle worker" by former Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein and we are told he has “revolutionised” the Premier League. However in the last six years there has been a shortage of trophies and gradually poorer performances.
One cannot doubt that the absence of David Dein at Arsenal has had a great effect on the fortunes of Arsenal yet excuses are made in regards to the stadium, about how costs have had to be reduced. Yet looking past the excuses, questions must still be asked about the signings being made by Wenger and a change in his philosophy after the invincible season which set in motion where we are now.
It is a fallacy that Arsenal have not spent money, especially in the last five years. Why people think this is because the signings have beenaverage at best. Who has been a success? Sagna, Nasri, Vermalean? Apart from that the signings he has made have been nothing short of average. Granted wages are a stumbling block for many top players, yet to say Arsenal haven’t spent money is a lie. The truth is that since David Dein left the club, citing lack of funding and ability to compete with the top sides around, Arsenal have struggled to bring in players of the quality of Bergkamp, Overmars, Vieria, Petit and Henry.
Arsenal’s business model has been to stay competitive in the league while investing in the infrastructure which will give them a strong future. In the past six years, while the Emirates is being paid off, Arsene Wenger has done something which perhaps no other manager could have. The key to Arsenal’s success has been a strong scouting system bringing in cheap, young foreign talent and having them perform on the pitch, then selling them on for a large profit margin. For those who don’t know of “Moneyball”, Liverpool, who have apparently attempted something of this model, should take note of Arsenal, who have done it effectively.
Yet for a manager who has some of the best scouts around the world and who we are told is very patient to make the right decision to ensure the correct players comes in, the results are clear, the signings made by Wenger are not good enough, or put another way, fail to perform at Arsenal. When you see Newcastle find a defensive mid, creative mid and striker for under £20 million, one has to wonder what Arsenal’s scouts have been doing. For all you hear of the scouting network of Arsenal, there are players who have been missed, and cost was not the issue. Is it Judgement was, and questions must be asked of Wenger’s.
Is there a problem in the way Wenger develops players?
Yet wasn't players like Ramsay, Reyes, Rosicky and Arshavin some of the best talents around? These are players who arrived at Arsenal who came with a great reputation and yet have failed. The key question to ask is, what are Arsenal doing with these players that restricts their performances? I believe it is solely down to Wenger.
The Walcott situation has led me to believe that perhaps Wenger isn't the man we as England fans want to develop our talent either. Walcott was a forward, yet has been playing right wing for six years. How is this helping his development? He is not a winger, through Wenger’s coaching his confidence has been knocked through the insistence of him playing wide. He doesn’t even play him on the left to allow him to naturally drift inside. It is madness. However good his stats have been this year, this is the product of six years under Wenger and Arsenal’s “philosophy”. Is this what we want Chamberlain to become? With Chamberlain showing so much promise am I the only one worried that it is Wenger who is in control of future?
It is of course no real surprise why the young players at Arsenal don’t fulfil their potential, or require the need to move on to improve. It is a reason why also Arsenal haven’t won anything for seven years. Again, it is down to Wenger and his ridiculous philosophy concerning players over 30 years old. When Arsenal lost players like Keown, Parlour, Kanu, Wiltord and in the summer of 2004 and then to lost Pires and Vieria the following year, followed by Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole and Henry the next, all the experience of winning trophies, all the mental toughness which allowed Arsenal to beat United mentally and physically for a period of years, was effectively taken out of the side.
Everything that was great about this Arsenal team was replaced by technically good players with weak mentalities. The experience and expertise that was key in aiding young stars was removed and replaced by more youth players, they had no-one to learn from and importantly no-one to lead the team during the tough times.
Ever since the team has been completely Wenger’s, without the defence that George Graham developed, the team has been unsuccessful. Is this a surprise? No, and this leads to questions about Wenger’s awful record at recruiting and developing top quality defenders. He was very fortunate to inherit one of the best defences in world football, a defence comparable with the great Italian teams. He built his success on this platform, yet as they started to leave his inadequacies in defensive coaching and management were, and still are evident. Replacing that defence with players like Cygan, Stepanovs, Djourou and and Squillaci was incomprehensible. A back four of Sagna, Koscielny, Vermaelan and Gibbs is not title winning, yet when one of these is out, the team falls apart. Will Steve Bould improve matters defensively, Arsenal fans should hope so.
Wenger’s mental issues
Player’s performances I believe are the result of the manager, those who say that when the player steps out on the pitch that the manager has no influence are wrong. A manager’s role is to have prepared, planned, motivated and inspired their players. You know a team who believes in their manager when you see them working as hard as they can; look at Barca under Pep, United under Ferguson and all of Mourinho’s teams. They inspire their players to perform, to work harder than the opposition, they motivate teams to win. Can this be said of Wenger? The media says he is like a guide to the players, giving them more choices and responsibilities, like an Uncle more than a stern Dad. The result is evident, without discipline and true guidance this Arsenal team looks lost.
The Arsenal team assembled by Wenger has been average, lacking strength in mind and body, lacking leadership on the pitch and in the dressing room. The sides inability to last a whole season, more often than not capitulating at the end of the season shows Wenger’s poor judgement of players, and Wenger’s lack of ability to develop a winning side. Where are the players who have the will to win, an asset that Ferguson rates so highly?
What does the future hold?
The truth is, Arsenal should finish third and should qualify for the Champions League again. The biggest factor to this season has been the ability to keep Robin Van Persie fit, he has now played a whole season for the first time since his arrival, and his 30 league goals have propelled Arsenal up the table and have been vital in keeping the vultures away from Wenger. The question is, can they keep him? Can they convince him to stay, the only way they can do this is if they prove to him that he will be playing with better players and that Arsenal have a genuine chance of challenging for honours. In all honesty this is unlikely, and Van Persie may decide that while his stock is so high, he should look to do what Henry did and head to Spain.
Will the season be seen as successful or another one ending in failure? This answer to this question explains everything about Arsenal and their “situation”. You see, the thing is about Arsenal is that winning trophies seems to matter less than making money.
Arsene Wenger described the new stadium as the "biggest decision in Arsenal's history since the board opted to bring Herbert Chapman to the club in 1925." The stadium cost £400 million to build; amazingly was built on time and is regarded as one of the best stadiums in the world. For those fans who have grown frustrated and tired of Wenger’s management, they need to realise that while the stadium has been built, while the debts have been paid, the side they support have not once failed to qualify for the Champions League.
This is remarkable considering Arsenal have the lowest net spend in the entire league, lower than every side in the league today over the past five years. In that time Arsenal have spent £85 million and received £116 million, a net spend of -£31m. Compare this to the net spends of City (£418m), Chelsea (£155m), Liverpool (£83m), even Sunderland (£69) and Aston Villa (£68m) and it is clear that Arsenal, relative to their spending, should be on for relegation and not qualifying for the Champions League.
Like any fan of any side, they want to win things, they want to compete with the best. They see the money spent by City, the players coming in and envy is a natural reaction. However, Arsenal do not have that money and instead they have decided to go down the route of sustainable growth. A noble and moral path, yet one which seems stubborn and selfish to the fans and to the players.
A Russian future?
Yet, there is a Russian, Alisher Usmanov, who is by some reckonings Britain's richest man and who owns almost 30% of Arsenal. He has made his intentions to buy Arsenal very clear, yet the board chose the American Stan Kroenke last year. Yet Kroenke has not made the promises of investment that Usmanov has made and it seems that if Arsenal wish to compete then surely allowing Usmanov to take over the club will be a positive decision.
Looking across to Stamford Bridge, the investment from Abramovich has resulted in success, although of course it has also resulted in instability and debt. The thing is, Arsenal have everything in place to welcome a billionaire; a world class stadium and a balanced cheque book. Usmanov has in the past suggested a rights issue to generate cash for Wenger to spend on improving the squad while influential fans group Arsenal Supporters’ Trust recently balloted their members with 70 per cent keen to see him on the board.
The problem is, Usmanov will never have full ownership of the club, not while Peter Hill-Wood is there. Hill-Wood cites Usmanov’s activities, yet the main reason is that Usmanov bought David Dein’s shares when he left Arsenal, for Dein, this was the man to take Arsenal forward. Unfortunately for Arsenal, Dein and Hill-Wood don’t get along and so the investment from the Russian will not be forthcoming. What does this mean for Arsenal? It means that they will still not be able to compete for the best players, they will not be able to pay the best wages and so will still be in a state of competitiveness without silverware.
In terms of infrastructure, Arsenal are ahead of Liverpool, Chelsea and Spurs, while those clubs see the necessity of a new world class stadium, Arsenal already have it. They have done it also while staying competitive and a lot of credit must go to the board and Wenger for such a remarkable job. Yet the question is, when the money becomes available, is Wenger the one to trust to spend it? It is convenient to blame lack of investment on the stadium, yet there is a Russian willing to pump hundreds of millions into the side, to make it competitive for trophies, is there a fear that if they try and don’t achieve anything, would this shown Wenger’s failings?
The main question is, does Wenger’s interest lie with the team or the club, trophies or business? He is very involved in every aspect of how Arsenal are run, which is remarkable in some respects, yet you wonder if he should be focusing on one or the other. If his interest is in the business model, in the sustainability of the club, then he should pass on his coaching responsibilities of the team to a man who can invest all his time and efforts into what happens on the pitch.
All in all, Wenger has done an amazing job at Arsenal in the past six years, considering the lack of investment compared to those around them Arsenal have maintained top four finishes throughout. Perhaps Arsenal have been fortunate that rivals Liverpool and Chelsea have been so poor this year. However the players at Arsenal will not stay around forerver, if Arsenal cannot give these players silverware, then like others before, they will leave. If Arsenal are to push on in the coming seasons, then I do not believe that Wenger is the man to do that. He has created a world class club in terms of business, now it is time he allowed someone else to make a world class team on the pitch.