I write this just after Arsenal have lost 2-0 at home to Liverpool and had another player sent off, as well as another addition to the injury list in Koscielny. We have the second leg of a Champions League qualifier and then Man Utd to face in the next week. Things do not look good.
There will be calls for Arsène Wenger’s head from some Arsenal fans, as there have been for some time. Others – me included – will still say he’s the best option we’ve got. I’m no Wenger apologist, or AKB, as my regular columns in The Gooner will testify. But really, what choice do we have but to trust in him to deliver and to ride out this storm?
I’m not going to say that we were unlucky against Liverpool, or circumstances conspired against us. The first goal was a fluke, but what about the marking that led to it? Both goals were scored when we were down to ten men, but that was no one’s fault but Frimpong. It was a bad high challenge and on another day could easily have shattered the opponent’s leg. The referee would have been justified in awarding a straight red. It’s unfortunate for Frimpong, especially as he was looking confident and capable in midfield.
Of course, we were short of players for this match. (We will be even shorter if/when the Nasri transfer goes ahead, and he was the best attacking player in an Arsenal shirt against Liverpool.) Whose fault is the shortage? The players and the manager again. The manager could have bought earlier in the summer, Gervinho could have exercised some self-discipline last week and stayed on the field. Song could have resisted the urge to step on Joey Barton (note ‘step’ rather than ‘stamp’, but the ban is the same). The manager could try instilling a little more discipline and publicly condemning those in his own team who do stupid things, as well as always being quick to attack other teams’ players.
So if by the time you read this Arsène has come out and blamed everyone but himself and his players for gaining one point in two games, then he is either deluded or a congenital liar. I have lost a lot of the faith I had in M Wenger. In his first seven years at Arsenal he could do almost no wrong. Since then . . . well, we all know the story.
For the moment I’m not going to list the areas where I think the manager, and indeed the club, could do better. Anyone who’s read my column in The Gooner will have heard them before, particularly over the last two seasons. However, here’s why I think that despite everything we have no choice but to stick with the manager we’ve got.
I’ll summarise first:
1 – Wenger is on a huge contract and Arsenal can’t afford to sack him
2 – A new manager would want to spend a huge sum that the club doesn’t have (though admittedly the big shareholders do)
3 – Arsenal’s (for which read ‘Arsène’s’) wage structure is wrong – too many average players on big money – and this will be painful (for which read ‘expensive’) and time consuming to correct
4 – Wenger is the best person to consistently keep a team at the top
5 – Wenger gets the best out of players by teaching them how to play
6 – Wenger is the only manager to achieve a consistent high level without constant big transfer spending
7 – His reputation still attracts players – not like it did, but it’s still positive
And now the detail:
- A lot of things are linked to finances, but the first is that Wenger himself is on a huge contract. Sacking him would cost the club a couple of years’ wages at six or seven million quid a year. Even if the Board didn’t love him, which they do, the cost is too high for a club that needs to break even.
- Secondly, any new manager coming in would want to spend a lot more money to build his own squad. No one would come into Arsenal as new manager at the moment and say, “Sure, I’ll work with the squad we’ve got, everything will be fine, leave it to me.” They would hand over a list of players to be purchased on day one and expect to see a few of them arriving pretty sharpish. Of course the club could get round this problem by sacking Wenger after the transfer window ends, so a new manager would have no choice but to use the current squad, but that would only delay the inevitable. In the meantime, the new guy would have a readymade excuse: “Of course we’re losing every match, look at the muppets I have to work with.” Arsenal’s chief shareholder is not in the business of splashing money around unnecessarily. He is a businessman, who has built up a fortune over the years – all right, that was partly by marrying the right woman, but he is not a flashy oligarch who has come into a fortune very quickly and spends for the hell of it. I have to say I’m not convinced Mr Usmanov would throw money at the problem either – it’s easy to make all kinds of promises when you’re on the outside, as Nick Clegg has found to his cost over the last year.
- Arsène has introduced a wage structure at Arsenal that is different to every other club, certainly every club in England. He rewards potential where other clubs reward success. The link between wage bills and league position is now well documented and often quoted. As many are fond of saying, Arsenal have the fourth highest wage bill so they can expect to finish fourth – and look, they do, so all is right with the world. This argument would work if Arsenal used the same wages model as everyone else, but they don’t. Other clubs have a small handful of superstar players on £100k+ a week, while the journeymen and the up and coming youngsters have to struggle by on a tenth of that. Arsène sees this as bad for morale, so he pays everyone at the bottom much more, which he subsidises by paying those at the top less. This might work if it resulted in a continual stream of trophies, so everyone concerned was happy. As soon as the trophies dry up it has two unfortunate effects: the superstars want to leave and get paid their superstar wages elsewhere (using the excuse that they’re only interested in trophies, of course), and the rest don’t want to leave because no one else is daft enough to give them a six year contract at three times what they’re worth. Now, if we had a continual stream of trophies, I wouldn’t even bother to mention it. But we don’t, and we are forced to discuss whether the manager is still up to it. The point here being that even if he isn’t, to get rid of him would mean a long and expensive transition period while everyone on the playing staff who is getting more than they should is shipped out. Really the Board need to start sorting this out because it is storing up more and more trouble, but in the meantime it’s another reason why we have to stick with Wenger.
- Although I want trophies as much as anyone, looking at it objectively Arsenal fans have been spoilt. We expect trophies every year. Historically, periods of dominance come to an end. In the seventies and eighties Liverpool finished out of the top two once in a 19-year period; they haven’t been champions since. One day Fergie will leave Man Utd, and one day they will return to the role of also-rans that they fulfilled for 26 years. We never even became the dominant club in Wenger’s glory days because Man Utd were always there, but it was enough to make Arsenal fans expect continued success. There are only a few trophies to go around, and margins in top-level sport are thin. A couple of points can win or lose the league; a single error can cost a cup competition. What am I saying here? A couple of things: we’ve had a bad run of falling at the last hurdle and sometimes that’s just the way it goes. But would we have even got to the last hurdle this consistently with anyone else in charge? I don’t believe we would. Look how many managers Liverpool, Chelsea and Man City have gone through in recent seasons, and how much money. And yet Wenger’s Arsenal have maintained a position in the elite. You could say, fair enough, but now we are clearly slipping out of the elite. It’s certainly getting harder to stay there, but who is better placed to keep Arsenal challenging than Arsène? Which leads me on to:
- Arsène is the king of getting the best out of a player. For all that we complain players are not good enough for the club, anyone else putting the same players together would not achieve the same. And in answer to that you may well say, get some better players then. Sure, and he should, and should have in recent seasons, but you still have to make the best of what you’ve got and that is what Arsène is good at. No one else is going to get more from the current crop, and the current crop is largely what someone is going to have to work with.
- Linked to that, the prevailing pundit view these days, trotted out so often that it is already as clichéd as they come, is that to get into the top 4 (or even 5) you need to spend a lot of money. This is wrong. There are three ways to get into the top 4 or 5: you need to spend a huge amount of money, like Man City or Chelsea, or the new free-spending Liverpool; you need to be lucky, like Spurs – but this is inevitably only a temporary success; or you need to have a much better than average manager. Wenger, for all his many faults, is a much better than average manager. He is the only one in the English game since Clough who has consistently turned average players into very good ones and good ones into great ones.
- There are still players who want to play under Wenger. Not as many as there were a few years ago it’s true, but for many he is still an attraction. He is now so much part of Arsenal that if he were to leave in a hurry, whether he was pushed or jumped, some players would want to go too, and others would not want to come. Let me make it clear: I am not fooled into thinking he is the draw he once was, but his reputation means he is still a draw.
So three purely financial reasons four playing and coaching reasons. To my mind it’s clear that the answer to Arsenal’s problems right now is not to get rid of Wenger, it is to apply enough pressure that he changes his ways. Too much pressure and he will crack and bail out; too little and he will continue down the unproductive path he’s trodden in recent seasons.
The next question is this: is there anyone at the club who can make Wenger change his ways?