Hokey Cokey at the Emirates

So here we go again. Another season. Same old story for Arsenal. Merely a week  had passed since they sat aloft the Premier League table. Two consecutive defeats later and their fans are once again engaging in a divisive civil war – the staunch Wengerites against the vociferous and growing section of supporters advocating change. You know that Arsenal are lurching into another crisis when social media is being plastered with clips from ArsenalFanTV, much to the amusement of anyone not affiliated with the club. Essentially this YouTube channel is largely dedicated to the debate over whether Wenger should be in or out. 

For what it’s worth, here is a Spurs fan’s view (and I will try to refrain from schadenfraude as far as possible)…

For many years, I looked over the fence at Wenger’s creation in envy. Arsenal had, since the days of Herbert Chapman in the 1930s, long been an illustrious club, and in more recent times had their glories, notably under George Graham. But despite the honours they accumulated in the 1980s and 1990s before Arsene Wenger’s arrival, there was one retort us Spurs fans always had – that we played the game in the right way. George Graham’s Arsenal built their success on a watertight defence, not scintillating attacking football. They were ruthlessly efficient but not wholly entertaining. 1-0 to the Arsenal, as they still sing to this day. 

Then Wenger arrived. “Wenger who?!” we laughed. It was a huge gamble from their then Vice Chairman, David Dein, to bring in a virtual unknown from Japan, at a time when foreign managers were not viewed as a magic solution but instead mired in suspicion. Wenger was only the second ever non-British or Irish managerial appointment in England’s top division. The first was Dr Jozef Venglos who lasted just one season at Aston Villa.  

But our disdain quickly turned to despair as the gamble paid off handsomely. Wenger revolutionised, not just Arsenal, but football in this country. He ensured that every one of his players was comfortable on the ball – forget Guardiola, Wenger was the pioneer in England in terms of getting his team to play out from the back. Off the pitch he cultured an unprecedented dedication to the job, ensuring that dietary and fitness regimes maximised his players’ ability to perform. At this time, team spirit was prioritised ahead of professionalism, and a booze culture was rife in the game, none more so than at Arsenal where messrs Adams and Merson had struggled with alcohol addiction. Wenger’s mantra was all encompassing, not just focused on tactics and kicking a ball around a training ground. Professional footballers were learning what being professional really meant. 

Wenger’s ethos was based on attractive, attacking football and within two years Arsenal had won the League and Cup double. Their progress under his stewardship was rapid and Spurs were left in the rear view mirror trailing behind, a long way down the Seven Sisters Road.  To give some perspective, the season before Wenger arrived (1995/96), only two points separated us. The season before that, we finished five places and 14 points ahead of Arsenal. By the end of season 1997/98, Arsenal were 34 points above us as we slumped to a 14th place finish. For a Spurs fan growing up in North London, where school classes were divided between Yids and Gooners, life was difficult. The rivalry runs deep and the psychological damage inflicted on us in the early Wenger years only served to further entrench us in our hatred.

Thankfully, Sir Alex Ferguson was expertly presiding over Manchester United at the same time to ensure that Arsenal were not all conquering. This was an era, prior to the influx of oil money into West London, in which the league title was contested by two clubs. In fact, many of us Spurs fans effectively adopted Manchester United as our second club, merely because if they didn’t win it then those dirty Gooners would. This mentality culminated in a large proportion of Spurs fans (including myself) desperately wanting us to lose to United on the final day of the 1998/99 season to ensure the league trophy headed to Salford rather than Islington. When Les Ferdinand put us 1-0 up, my house fell silent – the only time I can remember not enjoying a Tottenham goal. The relief was palpable when goals from David Beckham and Andy Cole turned the game on its head to secure the title for United.   

Arsenal continued to flourish though, our Judas captain jumped ship and we had to endure a painful few years, watching on as the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Robert Pires tore teams to shreds. Over his first decade in charge Arsene Wenger became Arsenal’s most decorated coach (3 league titles, 4 FA Cups); every honour a knife in our hearts. 

Then the brakes were applied. It is well documented that financing the Emirates stadium compromised their ability to invest in the squad. But throughout this period, their fans were consistently told that money was available for Wenger to spend – a somewhat baffling stance to take as, given it was patently untrue, it undermined his position and led to heightened tension between management and their fanbase when signings weren’t forthcoming. Recent statements from the club – that now the debt from the stadium has been paid off they can compete again – indicate that the money just wasn’t there.  

Purse strings were clearly tightened and, at a time when Roman Abramovich pumped money freely into Chelsea, it was always going to be a challenge for them to compete for top honours. During this time I was of the mindset that, in maintaining them as a competitive force and protecting their Champions League status, a handicapped Wenger was still performing admirably. Many of their fans moaned but the “grass is always greener” mentality seemed naive at best.

Now they have come out of the other side, there can be no more excuses. I now think their fans have every right to ask questions about the lack of progress, especially given they pay the highest ticket prices in the country. The “be careful what you wish for” Wengerite line is wearing increasingly thin. At some point you have to acknowledge his failings. I list a few here…

In his early years, his teams combined creativity, pace and flair with strength and solidity. He inherited his original back five but acquisitions such as Vieira and Gilberto Silva gave them some leadership and steel in midfield, which has been woefully lacking ever since. Wenger has lost the balance in his team; repeatedly packing his midfield with artistic players who can be fantastic on the ball, but don’t provide the insurance they need without it. Somewhere along the way, he seems to have become lost in his own ideology. His possession-based football ethos became sacrosanct, almost prioritised ahead of success. Since Vieira left in 2005, Wenger has been unable to establish a solid base on which to build his attacking team and their soft underbelly, on nights such as the one we saw at Goodison last week, has repeatedly cost them in the title race. 

And that brings me on to the all so familiar, mid season slump. Every year brings fresh hope and optimism often peaks around the end of October before the usual drop off in form. Although that slump has come slightly later than usual this year, there were some worrying signs earlier in the season. Fortuitous late wins against Southampton and Burnley papered the cracks and a late Giroud headed equaliser at Old Trafford was scarcely deserved when the team had been abject for the 89 minutes prior. On a few occasions this season, their players have looked largely disinterested and not up for the fight, like at the Etihad last weekend. This is a worrying reflection on their manager who appears unable to motivate his team at times. In a number of games they have taken the lead but not been able to turn the screw and kill off their opponents – the Everton and Manchester City games in the last week plus the North London derby spring to mind. A ruthless edge appears to be missing. When opportunity knocks they seem to choke, as we saw last season when all the traditional powerhouses fell and it was Leicester City who capitalised. 

Recruitment has been a major issue. Gone are the days when Wenger could pluck unknown French gems for next to nothing, such as Anelka and Vieira – scouting networks across Europe are vastly superior now than they were in 1996. 
I have already touched upon Wenger’s inability to source a suitable combative central midfielder. He has also failed to acquire a reliable centre forward to lead the line. Chamakh, Gervinho, Podolski Giroud, Sanogo, Perez… Arsenal have consistently settled for second or third rate options. As good a player as Alexis Sanchez is, I don’t see him as the long term answer to their striking problem. His trickery and movement may work against some teams who foolishly afford Arsenal space to attack. Others will park the bus against them and so a more physical presence in the box might be the best way to unlock the defence. 

Finding a reliable goalkeeper was also for a long while a major problem, as the likes of Almunia, Fabianski and Szczesny auditioned but failed to fill the sizeable shoes Jens Lehmann had vacated. In Petr Cech they finally have a solution, even if he isn’t quite at the level he was in his early Chelsea days (pre-Stephen Hunt). 

I would also question Wenger’s ability to improve young players over the last ten years. Hector Bellerin is arguably the only real example in recent times. Alex Iwobi looks to be growing as a player but let’s wait and see where he is in a few years’ time. If players such as Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain are anything to go by, he will probably stagnate and then start to go backwards in a couple of years. Aaron Ramsay similarly seemed to be developing into a top attacking midfielder a couple of years ago, but has since regressed. Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Calum Chambers are further examples of young promise not realising its potential. 

One could argue that injuries have curtailed the progress of many of these players. But for me this is another question mark against Wenger. Either Arsenal have been incredibly unlucky with injuries over a sustained period of time or there is a problem within the club – either in terms of their due diligence prior to recruiting injury prone players or in their training methods or facilities. 

Wenger has also rarely changed his coaching staff, denying him fresh ideas and different opinions. Pat Rice was his assistant for 16 years before stepping down in 2012 when his former centre half, Steve Bould, stepped into that role. Many think that both have been “yes men” to Wenger, too submissive to challenge his methods or decisions. In contrast, Sir Alex Ferguson had a high turnover of assistant managers during his time at Manchester United – Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and Carlos Quieroz to name a few – and that seemed to work for him. 

The fanbase is deeply divided on Wenger and, although many of the Wenger Out brigade now seem to be supporting their own agenda ahead of their club, the toxicity that has developed is not a healthy breeding ground for success. 

The board of directors see Wenger as a guarantee of Champions League qualification and that pays the bills. Replacing him appears to be too high a risk, and they have a ready made case study in seeing how Manchester United have struggled to replace their long term manager. The fans though, have higher aspirations and want to see Arsenal run as a football club rather than a business. 

For years there would have been nothing I wanted more than for Arsenal to part ways with Monsieur Wenger. But it has now become increasingly clear that under his stewardship they have stagnated and there are few signs that this will change anytime soon. With Wenger’s current contract running out in the summer, I think that Arsenal would be better off making a change. As a Spurs fan, I hope that doesn’t happen and we get a few more years of the Wenger Hokey Cokey on ArsenalFanTV to enjoy. 

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