Arsene Wenger: Should he stay or should he go?
Name: Julian Harris
Season-ticket holder since 2006 (on the waiting list for eight years before that...)
First game: Arsenal 1-1 Manchester United, February 1992
Let’s face it – football fans are a miserable breed. While the game’s broadcasters like to portray us as cheerful and colourful loyalists, Nick Hornby’s observation from the first match he attended (“Nobody seemed to enjoy anything that happened during the entire afternoon”) is largely true, even four-and-a-half decades later. If anything, the noisy echo chamber of social media simply amplifies our angst, especially when 11 young millionaires on the pitch are doing all they can to shatter their supporters’ collective dreams.
Or at least this is the case with my club, Arsenal, of late. Having been sat at the top of the Premier League in mid-January, the “unlucky” 13 league and European fixtures since have resulted in five defeats, five draws and just three wins. The defence has conceded 24 times in these games. Amid this form, and despite a run to the FA Cup semi-finals, saying anything remotely positive about the manager seems near impossible.
Nonetheless, I will try to take a step back and observe the bigger picture. Recent seasons have been frustrating due to a lack of progress on the pitch, yet until February this campaign seemed different. Arsenal have topped the league for more days than any other team in 2013/14, and for much of it were over 15 points higher than at the same stage of the previous campaign.
The side had balance, confidence, a strong defence, and the talent and ruthlessness to score from a limited number of chances.
Yet a series of devastating injuries have combined with some appalling big-game tactics to send our hopes crashing down. These factors are not an excuse for Arsene Wenger – in some ways they reflect his greatest weaknesses – but they should also not blind us to his still considerable strengths.
Wenger is exceptional at spotting and nurturing individual talent; and at evolving a team of these individuals that becomes even greater than the sum of its parts. Disrupted by constant big-name departures in recent seasons, he finally appears to have found some stability. The fruits of these efforts were evident up until February – Aaron Ramsey’s superb form was no accident, and neither were the team’s results.
Since then the over-reliance on the likes of Ramsey, and the deficiencies of certain back-up players, has been stark. But we must not forget the fact that – with a mostly fit squad – we caught a glimpse of a side capable of winning big trophies.
A recent survey by supporter group the Black Scarf Movement showed that over half of Arsenal fans still want Wenger to stay for another year or more. Perhaps amid the cacophony of fury at the manager, there’s a quiet majority who feel that, despite the recent gloom, things are moving in the right direction overall.
And perhaps many Gooners recognise that a bigger problem is a lack of footballing expertise in the higher echelons of the club. This issue must be solved before Wenger goes – and when he finally departs, it should be an orderly and educated transition, not an anger-fuelled reaction to a bad run of form.
Name: Tim Stillman
Season-ticket holder for 21 seasons
First game: Arsenal 1-1 Leeds United, March 1992
With little more than a couple of months to run on his current deal, Arsene Wenger has yet to sign on the dotted line on a contract extension at Arsenal. It’s been clear for some time that the long-serving Gunners boss was going to wait and assess the lie of the land at the season’s end before committing. Arsenal’s season has once again taken on the appearance of a parked car slowly sliding downhill towards a duel carriageway.
The emotional torpor of the job has increased exponentially over the last few years. The manacles of stadium debt had bound the manager’s hands as oligarchs began to gather in the competitive landscape. The restrictions are less pronounced now, but increased funds have been a midwife to greater pressures as expectations swell. I don’t think Wenger will renew his contract and, reluctantly, I believe that might be for the best. Certainly for him.
When you’ve been in a job for 17 years, especially in an office as public as Arsenal manager, people become very familiar with your foibles and, eventually, they just get sick of you. The atmosphere is such now that only a league title win would truly quell the echo chamber of criticism for Arsene. I happen to think that’s an unrealistic expectation given the fiscal muscle available to our rivals.
Whoever the manager is, Arsenal can reasonably expect to figure in the title race and hope that the stars align for them, which Liverpool have done very well this season. I don’t even believe the issue is what Arsenal do or don’t achieve necessarily, but the familiar manner in which they do it. Either through early-season collapse which is partly redeemed by a sprint finish to fourth place, or else via a promising title challenge that explodes like a clown car.
Even if Arsenal begin next season well, that cynicism will always be there, that expectation of collapse. That can’t be an enjoyable environment for Wenger to work in. Due to his excellent structural work, any successor would have a good foundation to build from. We have the basis of a good squad with plenty of money to add to it. If Wenger can finish fourth and win the FA Cup, that might be a nice platform for him to bow from. If he doesn’t manage those targets, then he’ll have underachieved anyway.