Arsenal had a big match in the Champions League on Wednesday, which is another way of saying Arsenal were yet again monumentally embarrassed in a huge moment. Arsenal are also right about at the start of the end stretch of their season, which is another way of saying that Arsenal are already out of realistic contention for the major trophies.
On cue, we now have the annual storm about What’s Wrong With Arsenal and whether Arsène Wenger should stay and try to further the undeniably great work he’s done in tough circumstances these past two decades, or whether it’s time for him to go due to the holding pattern the team has been stuck in during the latter half of his tenure. This is the hottest Wenger’s manager seat has felt in years, and he is not making this any easier.
Arsenal teams of recent vintage have always lost pretty early in the Champions League knockout rounds, usually at the hands of the same club that battered them a couple days ago, Bayern Munich. Still, the way the team completely fell apart in the 5-1 beatdown, coupled with Arsenal’s regularly scheduled skid in the league and their curious reluctance to lock down Alexis Sánchez and Mesut Özil to the big-money contract extensions both players are after—even when the club should in theory be past an enforced financial austerity period with their new stadium construction now completed—makes the prospect of Wenger being forced out seem more likely than ever. And “forced out” is the right way to put it, because as Wenger’s statements about his future job status seem to imply, he will not go gently into that good night and retire.
Here’s what Wenger had to say about what he planned on doing for work come next August, from the Independent:
“No matter what happens I will manage next season. Is it here or somewhere else? That is for sure. I hate defeat, I hate to lose games. I want to do extremely well for this club.”
On the recent explosion of criticism:
“I am used to it,” Wenger added. “I am here for 20 years. In life, it is important to do what is right. I am in a public job and I must accept that. Everybody can have an opinion.”
On whether he thinks he’s the problem at the club:
“Even if I go, they will not win every game,” Wenger said on Friday morning.
The Wenger situation is tough because both sides have valid points. On one hand, Arsenal have never spent enough money in terms of both salary and transfer outlay to realistically expect to win the Premier League or the Champions League. That the manager has consistently had less money than the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea and at times Manchester City and Liverpool, and consistently been made to sell his team’s best players and replace them on the cheap by combing through the leagues of Europe and plucking out inchoate fill-ins, and yet has maintained a spot in the top four each and every season, is remarkable. Arsenal’s sustained top-four status under Wenger is one of the most impressive feats of management of this era. And so judging Wenger on his inability to achieve the extremely unlikely—winning a major trophy against multiple teams that have spent way more on players and thus amassed better squads—is unfair and shortsighted and smacks of an entitlement that is in no way anchored in the reality of the sport.
On the other, have Arsenal actually grown any in the last, say, five or six years? Wenger’s teams are notoriously soft against other good teams in large part because of his own tactical decisions; the manager regularly claims that now, post-stadium construction, he has loads of money available to him that he nevertheless rarely winds up spending on the biggest positions of need; and in an era where the new managerial breed (the likes of Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino and Liverpool’s Jürgen Klopp) has demonstrated that it’s possible to regularly over-perform your wage bill through cutting-edge strategy and tactics, Wenger’s teams always seem like they punch slightly below their weight in comparison. It’s hard to imagine that there aren’t a half-dozen managers in Europe who would have been able to take a team with Sánchez and Özil in a down season in the Premier League and beat teeny little Leicester City to the title. Wenger’s biggest managerial achievement is consistency, and it’s a valid question whether a string of consistently very good yet ultimately losing seasons are worth sacrificing at least the possibility of a truly great, title-winning one.
In the end, the question becomes what kind of club Arsenal want to be. The club’s board has one vision, which is why they’ve been overjoyed with Wenger’s leadership as he keeps bringing in that Champions League money, keeps finding relatively inexpensive unpolished gems and shining them up to be sold for profit and then repeating the trick, and keeps the fans just happy enough to avoid a public mutiny.
Many fans, though, have another vision of what they want the club to be. They think Arsenal should invest most if not all of the millions and millions of Euros the board rakes in back into the team, sign world-class talents like Sánchez and Özil and then pays whatever it takes to keep them, buy similarly elite players to fit in alongside them so as to actually win something, and do what it takes to live up to the club’s vaunted past.
Meanwhile, Wenger appears stuck somewhere in the middle. No doubt his own ambitions would lead him to want to spend every cent available to buy the best first team possible as he shines his somewhat tarnished legacy by winning something big. However, he also must understand the realities of what the board will allow him to work with, and feels that he remains the best man to do the most with those limited resources.
Judging by his statements today and the board’s backing of him in fraught moments similar to this, Wenger will probably be Arsenal’s manager next season. It’s hard to imagine him not retiring with the club he’s become synonymous with, and even more difficult to see a long-term-minded manager like him starting from scratch at a new club at 67 years old. He must know that the board wants him, and that he still wants Arsenal, too.
Still, there will come a day when Wenger is no longer coaching Arsenal, and despite what some of the most demanding fans might hope, that in itself will not magically fix the issues that have prevented the team from achieving the highest successes over the past decade or so. That underlying clash of visions for the club—the board’s frugal and pragmatic one and fans’ starry-eyed and trophy-focused one—will eventually come to a head sooner or later. The future of Arsenal will depend on which of those visions wins out much more than it will on whether Wenger is still managing the team for the next couple years.