Attention Stan Kroenke: Wenger Must GoBy: Lachlan | August 9th, 2011
Obviously I’ve been strongly hinting at this opinion in my blogs throughout the summer, so I’ll try not to restate everything I’ve already written. But I do have a few more points to make, and I want to sum up why I feel Arsenal needs a new manager. And the more I think about it, the more I feel that it’s not even a close call either. I wanted to write this before the season starts, because I don’t want anyone to think the early results are a factor in my opinion. If we start well, it would be hard to argue for a regime change. Likewise, if we start poorly, some might think that I’m making a knee-jerk reaction based on the last couple of weeks. But the reality is that my opinion has been brewing for a while, and it was made certain after seeing how we finished last season. It will not be affected by how our team performs over the next few weeks. Of course for other fans, their breaking point may still be in the future, or never. And that’s ok. But for me, the choice is clear.
After I finish this blog, I’ll try hard to be positive about things as the season begins, and put away my differences with Wenger and hope he gets it right this season. For now, here’s the outline of my argument for a new manager: I’ll start with a general introduction of what I think we should be able to do as a club. Then I’ll make five main arguments why Wenger should be fired. Then I’ll try to answer all of the main objections raised by Wenger’s supporters. (So if you’re reading the first part and raising objections in your head, don’t worry, I’ll hopefully address them later in the blog.) And if one of my fellow bloggers chooses to write a blog in favor of Wenger in the next week or two, then I’d welcome the dialogue, because I’m not writing on behalf of our entire blogging team here. These are just my thoughts on the matter, and the thoughts of many other fans at the moment.
Ok, let’s start out by asking what type of results we should expect from our club, so we have realistic expectations. I’ll start by citing the most recent Forbes’ list of the most valuable clubs in the world, where Arsenal checks in at #3 for the 5th year in a row. Again, we trail only Man Utd and Real Madrid. You can obviously rattle off a lot of mega-clubs that are behind us in this list. Now of course there are clubs beneath us with sugar daddy owners and tons of cash, like Man City at #15. But still, we’re a giant, giant club with lots of resources.
Not only that, but according to all the financial data available, we have tons of cash on hand, and our profits are soaring. I’ve taken the two charts in this section from the wonderful Swiss Ramble piece that I’ve quoted many times already this summer. While it’s not perfectly clear exactly how large the transfer budget is, it’s safe to say that it’s very large (ranging somewhere between £30 to £50). When you consider that’s a net budget, and you can add to it the money brought in from sales and loans, it’s clear that Arsenal could do some major damage in the transfer window if Wenger wanted to do so.
In addition, as you can see from the second chart to the left, the profits have been increasing in recent years, as debt has been repaid. Revenues are reportedly somewhere between £207 million per year and £224 million per year. I guess this is what happens when you have a 60,000 seat stadium that’s full nearly every match, and you also have the highest prices in the Premier League.
So then the question turns to what the results have been in recent years. Everyone knows about the six-year title drought, but let’s put that in perspective a bit. Wenger likes to tell us that we’re just this close to winning some titles, but are we? The best means of evaluating where a team is at is of course the league standings. Lots of teams can make a cup run with a little luck, but the EPL table doesn’t lie at the end of the year. The last time Arsenal finished 2nd in the table was 2004-05, which was also the last year we captured a trophy. Since that time, our team has finished either 3rd or 4th every single year. And here are the gaps between us and the champions, in order, starting in 05-06 and moving to last season: 24 points, 21 points, 4 points, 18 points, 11 points, and 12 points. So we only had one season in the last six where we even came close to the top by the end of the season. Last season was particularly poor, when you consider the champions only tallied 80 points – the lowest point total for a champion since the 1998-99 season. And yet we were still 12 points behind at the end, after another massive spring collapse.
I’d also like to put the trophy drought in perspective in another way. As you know if you’ve read my blogs in the past, I’m a fan of several North American sports. And it’s not uncommon to follow a team with a title drought much longer than six years. With some of my teams, I’m still waiting to celebrate a title for the first time. Martin even tried to come to grips with Arsenal’s title drought by comparing it to his suffering with other favorite teams of his. However, there are two key differences here. First, as it has already been noted, Arsenal is the third most valuable club in the world. In a system without a salary cap or restrictions on spending, a giant club should expect to win titles (or at least be close to the top of the standings at the end of the year). And second, there are four competitions we’re in every year. There are four trophies to potentially win, unlike the one real trophy there is to win in many other sports. When you look at it this way, we’re not 0-for-6, but we’re 0-for-24. We’ve now whiffed on a title 24 times in a row. Imagine a giant club in another sport going 24 years without a title, and it starts to sink in. I know this isn’t a perfect comparison by any means, since our “suffering” has only lasted 6 real years, and not 24. But still, the drought is pretty drastic. And there’s no end in sight either. (Reminds me of what we’re experiencing in North Texas right about now, come to think of it.)
So with those points in mind, I will now outline the reasons why I blame Wenger for the lack of results, and why I don’t trust him to turn things around in the near future.
1) He hasn’t come close to spending all the money available to him.
For me, this one is perhaps the most unforgivable. If he spent money on a player who flopped, I could at least know he was trying his best. Every manager who has been around a while has made some poor purchases over the years. It happens. But to not even enter the market? I don’t understand it. I know I’ve said this before, but Wenger’s job is primarily to win, not to make money for the club. As I read the other day, “Nobody ever hired an open-top bus to parade a positive bank statement around town.”
And yet, that seems to be what Wenger is trying to do. He’s still trying to only look for good values, while moaning about the “financial doping” going on in the soccer world. It’s not a coincidence that Arsenal’s fortunes took a turn for the worse at roughly the same time that Abramovich ushered in a new era into English soccer. And while we may not be able to spend like Chelsea, we at least need to make efforts to keep up. It’s well-documented that we do have large sums of money on hand. Gazidis even reminded us of that this summer. Maybe a large chunk of it will still be spent this summer, and the Oxtail signing gives us reason for guarded optimism. But Wenger’s penny-pinching has gone on for several years, and I have no reason to believe we’ll spend a large sum this summer after factoring in our sales as well.
Wenger’s defenders like to say things like, “Just by watching him on the sideline and after the match, you can tell how deeply he cares about this team.” Well, I guess that’s mostly true. Still, it’s as if I entered a boxing match with my left hand voluntarily tied behind my back. I could still go out and try as hard as I could, swinging wildly with my right. But would really be trying my hardest if I did that?
2) He doesn’t seem to be able to correctly assess the strengths and weaknesses of the squad.
This is another area I went over pretty carefully just over a week ago, and I’ve been harping on it all summer. But it’s pretty obvious that we’ve been thin in several areas for years, and particularly along the back line. Over and over, we’re left without proper cover for the inevitable injuries and suspensions to our starters. Just in the last couple of days, we were treated to a story about how Wenger is looking at Cahill, since Vermaelen got a slight injury in preseason. Huh?? Did we really need a knock to TV5 to remind us that we need cover defensively? Again, we have three reasonable CD options, and Squillaci is awful. History has shown that Squillaci will be called upon this year if we don’t get another quality player in the pecking order. Now, I still do believe we’ll add another CD this summer, and I think we would have regardless of Vermaelen’s injury. But still, Wenger’s made this mistake several times in the past, having relied upon Silvestre and Squillaci in recent years, and with dire consequences. Rather than repeatedly blaming our poor results on injuries, why can’t we plan on injuries happening, and have a squad prepared for when they do happen?
Furthermore, it seems that even if we square away the CD position, we’re going to be dreadfully thin at left and right back. I have no idea how we could sell Eboue and have Jenkinson as our backup at right back. Nor do I understand how our only backup to injury-prone Gibbs is Traore. Every fan of Arsenal can see this problem, and yet Wenger fiddles while Rome burns. The thing that makes this even more ridiculous is that fans aren’t even demanding a big-money signing at either spot. Just spend maybe £5 million at each position and give us the same insurance that every other big club has at all the positions on the field. Instead, we’re seeing luxury purchases at positions that already have capable players, like the recent purchase of Oxtail. As everyone and their dog has already noted, wouldn’t it help our chances a lot more this year if we spent that same money on the back line?
3) He relies too heavily on young, inexperienced players.
This one is closely related to the previous point, but it deserves it’s own section. Martin wrote about this in his most recent blog, and did so in a much more detailed and eloquent fashion than I will here. (Proving once again what they say about blind squirrels sometimes finding a nut.) But basically, Wenger is obsessed with developing young talents into stars of the future, while kicking established veterans to the curb.
Wenger often argues that if the club brought in (or kept) certain veteran players, it would only hinder the development of young players. Martin’s response, which was well-argued, is that gifting positions to young players often makes them lazy and entitled, and can stunt their growth in the long run. This is particularly true when these young players are given hefty contracts without having really proven themselves first, a topic I lamented in a blog over a month ago.
However, for the sake of argument, let’s assume that giving important playing time to young, unproven players does help their development. Is that really the point? I mean, it would be the point if Wenger coached the reserve squad. But instead he’s managing the third most valuable club in the world. The point is to win, not to develop young players. This season, we’ll probably give a lot more time than we ought to the following players: Jenkinson, Traore, Frimpong, Ramsey, Oxtail, and possibly Miyaichi. And in a few years, if Wenger is still at Arsenal, he’ll try to say “I told you so” when some of those players reach an elite level. But again, that’s not the point. The question is if any of them are ready to win us something right now.
I know I’ve beaten this drum for almost a month now, but let’s compare Eboue with Jenkinson for a moment. I won’t argue against the notion that Jenkinson has more potential, but I don’t see how anyone can trust him for this season. He’s only had eight total appearances for Charlton, for goodness sake. And if we sell Eboue, Jenkinson will be one injury away from starting at Old Trafford in a couple of weeks. Instead of selling Eboue, why not let the two of them compete against each other this fall? If Eboue is clearly ahead in January, then loan out Jenkinson for the spring, and bring him back next season. That’s what any other major club would do with such an inexperienced player. But not Arsenal for some reason.
4) There doesn’t seem to be a clear vision or plan for how to approach the transfer market on either the buying end or selling end.
This topic has also been addressed in a much more detailed and eloquent fashion than I will have room to address it here. But here we are in mid-August, a few days before the start of the regular season, and we still have major question marks all over the field. We don’t even know if our captain and (arguably) our best player will be staying or leaving. Supposedly, we gave Barca an August 5 deadline to make a proper bid for Cesc. But of course that date has come and gone, and the questions still linger. Personally, I would have set a deadline about three weeks before the start of the season, and would have declared it publicly. Just come out and say, “Look, we’ll sell him if they meet our price. But since he’s our captain, and his position would have to be replaced, and since we’d need time to spend that money wisely, we need a firm answer by July 23. If any team calls about him after that date, we’ll hang up the phone.” That seems pretty simple to me.
As we get further down the pecking order from Cesc, we could potentially inch closer to the start of the season and still make a deal happen. Still, why has there been no resolution on Nasri yet? And why do we keep reading reports all summer that go back and forth? First we’re told that we won’t let a player leave on a free transfer next summer. Then Wenger strongly hints that he’ll keep Nasri without a contract extension anyway, almost to prove that he can waste money. Now we’re hearing again that Nasri is close to going to Man City. While all that indecision has been going on, we’ve reportedly let a release clause expire with Juan Mata, and now we’d have to pay more money for his transfer.
I could go on and on with examples like this. We’ve been rumored to be pursuing a number of different central defenders this summer, and even admitted to making a bid for Jagielka. But it seems to me that we don’t really have a Plan A and a Plan B on that front. We’re just going to continue the waiting game until we hopefully see one of the sellers crack, and then we’ll get one of the guys out there. Meanwhile, we may be starting the season with Squillaci in the lineup.
Finally, the clearest example of indecision for me would be our botched pursuit of Mark Schwarzer last summer. Now, I’ll say up front that in hindsight, it was great we didn’t sign him. But still, we waited until the last days of the window, arguing over pennies, trying to fill one of the most important positions on the team. Again, that one would seem to be simple to me. If Wenger thought Schwarzer was better than all of our options at that time, then cough up the extra million and get it done. If not, don’t publicly pursue a guy after the season has already started. But if Wenger really knew last year that Wojo would be so good, why was Wojo essentially the fourth option at that point (behind Schwarzer, Almunia, and Flaps)?
5) The team repeatedly underestimates lesser competition, and also fails to finish seasons on a strong note.
This is my only complaint about Wenger as a coach, and not as a “general manager.” But I’ll lump everything into one section on this one. Basically, we’ve all heard the same nonsense over and over, until we all want to scream. “Yeah, we didn’t take this team seriously enough, but we’ll learn from this and not let it happen again.” And then it happens again anyway. Yankee Gunner has a recent blog about this, recounting how we dropped 14 total points last year against Newcastle, Sunderland, and West Brom. Furthermore, how many times did we see the team playing with passion and energy in those matches, but only starting at about the 75 minute mark? Why can’t we go for the jugular from the opening whistle?
Then when things start to go wrong in a season, our team is apparently so weak-minded that it collapses down the stretch. It was painful to watch the end of last season. I don’t know if that’s down to a lack of depth, a lack of competition for starting spots, a lack of veteran leadership, poor leadership by the manager, or all of the above. But when we start to question the level of effort of numerous players on the team, something is very wrong. Hopefully the players haven’t gotten where they tune out Wenger, but the poor displays by the existing players have gotten to an alarming level in recent years.
OK, now that I’ve finished all of my reasons for wanting to see Wenger go, I’ll try to answer all of the possible objections to my arguments. I hope these will cover just about everything.
Objection #1: Wenger is a class act, and a good representative of the club. I won’t argue with that, and it does carry a bit of weight. But still, it’s not really the most important thing. I consider Jose Mourinho to be maybe the most repugnant person in world soccer, but I’d take him in place of Wenger in a second. (Errr… come to think of it, the crooks who gave us a World Cup in Qatar are the most repugnant, but that’s a topic for another day.)
Objection #2: Wenger is a victim of the expectations that he built. After all, if it weren’t for Wenger, we wouldn’t expect so much. He built this club into a giant, and now when he can’t win trophies, you blame him for not doing so. (Even though we still finish in the top four every year, when we had no history of doing so before he came to Arsenal.) I don’t argue that there’s a lot of truth in this objection, and maybe folks like me are being unfair to Wenger. But I’ll just say two things in response. First, I don’t know that Wenger is solely responsible for Arsenal’s growth. That would be ignoring the contributions of David Dein and many others in ownership and leadership positions over the years, who helped build the Emirates and grow the fan base. But second, and more importantly, is a response I will give to many of these objections. And that is that the only real question we should ask now is whether Wenger is the manager we want to take us from this day, going forward. If he is, then he should stay. If we’ve lost confidence in him going forward, then it doesn’t matter much if he’s a victim of expectations he created.
Objection #3: What about recent comments by Thierry Henry and David Dein, in clear support of Wenger? I’m certainly not saying I know even 1/100th of what those two know about Arsenal, but I can still respond in a few different ways. First, Henry was at Arsenal during the best of times, and he never endured a time such as this. So of course his memories of Wenger will be better. Second, he and Dein, while still Arsenal fans, have moved on. I don’t know why we should be bound by what former executives and players think. Third, we should take those comments with a grain of salt, because both are naturally biased in Wenger’s favor. Henry played for him and admired him for years, and Dein hired him in the first place. So what else should we expect to hear? Fourth, while Henry represents some of the views of ex-players, there are many voices saying exactly what I’m saying. If you read recent comments from Ian Wright and former Arsenal captain Frank McLintock, they’re both basically saying every single thing that I’m saying. Wright even said that it seems that “Wenger’s revolution has ground to a halt.” Wow.
Objection #4: Why can’t you just wait until the end of the transfer window to see what will happen? We just signed Oxtail, and more exciting news might be just around the corner. Well as I said before, everyone has their tipping point. For me, I think the last straw was the way we finished last season. I got impatient over the last couple of years, and the season’s end sealed it for me. I tried to be hopeful this summer that there would be major changes, but here we are in mid-August, and I’m not seeing it. If anything, we’ll end up weaker at a couple of key positions, improve a couple, and roughly break even at others. Not the major overhaul that last season called for, in my book.
Objection #5: You complain that Wenger doesn’t spend enough money, but at least when he does, he generally spends wisely. Gervinho looks to be the latest in a string of good values, dating back to RvP, Toure, Henry, and a host of others. I’ll be the first to give credit when credit is due. I think this objection is 100% accurate. It’s not that I think that Wenger is the worst manager around, so I want people to understand that. I just think that when all things are considered, he’s presently not of the quality we should expect at the third most valuable club in the world.
Objection #6: What if we fired him, and then ended up going through what Man City went through with Mark Hughes, or Liverpool with Roy Hodgson? This is entirely possible, as there are no guarantees out there. But sometimes you have to go out on a limb, because that’s where the fruit is. Anyway, I think this is a defeatist, pessimistic attitude. Yes, we could fail, but at least we’d fail by thinking big, rather than being worried about all the bad things that might happen. If we fail, then we’ll just drop the new guy like Liverpool did with Hodgson, and move on. It’s not what any of us would hope for, but I don’t think we should be paralyzed with fear.
Objection #7: Do you have any ideas as to who you’d replace Wenger with? It’s not like there are a lot of elite managers out there right now. This one is related to the previous objection, and I hear it more than anything else right now. And frankly, it drives me crazy. I’ll again state that I’m not an expert on all the managers in all the leagues out there. But let’s use our brains a little bit. Can we not find any managers who have done a lot with a little, or have dominated lesser leagues in Europe? Why don’t we take a stroll around the block a bit, and see what candidates might be out there? And remember, aside from the managers at maybe the top 10-12 clubs in the world, the Arsenal job should be appealing to pretty much everyone else. I’ll put forth a few names by means of example, as I don’t have a specific choice in mind. But surely we could interview these folks and find someone who would be a good fit.
Jürgen Klopp is the 44-year-old manager of Dortmund, who recently captured the Bundesliga title. He’s only been there for three seasons, and they were in the lower half of the table when he took over.
Laurent Blanc is 45, and currently the manager of the French national team. He has a wealth of playing experience, and won a World Cup in 1998. He recently guided Bordeaux to a French title, before moving on to the national team.
Vicente del Bosque might not be interested, and he’s a little older (60). But he’s won everything there is to win in soccer, from the Champions League to the World Cup. Maybe he’d be up for a new adventure in England.
Didier Deschamps is similar to Blanc in many respects, both having had long playing careers and winning the World Cup in 1998. He’s only 42, and guided Marseille to a French title in 2009-10, his first season as manager with that club.
Anyway, those are just four examples of guys I’d take a look at. I’m sure there are a dozen others. But please don’t tell me there aren’t any choices out there.
Objection #8: Would you really fire Wenger right now, a few days before the start of the season? Well of course if I had my way, it would have been done in May. And this is all a hypothetical exercise anyway. But yes, I still would today. If you think a change needs to be made, it’s better to go ahead with it now. A new manager could still have a couple of weeks in the transfer window to address the needs that Wenger obviously won’t address himself.
Objection #9: But you’re forgetting about all the titles Arsenal won with Wenger at the helm, the Invincibles, etc. My answer to this one depends slightly upon what someone means by the question. If someone believes we should keep a guy basically as a reward for past accomplishments, then we’re doing a disservice to our current and future objectives. Just like we wouldn’t want Tony Adams and Dennis Bergkamp taking the field for us today, we shouldn’t hang on to a manager who isn’t getting it done, just because we’re nostalgic about the glory days.
Now if someone wants to say that the glory days are proof that Wenger is a great manager, and that it’s proof that those days might return, well at least that’s a reasonable argument. However, I’m with Ian Wright on this one. Maybe it’s the loss of David Dein, the loss of competitive fire, or simply being stuck with a mindset in a prior era while the economics of the game have changed. But I think for whatever reason, Wenger’s lost his mojo. So let’s go ahead and give him a gold watch, build a statue of him outside the stadium, declare it Arsene Wenger Day, and let all the fans give him a standing ovation. But let’s move on already.
Objection #10: But under Wenger, we play such a beautiful brand of soccer. As my dad once told me many years ago, “Well, that plus 50 cents will buy me a cup of coffee.” Obviously, there’s been a bit of inflation since then, but the principle is the same. I don’t really care so much about our style as I do about results. An attractive style is nice, but I’d much rather have what Man City had last year. They played a boring style, but finished ahead of us in the table and won the FA Cup. Would anyone really prefer our season last year to theirs?
Objection #11: What about the current players who are so loyal to Wenger? Could we be seeing a mass exodus of players like Wilshere, RvP, Sagna, and others? Perhaps, but that’s a chance we’ll have to take. If RvP insists on leaving if Wenger is fired, then we’ll sell him for £25 million or so, buy another striker, and move on. I’d hate to see that happen, but I don’t know why we should hang on to a manager who isn’t getting it done, just to appease a few of the players. Furthermore, it was RvP himself who wondered why Arsenal couldn’t spend £25 million on a player this summer, so maybe he’s not too happy with how things are going anyway. Wilshere voiced similar thoughts recently as well. I think that if we brought in a new manager who showed more ambition in the market, it might actually have the opposite effect. Maybe the likes of Nasri, Cesc, and others would be more inclined to stay. And finally, who’s to say that a new manager wouldn’t bring a few loyal talents with him? Imagine, for instance, Klopp bringing Subotic and Mario Götze with him. I think that would certainly lessen the blow of a couple players wanting to leave.
Whew, well I think that’s all of the objections I could think of, and I hope I was fair in answering them. Anyway, if you’ve made it this far, I thank you for reading, and I hope I’ve convinced you along the way. But as always, you can always tell me what you think in the comments’ section below.
If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. I John 1:9