Arsene Wenger has already signed his last contract with Arsenal Football Club. There, I said it. Whether or not you believe it is right that he must depart the club by the summer of 2019 (at the latest), the unrest and division amongst supporters, as well as between some supporters and club hierarchy, is becoming unsustainable. When it comes to the Frenchman, the battle lines have been drawn and the sides thoroughly entrenched; only the most drastic of collapses or the most assertive of trophy-winning seasons in 2018/19 could possibly create much movement in either direction. Some are adamant that the fans will never be united until Wenger officially leaves the club, but on that point I must respectfully disagree. The time to start healing is now.
Regardless of whether they are ‘Wenger In’ or ‘Wenger Out’ (or somewhere in between), most fans would objectively say Wenger deserves better than the vitriol hurled in his direction these last few seasons, especially after losses. As one of the best and most decorated managers in club history, who has given more than 2 decades of his life to a loving, but far from perfect, relationship with Arsenal, his final days in charge of the club should be a celebration of his fine career. However, there are many who argue that Arsene has brought the increased hatred on himself with his inability to get back into contention for titles as quickly as the club promised fans, as well as his reluctance to accept that his best days as a football manager may have already passed him by. Some even felt the honourable thing would have been for him to walk away following last season’s FA Cup victory.
The Polarised Supporters
To some extent, the anger surrounding Wenger’s contract situation last season was exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding it. Supporters genuinely didn’t know if he was about to leave or if he was about to sign on for several more seasons, so those that preferred a change tried their best to make their voices heard. There were banners, chants and internet rants, all being framed by an incessantly curious football press into a massive, polarising fight. These fans saw a struggling team that missed out on Champions League football for the first time in 2 decades and their most hated rival finish above them, and thought this was the best time to get the board’s attention. Ultimately, their efforts failed, and Wenger got the new 2 year deal, but there was a definite sense that the leash was forever getting shorter.
Despite Arsenal missing out on the most attainable title for years in 2016, and their subsequent fall from their guaranteed top 4 place a year later, his loyal supporters have not exactly lost the plot either. The financial muscle of their rivals is well documented now, but Wenger and the board could not have anticipated how much money would pour into the Premier League following the decision to build a new stadium; with City Group almost making Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich look cheap these days, it is a whole new world at the top of the English game. Wenger supporters would argue that his consistency and financial discipline have been essential to minimising the dramatic effect that money has had on the competition, and he is only now getting to a point where he can compete in the same market with his big money rivals (detractors will say that clock started with the purchase of Mesut Ozil in 2013, and he has been given more than enough time).
Identifying The Problem
Arsene Wenger’s early Arsenal career was in part defined by he and his staff’s incredible track record with the scouting and recruitment of top talents from all over Europe, but recently many fans have found the club’s transfer dealings lacking. It is not so much the players being brought in are bad (and generally speaking, they are fair values for what the club is looking to pay), but it has just as much to do with the players the club have missed out on. Everyone has seen a list of players Wenger says he “almost” signed, and fans take it as a missed opportunity when that player goes on to succeed with his new club. Transfer rumours are reported these days by the media in a way that portrays clubs as winners or losers in the race to sign a given player, even if said “loser” never made a serious offer in the first place. It is a narrative that generates views and clicks, but it also leaves fans with an impression of incompetence on the part of the club.
The club may not be winning the battles to sign all of their top targets, but the signing of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang in each of the last two transfer windows shows they aren’t totally inept in that regard. However, where recruitment at Arsenal has floundered the most in recent seasons is in the acquisition of young talent with truly world class potential. Whether they were young professionals or still youth academy players, Wenger had a knack for prying them away from their club while still affordable and help shape them into genuine stars. Some fans are convinced that Arsene Wenger has lost his touch with these young players, no longer able to make them into world class footballers, but is the issue really the coaching at the club, or does it have to do with a decline in the quality of the players he gets to work with?
The Transitional Solution
With the cost of established veterans rising to an astronomical level, more and more clubs of repute have started to target those same players Wenger used to capture in a significantly less crowded market. Whatever strategy the club once used to land those players, Ivan Gazidis has clearly decided to target it for improvement. Arsenal’s long-time transfer team of Dick Law and Steve Rowley have been replaced with a three-pronged approach that includes new Head of Football Relations Raul Sanllehi, Head of Recruitment Sven Mislintat, and contracts negotiator Huss Fahmy. Arsene Wenger may have lost some of his ultimate power in the process of player acquisition, but he has not been cut out of the loop. Mislintat arrived from Dortmund with a similar (and more recently acquired) reputation to Wenger’s early years in North London: a penchant for developing a rapport with young, talented players and selling them on the project at the club. Sanllehi is one of those executives with a big “black book” of contacts and a willingness to play the game that chasing the world’s best players and biggest egos often entails.
The solidification of this power structure has given the club a permanent foundation to build on for the future with, as well as after, Wenger. The Frenchman is still very much the central figure at the club, but the next manager in will now have an established back room staff to help realise his vision for the squad, while giving Wenger the same assistance until he departs. If he manages to keep his job and see out the final year of his contract, Mislintat and Sanllehi could be essential to making sure it doesn’t end with even more pain and anger than this season.
If he does stay, the club would be wise to continue to make changes around him. In my first ever piece for Arsenal Insider, I wrote that a manager did need to leave the club, but that man was Assistant Manager Steve Bould. Despite his indelible connection to the club’s storied past, Bould has failed to convince fans of his coaching credentials since arriving in 2012. Many are not even sure he does anything at all, but he is heavily involved in organising the defence. This is a problem because the Gunners’ defence has continued to struggle with consistency since he became the Assistant Manager, and the era in which he played saw English teams favour a wholly different philosophy than the modern high pressing game of most attacking clubs. That uneasy alliance between Wenger’s aggressive attacking tactics and Bould’s conservative “2 banks of 4” tactical education under George Graham is evident the way the team plays. Players look undecided about whether to stay home or press on, leaving them making a sort of compromise that doesn’t retain the benefits of either philosophy. Giving Wenger a new number 2 coach with just a year remaining on his contract might be a little unorthodox, but if the club decide to stick with him for another year, it wouldn’t hurt to explore maximising his chances for success.
Why The Time Is Right For Supporters To Come Together
To put it simply, Arsenal needs its fans. The players need you, the fans, even when they don’t play a perfect match. A win on Thursday night against Milan will put the Gunners through to the quarter finals of the Europa League, the furthest they have gone in a European competition in years. All of this talk about fans boycotting matches at the Emirates to show their disproval of Arsene Wenger is supposedly done with the club’s best interests at heart, but is the team playing its most important matches of the season (with a massive amount of money on the line should they win the Europa League and qualify for next season’s Champions League) in front of a half empty stadium with disinterested fans really the best way to accomplish their goals?
As I stated from the off, there is simply no way Arsene Wenger gets another contract from Arsenal. Even his most ardent supporters appreciate the difficulty of the situation for the club, and while they may not think it fair to Wenger, the addition of Mislintat and Sanllehi makes the Arsenal job, already one of the most attractive in the world, even sweeter to prospective managers. There are several intriguing candidates out there, from the trendy picks like Julian Nagelsmann with Hoffenheim, to the chain smoking genius of Maurizio Sarri at Napoli, or even the excellent Leonardo Jardim of Monaco. The club are more prepared than ever to move on, should they choose to do so. However, should the team galvanise around Arsene Wenger, and finish the season with intent in the Premier League and with silverware in the Europa League, it at least sets up what I may describe as this writer’s ideal situation: a finite end date to Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal career, an entire summer transfer window (and January transfer window if there is more to be done) with the brilliant Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi working to give him a squad good enough to compete, and one last season to celebrate the magical memories and historic successes of one of Arsenal Football Club’s most legendary figures.