On the surface, it seems counterintuitive: in the modern world, where more people have vast amounts of instantly available information at their fingertips than ever before, debates of all kinds are degrading into binary arguments of black and white. The effects are plain to see in geopolitics and all manner of public debates, but it has also irrevocably seeped into the fabric of Arsenal Football Club, as well as football punditry and fandom itself.
To be a vocal supporter of Arsenal these days, one must choose a side in the all-encompassing debate that has brought the atmosphere at the Emirates to new lows and seen fans of the same club verbally and, occasionally, physically attack each other: Arsene Knows Best fans (AKGs) or, the Wenger Out Brigade (WOBs). To speak of wanting Arsene Wenger to stay beyond Sunday is to be labeled the former, while any suggestion that he should quit, not renew, or be fired is vehemently opposed by that very loyal if shrinking group of pro-Wenger fans.
It would be totally irresponsible to call this a new division amongst Arsenal supporters, given the pressure Arsene Wenger was under just three short years ago, going into the 2014 FA Cup Final on the back of a 10-year trophy drought, an expiring contract, and a team facing questions about its talent and ambitions. They would, of course, go on to beat Hull City, leaving Wenger to sign his extension and many fans that had grown excited about a change, fuming. The second straight FA Cup win in 2015 only served to increase those fans’ expectations of this team rather than placate their desire for a new manager and direction.
This feels different. It is almost as if the feelings of those fans that were denied change 3 years ago have compounded. Those attempting to argue for a logical transition seem strangely silent. In a way, we, all football supporters in the world, have changed the way we receive information and communicate about the sport. Twitter has forced bloggers, writers and vocal fans to limit their thoughts to a punchy 140 characters. Even established journalists have to use social media to promote their own work. Given the inundation of information, statistics, and opinions available these days to fans, everyone is able to make their opinions heard.
Public self-expression is very much one’s right, but it leads to a whole host of other problems when trying to differentiate between news and opinion. Arsenal often do not help their cause with their impatient supporters, opting instead to quietly handle their business in a private manner as opposed to other teams whose moves seem to be done months before such things can even be consummated (cough, Manchester City cough, cough). The club seldom leaks during the transfer window, letting the media link the club to just about every player under the sun except the one they are actually signing, which only comes out around the time of the medical.
The very way in which the club operates is also a frustration to many supporters. When Gooners look around the Premier League and see their club’s rivals spending up to a quarter billion pounds annually on players, it is only natural that they should want to do the same. “Kroenke out!” they shout, believing the American mogul cares little for the club and its success, despite every public statement he makes being in direct contrast to this widely held view. Additionally, Arsene Wenger’s preference to keep his transfer negotiations, registered interest and contract details between the club(s) and the players. That other teams are less guarded about their own dealings lead many fans to erroneously conclude that Arsenal are slow to react or always behind other teams in the transfer market. This was especially true during the club’s austerity period, in which Wenger was determined to maximize the value of the club’s available funds.
Where these criticisms finally do land, however, is in the contract situation of Arsene Wenger himself. Admittedly, the club cannot be blamed for attempting to wait until the fan base was united more positively behind the club before announcing Wenger’s future one way or another. And with members of the club’s hierarchy preferring to refrain from making many public statements, this leaves Wenger himself in the awkward position of answering questions about his future that he very much may not have a say in. Now, it must be noted, that I believe he will be signing on for at least 1 more year (probably 2, however, in order to entice those players loyal to him going into the final year of their contracts to sign extensions), but given the forlorn and shell-shocked nature of some of Wenger’s post-loss pressers, it does seem as though this could at least possibly be the final season at the Emirates for the Frenchman.
When it comes to his players, Wenger is fiercely protective, choosing to deflect criticisms either onto himself or the entire team, rather than using the media as a way of lashing out at an underperforming player. But this sort of paternal love he has for his players is also a source of ire for many, who feel that his attachments to certain players he has seen grow up, or that possess certain qualities he looks for in a player, actually inhibit him from making some of the more ruthless decisions a successful manager should. This criticism is certainly logical. It is all well and good to offer protection to a player in front of reporters: a crisis of confidence can put a player in a fragile state, as we saw this year with Carl Jenkinson and, to a lesser extent, young Alex Iwobi. However, too often players have gone into pivotal or “make or break” seasons, only to see themselves granted yet more opportunities in the future by a sympathetic Wenger. For a club that is supposed to be challenging for titles, the squad should be bursting with young and hungry players fighting for a place, not full of 26 year old, bang average, squad players happily collecting fat weekly wage packets. The fastest way to lose your supporters in English football is to show apathy on the pitch, given the passionate culture surrounding the sport itself. For a reference on this point, see: fan treatment of Mesut Ozil.
So what does this all mean?
Well on one side of the argument we have ” Wenger Out” and “Kroenke Out” and a convoluted mess of fact and opinion in which the former labeled “passed it”, “a dictator”, a “liar” and full of “arrogant delusion”, while the latter is hit with charges of apathy and ignorance. In fact, one of my favorite, actual (yet wrong in every way) theories states that Owner Stan Kroenke suffers from a residual “Cold War mentality” that negatively affects his relationship with Alisher Usmanov due to…well…the fact that Usmanov is Russian and he is American I suppose. This would be quite a bit funnier if this theory hadn’t been applauded by readers of this same opinion piece. Of course, it does not mention the cynical timing of Usmanov’s takeover bid using the extreme unrest amongst fans as a way to leverage majority ownership away from Kroenke. This l is a real hurdle we fans now face as we wade out into the depths of the internet in search of something more to satiate our thirst for football news. The proliferation of opinion (much like this very piece you currently read) in journalism has contributed to blurring the definition of news reporting, leaving the reader to discern which is which by themselves.
On the other side we have those who are holding on to hope and a dream that is perhaps slipping further away every season: to see Arsene Wenger leave the club (as its manager at least) going out on top again, validating the second decade of his career as a success, and leaving Arsenal in perfect health for his successor. To these people, Arsene Wenger has done enough to warrant the right to decide when he leaves the club.
Unfortunately, these warring groups of supporters have pushed the voice of the moderate Arsenal fan into the shadows, and with it, any chance of compromise. The club must NOT forgetsIf the intent was to get rid of Arsene Wenger at the end of this season all along, then Arsenal are either more able to perform manager searches in secrecy than Mi6, or otherwise (and more likely) they have not yet started, leading me to believe it will continue to be Monsieur Wenger next season.
No decision the club makes for next year will please every fan. Wenger has been here too long for such feelings to disperse, even if they manage to beat Chelsea at Wembley and follow that up with an active summer on the transfer market. There are, however, some ways that the club and fans can meet half way in order to improve the stale atmosphere surrounding the Emirates Stadium.
To the club: first and foremost, SET AN END DATE AND STICK TO IT! If Wenger does indeed get his new contract, there should come with it the knowledge that a change of manager is not too far off and Arsene Wenger would more than likely assist brilliantly with the transition. I estimate that a great many of the more vocal “Wenger Out” Brigade would be more amenable to a warm goodbye to Arsene Wenger, so long as they knew it was definitely happening and for included in the club’s search for a successor
To the fans: we are lucky enough to live in a free society in which we are allowed to express our views in any reasonable way we see fit. I am not asking that we never speak ill of the club that we love. In fact, we are able to largely do just that every single day, but please, I beg of you, can we all unite on match day? We get a whole week to read, react, opine and make our displeasure heard. But for 90 minutes? A little positivity at the Emirates probably won’t do too much harm!