Looking back at past achievements to assure future successes. Frankly it is a terrible narrative, and unfortunately one that Arsene Wenger himself succumbs to using when facing tough questions. It is also one thing that perhaps irks supporters who want him out more than anything else. To many, it is proof that the 67-year-old is stuck in the past; the world of football has changed and it is leaving him behind.
From a tactical standpoint, this argument has its merits. Most elite modern managers these days have phased out the number 10 position that Wenger loves perhaps most of all, and their tactics have their foundations in a more aggressive and proactive form of defense. Arsene is famously not a fan of defense, preferring to focus on the more creative attacking side of the game. This is not in itself a bad thing, so long as he employs coaches on his staff who do mind the business of defense, while making sure they compliment his offensive principles. I have argued in the past that this is perhaps not the case with the current staff, and should be examined in the summer by the club, but alas not the focus of this piece.
The reality is that Arsenal can no longer win games because they are the most innovative club in the league anymore. Sports Science is not an Arsenal thing. It is an every team in the world thing now. And to be fair, Arsene probably knew that he wouldn’t stay ahead of the curve on that forever. You can’t expect other teams in England not to adopt even the most rudimentary improvements in diet, exercise and recovery.
Luckily for the club, and its supporters both appreciative and otherwise, Wenger’s greatest foresight was into what the global economy meant to football, and how much of an impact it would permanently have on the game. Money was going to take over the sport, and almost from the off, he knew it.
As a quick reminder to those fans who “want their club back” from Mr. Wenger, let us go back to when he took over. A storied centurion of a stadium that was both antiquated and, by big club standards, small. A training facility shared with a local college. These were surroundings that positively startled players like Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Viera when they arrived. In truth, besides the carpet that was Highbury’s pitch, there was not much to entice a player to the club besides its history.
Arsene Wenger knew also that even though Arsenal were a big club in terms of success and prestige, they were in no position to compete with the true giant clubs of the world (Barcelona, Manchester United, Real Madrid etc) and their giant international fan bases, revenue streams, and massive capacity stadiums. Arsenal throughout its history had predominantly been run prudently by descendants of the Bracewell-Smith and Hill-Wood families. The club was healthy, but hardly the richest in the world. In fact, it wasn’t until 2007 that outside money even took an interest in the club as an attractive business proposition, only after they had moved into the state of the art Emirates Stadium.
The decision to be financially prudent, and follow the lower cost model of buy talent young and develop, was not a popular one for many fans not willing to see the upside. Even before The Emirates, Arsene would cash in on quality players for the long-term health of the club. The Frenchman once famously parlayed his compatriot and young star Nicolas Anelka into a new training facility and Thierry Henry. Time has been kind to this moment in time, because it was certainly bewildering to some then. Wenger has always been willing to look toward the future of the club.
The move to the Emirates itself was necessary, hard as it was to lose Highbury for the Gunner faithful. The increased revenue from the stadium itself, along with the richer sponsorship deals and naming rights helped to pay the stadium off in full by 2013. To many supporters, this meant the club could spend freely again, and not have to sell their best players. While most players received salary bumps as something of a loyalty bonus through the lean times, and Arsenal went out and bought Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez in 2013 and 2014 respectively, the perception has been rather different. Many supporters believe that Arsenal is not yet spending the money that they are able to. Wenger and his control of the purse strings are to blame for this stagnation.
This has not been without benefits for the club, Arsenal would have posted losses in seven out of ten years from 2006-2016 without the benefit of player sales and the redevelopment of Highbury. Wenger kept Arsenal humming along in a Champions League place, all while paying off the Emirates loan and posting a profit every single year. I would argue that there aren’t many managers that could have done that, but the reality is that there is no way of knowing. It hasn’t really been done before in the modern age of mega money football. Especially not with a manager at the helm who was so integral in getting the finances to where the stadium was even possible and then continued to oversee the entirety of the transition. Some clubs find moving stadiums a difficult task without even getting relegated the “most successful stadium migration in history” has netted West Ham a tumble down the table and the loss of its talisman this year. Arsenal did it without missing the Champions League.
Obviously in football, winning the league ten years ago is inexcusable for any “real” big club as the narrative says. Since 2013, when financial freedom supposedly began, many supporters have perceived a stagnation. The summer of 2016 was the most lavish yet, with about £100 million spent on signings, but still some want more. Given the mega money on offer in both wages and transfer fees all over Europe, many argue that it is just the cost of doing business today. But this is not always the case. Manchester United might spend a billion GBP on player wages and transfer fees before winning their first title after Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement.
Arsene has always relied on his expansive scouting network and the reputation of the club to attract some of the best young talent from all over the world. When he first arrived in England, the youth setups of nearly every team was an afterthought. Even teams that relied on the steady supply of young talent to compete did not have the kind of facilities available to young players that are now. Manchester City has recently spent over £200 million developing the City Football Academy, the largest and most state of the art youth training facility in the world, and by a comfortable margin.
As the richest clubs in the league have continued to watch their spending advantage shrink, they have begun looking toward all areas of the club in search of yet more ways to earn an advantage. Chelsea have been buying up youth players in droves, many of whom had been on the radar of clubs like Arsenal. Manchester City has upped the ante on youth facilities to a level that exceeds the costs of some stadiums themselves. These nouveau rich clubs have been here for a few years now, and they have learned on the job quite quickly. No longer is the majority of the money being poured into the first XI, but rather into the entire club, its infrastructure and the procedures in place. Innovation is now the territory of the rich, not just the creative.
The Premier League was not the most progressive League in the world when Arsene Wenger arrived in 1996. Through continuously challenging accepted truths and constantly introducing new concepts in diet, exercise, rest, scouting and more, the Frenchman has done so much to modernize this club of such rich tradition. The first half of his career will always be known as his most successful, and the second half seen as a disappointment. In reality, it will be the second half of his Arsenal career that supporters will thank him the most for when looking back on his illustrious career. The wins and triumphs may have given away to frustration and saying goodbye to our most beloved players, but these were sacrifices Wenger knew must be made for the long term health of the club.
With the latest speculation being that perhaps he has agreed to come back for one more year, as opposed to the originally proposed two, we really are nearing the end he of the Wenger era at Arsenal. It is not likely that any club in one of Europe’s biggest leagues will ever have a manager serve as long as he has served Arsenal. Most fans will remember him for the Invincibles, the titles, the legendary players and the genius of plucking no namers from nowhere and making them stars. What may continue to be under appreciated as Arsenal soldier on into the 21st century in their modern 60,000 seat stadium with huge sponsorship revenues, a continually evolving training ground, a redeveloped youth academy and the most healthy bank balance of any club in the entire world of football is how much Arsene Wenger was able to completely rebuild Arsenal from the ground up. If that statement sounds like nonsense to you, there is a good reason for that:
He did such a good job, it might have been hard to notice that he managed to modernize and improve nearly every single tangible thing about the club. So you can have your club back, just make sure you thank Mr. Wenger for making it better first.