Arsene Wenger’s legacy in danger
In September 2002, the champions Arsenal visited Elland Road in a Saturday lunch-time kick-off and proceeded to trash the living room of their hosts in a sensational 4-1 victory. The manner of the win, the variety of attack, the speed of play and the sheer arrogance the London side displayed that afternoon in Yorkshire prompted Sky Sports chief Pundit Andy Gray to proclaim “this Arsenal side is the best attacking team I have seen in my 35 years of football down here in England”.
When Arsenal won the double in 1998, manager Arsene Wenger introduced to the Premier League the idea of having physicality in midfield (Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira) and speed up front (Marc Overmas and Nicolas Anelka). The league could not live with that side when all were fit.
Kieron Dyer, when fit, was one of those effervescent footballers with so much energy and ability on the ball he seemed to be able to play for longer than 90 minutes. While at Newcastle, Dyer and his teammates arrived in North London to face Arsenal. The hosts ran out comfortable 3-nil winners. Asked about it in a post-match interview, a still-panting Dyer, shaking his head, said of the Arsenal midfield, “we just couldn’t live with them. Vieira and Gilberto just made us look like kids; we were chasing shadows all game”.
From 2002 to 2006 Arsenal had a left side that was devastating in attack. The trio of Ashley Cole, Robert Pires and Thierry Henry for that period were capable of constructing the most devastating counter attacks anywhere in world football.
For neutrals and Arsenal fans they made you understand why the sport was called ‘The Beautiful Game’, while for opponents it was a nightmare to watch and experience. In 2003, Arsenal failed to retain the PL title but the very next season they went on to reclaim it but even went a step further by going a whole season unbeaten. That was in 2004. I bet that there was not one Arsenal fan at that period who would have believed that the club would not have won the title again since.
I could go on and on to list great things about Arsenal Football Club in the last 20 years. Within the same period, I could also start to list things that happened at the football club; things that made neutral observers wonder what is actually going on. The sale in the summer of 1999, to Barcelona, of Petit and Overmas was astonishing. It was to become a recurring theme. The manner and speed in which the 2004 title-winning season was broken up I have always found quite surprising.
In all of these good, great and poor things, Arsene Wenger has been the constant. Over the last two or three weeks the clamour for Wenger to go has ratcheted up a few notches. Last week, on #PLFanZone I said that I found it quite sad that in almost every press conference Wenger is being asked about his future.
The French man is a very stubborn and principled man. These traits are why he’s been very successful but they have also been his major undoing. He seems fixed in his ways and has refused to change or adapt to the changing face of football. For many years he refused to extend beyond a year the contract of players over 30 – losing many experienced players as a result. He also refused to pay top dollars for top talents, railing against transfer fees even though his club earned top dollars from his sale of his top players.
As I listed above, in his early years – at least up until the 2006 season – Arsenal had players of immense physical stature who were also technically very good. This meant that in the hurly-burly world of the Premier League they stood their ground and won physical contests.
From the time the club moved to the Emirates Stadium it seemed the manager changed his philosophy and started to buy players of a different physique. He seemed more interested in style over substance. I don’t understand why he did this but the lack of league titles seem to suggest that it has not worked. I challenge or even implore any Arsenal fan to explore the incredible number of talented footballers that have played for the club since 2007 and then ask why there has been no league title.
I understand the frustration of Arsenal fans worldwide. I also understand those who defend Wenger solidly saying they trust him fully. However, I have no sympathy for those who seem to have just woken up to the fact that Arsenal might not win another title under Wenger. For these same people have for the past seven years been content – even celebrating – with the qualification for Champions League football every season. These same people had also been consistent to accept Wenger’s lack of interest in actually aspiring to win any domestic trophy – hence the phrase ‘Top 4 is a trophy’. They were as complicit as the Arsenal Board who clearly gave Wenger the mandate to always get the club into Champions League football – anything else a bonus.
These fans have always been the ones to shout to the rooftops about Wenger never finishing below Tottenham Hotspurs, always qualifying for the group stages of the Champions League and all manner of irrelevant stats in a sport that actually is clear on what trophies are. The chickens have now come home to roost and these same fans are more interested in trophies.
Hindsight is a great thing we all know, so perhaps it would have been much better had Wenger resigned after he retained the FA Cup in 2015. He would have gone on a high. The defeat at the Hawthorns over the weekend was like many that have happened this season in the manner of it. The players seemed uninterested, a display that would get managers at other clubs the sack in truth.
Having not resigned/retired back then, Wenger is now in danger of tarnishing his reputation or what is left of it. Whatever happens, Wenger has been great for the football but he has one league title more than George Graham. The club will continue with or without him.
Arsenal fans please I would like to hear from you. Wenger to go or to stay, what do you worry about the most? Don’t forget to follow us on twitter @supersporttv, @CalvinEmeka