LONDON – The case for the prosecution is now stronger than that put by the defense.
The English media have been reluctant to criticize Arsene Wenger because no manager has been more helpful during the 16 years he has been in charge at Arsenal, yet as another season of failure continues, the press and an increasing number of Gunners fans have joined forces.
On the reasonable assumption Arsenal does not win the Premier League or Champions League, it will be eight years since the club last won a trophy, which means the last half of Wenger’s time in charge will have been a failure, if success is judged by silverware, which at this level it is.
Arsenal is 21 points behind Premier League leader Manchester United, four points off Spurs in fourth place and was knocked out of the domestic cup competitions by opponents from lower divisions, Bradford City and Blackburn. It is 3-1 down to a hugely impressive Bayern Munich in the Champions League, and it would take Arsenal’s finest display in Europe and the Bavarians’ worst for a turnaround in the return leg.
Wenger was a breath of fresh air when he arrived from Nagoya Grampus Eight, a man with vision, new ideas and a willingness to answer any question from the press. “No comment” was not in his vocabulary, yet last Monday he was apoplectic after a story in The Sun suggested talks had started over a new two-year contract — his current deal has 15 months to run. Managers are usually angry when the press say their time is up, not when they are (allegedly) being offered a new contract. Wenger has always been different, though.
The wit has been replaced by wrath and though Wenger’s staunchest supporters hold on saying there should be a change of manager, they agree there should be a change in the manager.
That is as unlikely as Arsenal winning a trophy this season. While being single-minded is an admirable quality, stubbornness can be counter-productive, as is Wenger’s refusal to delegate. He even chose the wallpaper at Arsenal’s training ground.
Wenger gave us the Invincibles, three Premier League titles, four F.A. Cups and the 2006 Champions League final, where 10-man Arsenal led Barcelona until the 76th minute before Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti gave the Catalans victory.
That was then. Instead of Ashley Cole it’s been £8 million André Santos, one of the worst players to pull on an Arsenal shirt. For Thierry Henry, read Gervinho, is barely worth £1 million let alone the £11 million he cost. Sol Campbell, Robert Pirès, Freddie Ljungberg, Cesc Fàbregas and Gilberto Silva have gone, Per Mertesacker, Andriy Arshavin, Nicklas Bendtner and others too ordinary to mention have come.
Wenger brilliantly exploited the French market after his arrival, but the financial resources of Chelsea and Manchester City plus the stardust only Manchester United possesses have seen the supply all but dry up.
The sale of Robin van Persie to United has all but secured the title for the Reds. The belief that Arsenal cannot compete in the wages market is a myth as it had the fourth-highest salary bill in the Premier League last year, while Wenger earns £7.5 million a year.
CEO Ivan Gazidis picked up a handsome £2 million, but there is a feeling Arsenal is still more concerned by the balance sheet than the team sheet, underlined by the £36.6 million pre-tax profits.
The ongoing seasons of failure mean Wenger has run out of credit from his initial successes. Under Wenger, Arsenal has had a glorious past, an underachieving present and little hope of challenging the big guns in the near future. No other leading club in Europe would allow a coach to go eight years without a trophy, but the board will not only allow Wenger to at least see out his contract, it will give him up to £70 million to spend this summer.
But will he spend it?
The businessman/manager that is Wenger says football “is more than just splashing out money,” but loosening the Emirates purse strings would have enabled Arsenal to buy Georgio Chiellini of Juventus who is arguably Europe’s best defender, Juan Mata or Oscar, performing so well in midfield for Chelsea, and striker Willian, who’s just left Shakhtar Donetsk for Anzhi.
It is too long since Arsenal signed a player that made rivals sit up and take notice.
Despite the promotion of former defensive lynch pin Steve Bould to assistant manager, Arsenal still concedes goals from set-pieces with frustrating regularity; it is almost part of its DNA.
Wenger gives the impression of having blind faith in his players, but he knows his team is a long way from mounting another realistic challenge for the title. Arsenal fans do not consider fourth place and entry to the Champions League a great achievement.
He is addicted to rotation, resting key players for certain games, even though it has proved costly.
Replacing Wenger, whenever that is, will not be easy because the early pluses should still outweigh the recent negatives (just) and fans should always be careful what they wish for.
Arsenal would still be an attractive proposition for a manager, and Jurgen Klopp, Carlo Ancelotti, Michael Laudrup and Diego Simeone are coaches whose philosophies sit comfortably alongside Wenger’s.
He said this week that “you’ll miss me when I’m gone” which is true, but at the moment Arsenal fans are missing a trophy or two. A win over Aston Villa on Saturday would be a bonus.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.