Football clubs’ memories are too short.
This sad truth makes professional stability in the game (as both player and coach) so very hard to maintain. It’s like a twisted version of the famous 2000 movie Memento, where main character Lenny constantly loses short-term memory. In football, it works the other way around: the vast majority of GMs, CEOs and Sporting Directors are too drawn by recent losses and neglect a medium or long-term past.
The worst part is that fans actually absorb that line of thinking, which makes them all too hasty, immediately wanting to switch after a couple unsatisfactory results. Sometimes, we end up missing the bigger picture, the strategic direction of where our favorite team should be headed. The result? Three, sometimes four coaches in a single season, with the outcome being usually less than pleasing.
Arsenal FC have always been different, though. A wonderful exception to this paradigm, they have kept their future in the hands of the same man for almost 22 years now. Some people doubt that it was worth it, but there are certain undeniable facts to be accounted for: Arséne Wenger has won 17 relevant trophies (3 Premierships, 7 FA Cups and 7 Community Shields) in his tenure with the Gunners. Nothing can take that away from him. Since his arrival, the team has never fallen below the 5th spot in the most competitive league in the world. He revolutionised squad routines in the UK. How can someone overlook that? Well, frustration starts to build if you are a serious Premier League title candidate in August but are usually out of that race by January – that has happened for too many seasons. Besides, no Champions League glory, not once in over two decades. All good things come to an end, right?
There’s a general consensus that seems to support the idea of the French manager reaching the end of the line in North London, with his dismissal (or resignation) coming any day now. Would that be a good idea, would the Gunners be better off? When should this long lasting love story come to its inevitable end? After more than twenty years at the helm, has the time come for Wenger to leave? There is no direct, obvious answer to the last paragraph’s questions, but maybe a trip through Arséne Wenger’s history helps shedding some light on the matter.
As with many legendary managers, Wenger as already inside the game before he stepped onto the sideline, even if not at a superstar level. He had a decent professional run playing as a central defender, which included a couple years defending his hometown club Strasbourg while already fine-tuning his managerial ways. The French side actually enjoyed glorious times in the late 70’s, although Wenger was rarely a first eleven choice.
After transitioning from Nancy to Monaco, he finally got his big break. Nurturing several players into stardom level (Lilian Thuram, German goalscorer Jürgen Klinsmann, Liberian legend George Weah…), the Principality squad would rise to its best level of performance, acquiring a long desired Ligue 1 in the 1987-88 season and a French Cup in 1990-91. Le Professeur started making a name for himself as a top-level coach – peers admired his fluid, offensive approach to the game and intelligent way of positioning the players on the field, as well as dealing with all the egos in the group. Sharks like Bayern Munich came flying in requesting his services, but Wenger would end up spending about 2 years in Japan. His epic quest with the Gunners would start in October 1996…
- Chapter I: Shining from the Start
When Arséne took over, he really took over. This meant that, unlike his predecessors, he took a hands-on approach on the squad, being granted full flexibility by the board on the team’s transfer policy. He applied his accrued knowledge: specific training drills, strict dietary regimes, no drinking…loved by some, hated by some, it was undeniable that his style and philosophy was unprecedented in English Football. After a steady debut season, a magnificent double in 1997-98: League champions over favorites Man. United and the FA Cup title, beating Newcastle 2-0 in the final. With Anelka’s big sale in August 1999, Wenger used the funds to fund his dream: Arsenal’s Training Centre. A youth academy was born, and the Frenchman would became famous for his ability to explore youngsters’ potential;
- Chapter II: Touching the Sky
After another double (League and FA Cup trophies) in 2001-02, the French manager’s reputation in North London was just below legendary status: that would come soon enough. After giving away a Premiership win in 2003, The Invincibles: the 2003-04 season will linger in Arsenal fans’ memory forever, as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp led a team that remained unbeaten for the whole season! That feat had only been accomplished by Preston North End 115 years before. Wenger’s positive impact in the club’s finances meant they could build a brand new stadium that would replace Highbury, kicking off a new era. After touching the Sky, The Gunners had a chance to reach outer space, in the UEFA Champions League Final in 2006…which they lost. 1-2 against Ronaldinho’s Barcelona.
- Chapter III: The Downfall…Sort of
The powerful, majestic Emirates Stadium did not act as a positive token. Not at all. The beautiful, offensive dynamics weren’t enough anymore, a whole lot of other great coaches arose. Despite bringing in superstar players, the Premiership never returned to the Gunners. After the predictable slump, Özil and Alexis Sánchez led quite the recovery and a renewed stream of success between 2014 and 2017: 3 more FA Cups and 3 additional Community’s Shields. Not touching the sky anymore, but enough to boost Wenger’s credit score. What next?
All in all, the board’s patience and the fans’ support since the 20th century has been rightfully rewarded. Alongside Sir Alex Ferguson’s utopic example, Wenger’s tale should make clubs seriously reassess their human resources policy. This switch-a-roo routine is obsolete – clubs need stability and strategic planning, not rushed decisions, heavily influenced by apparent financial impact and influence from the media. With that being said, and in the light of a downwards trends that’s been assaulting Arsenal up to March 2018, the rope may just be too tight for good old Professor Wenger.