I used to dislike Wenger. He was at the helm of the club that were at the top of English football and direct rivals to the team I support. As he's changed and Arsenal have become less competitive, I've warmed to him but also, unashamedly, become a critic of what he's done and what he's trying to do. As the Arsenal fans, and it's hard to gauge what kind of a percentage, have started to turn on him or become more vocal in their criticism of him, plenty in the press have jumped to his defence.
One such article, recently written by the Times' Oliver Kay, makes a very strong case for Wenger and highlights things he's gotten wrong. Kay attacks the fans who are making cheap shots at Arsene, he suggests that the manager deserves more gratitude. For what he achieved in the past and for changing the mentality of the fans he does. The high expectations at the club are primarily because of what Wenger has been able to achieve. However, the past shouldn't be used to justify the future.
To assess Wenger and discuss - there is no correct answer - why maybe he is as culpable as many think he is for Arsenal's relative decline there are a few key areas to look at. You have to go back to 2004.
Signings and Experience
Wenger's great rival, Sir Alex Ferguson, has always maintained that the only way to build on success is to strengthen and better yourself. Off the pitch, Arsenal were set to capitalise on the success that Wenger's Invincible side of 2003-04 had brought by moving to a new stadium. On the pitch, the process of adding the squad had already started with young talents such as Jose Antonio Reyes and Robin van Persie joining.
In the coming seasons, Wenger would make a calculated decision to let experienced players leave and replace them with youth. His squad slowly started to have fewer and fewer footballers who'd actually won anything. Letting players go in their prime was of course nothing Wenger wasn't already doing - Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars both left before they'd peaked whilst Nicolas Anelka never really settled.
Up until this point, net financial figures were not part of the wider football fan's vocabulary. Arsenal, like most clubs, were a spending club - selling but reinvesting. It was only as Arsenal were forced to take a tighter grip on it all that the club became obsessed with the idea of net spend. Time would show that there were indeed cash reserves unspent and that Wenger had chosen not to spend all that was available to him. Spending for the sake of it is unwise but his squads that lacked in a key area - experience. Still, it was youth that he plumped for as Alex Song, Gael Clichy, Samir Nasri and others were brought in (alongside the odd older player like Alexander Hleb - but oddly many of those signings were never right).
Wenger's transfer market dealings have been not just his greatest strength over time, but often his greatest weakness. That in its own is a whole piece and I spent time two years ago looking at patterns in Arsenal's spending and the type of players that were being signed. It's undeniable that he changed what he was doing, particularly when signing certain types of players. Ferguson has remarked that the best squads have tiers of players at various stages of their careers - Wenger's early Arsenal squads had this and he was successful. Since then, it's something he's completely overlooked. A man once so acute in the transfer market has even become a panic buyer - there was no way he went into the summer 2011 window with the aim of securing Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker and Park Chu-Young
Philosophy and Stubbornness
Essentially, Wenger was ahead of his time. His idea of trying to bring young players through together, playing a certain type of attractive football was what Barcelona did a few years later. However, in trying to achieve this, he overlooked a few things - the Premier League needs variants, and the players needed guidance.
Admirable as it was to change how the club played, and to lower the average age of the playing side, his best players wanted trophies. The line was that he was building a side that could be top again and winning but it never materialised. Famous blow-outs occurred, mental cavings and a reluctantness to change that stemmed from the manager himself. That was never more vivid than in his tactics - rarely any 'plan B'.
Whilst his hand may have been forced to some extent in terms of changing a successful method, Wenger has arguably taken it too far. Players he's nurtured are maturing elsewhere and it's not just because Arsenal aren't in a position to match the wages being offered by other clubs (note Wenger's pay and note the ludicrous amounts fringe Arsenal players are getting in what's a very flat wage structure) but because Arsenal were on the slide and players who've left the club have invariably gone on to win trophies with their new teams.
I suspect Wenger is too proud a man to admit he's made errors but whilst getting the philosophy he tried to adopt wrong is partially forgivable, like Ferguson today, there are some odd and inexplicable decisions. Hole filling, not just in the transfer market but in his teams is evident. Aaron Ramsey, a talented young central midfielder seems to be getting playing predominantly wide. The burden being placed on Wilshere is incredible, particularly after so long out of the game. Gervinho seems to be playing well within what he was capable of at Lille. The examples of misjudgement or odd management are growing and signs of change are not that evident.
Watching Wenger on the touchline gives a real insight into the mentality of the team right now, or so it seems. Frustration and almost the look of a lost wonderer are common expressions on his face. His body language with that slumped look is that of a man who's losing a fight but don't expect him to give up. Arsenal, despite qualifying from their Champions League group, are falling further back in the league - the club may say there's money to be spent but they'll struggle to attract the top players and struggle to keep their own better players if things continue this way. It's feasible that Wenger's excellent run of qualifying for Europe's elite competition could end this season.
It's too easy to suggest that no one could do better than Arsene at present, not least because that cannot be proven. Arsenal's problems though are not just results based - the club needs an overhaul and a change. A freshening up may add some competitive edge and rejuvenate both the fans and the players. There shouldn't be any fear about going backwards to go forwards - Wenger's are big shoes to have to fill.
Arsene will forever have his achievements at Arsenal to hold up as the standard bearer for the calibre of manager he was. They though are in the past and whilst arguably he's overachieved in recent years he was responsible for raising expectations at the club to the highest of levels. The same man though, is also the one responsible for subsequently failing to reach those levels he once set over what is now a very prolonged spell at the club.
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