Arsene Wenger – “Specialist in failure”?

by Nathaniel Shaughnessy

WengerThere is a lot of anti-Wenger feeling in the media, amongst other fans and even within some corners of Arsenal and there has been for several years now. That much is clear. But what Arsene Wenger has done for Arsenal cannot and will not ever be matched by any other manager for Arsenal F.C. I am referring of course to his management of Arsenal through the £400 million pound move to the Emirates Stadium.

His success in keeping Arsenal as a top four club on a shoestring budget, rivalled by the large and often reckless spending of rivals such as Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea and Manchester City – all clubs who Wenger has narrowly beaten to the final Champions League spot since the move in 2006 – has been nothing less than remarkable. Furthermore, now that the debts are all but paid off and Arsenal have the funds as well as the groundwork to compete with the top clubs in England – and indeed in Europe – in the long term, maybe it is about time people begin to recognise the enormity of the task he was set eight years ago and has now achieved.

When Arsenal first moved to the Emirates stadium in 2006; optimism, rhetoric and the remaining invicibles led many to believe that success would be almost instant, but this would never be the case – under any manager. Without a ‘sugardaddy’ owner spending big throughout the period and hoping the debts would disappear naturally or indeed just be absorbed into the club – like at Manchester United – continued high spending was never an option.

Arsenal were going to have to cut the budget to afford it, they would not be able to compete for the big transfer deals of the period (the likes of Eden Hazard and Sergio Agüero) in terms of transfer fees and wages. Wenger seemed the perfect man to drive this. His philosophy in terms of wage structure and belief in youth certainly suited a team that can accurately be described as in ‘footballing austerity’. So at the start of the period, if most respected media outlets are to be believed, the board set Wenger the primary target of staying in the Champions League – the fact that he has met this is nothing short of remarkable and is why he should and hopefully will go down in Arsenal folklore.

Since 2006, Arsenal have recorded a net profit of roughly £10 million on player transfers as opposed to losses of  £70 million from Tottenham and over £100 million from Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea and City. The latter two exceeding £300 million. Yet despite this Wenger has kept Arsenal in the top four without fail, which with the benefit of hindsight is far more valuable than any domestic silverware. This is not to say that trophies aren’t worth winning, nor that finishing fourth represents more success than winning the FA Cup.

However, in terms of ensuring long term success, attractiveness to potential targets, financial stability and competitiveness with the top teams it is fair to say that Champions League football can be considered a more sustainable target that the occasional domestic cup. Indeed, if domestic trophies did guarantee success (some refer to the argument that trophies instil a winning mentality) then surely Tottenham and Liverpool – both of whom have won domestic cups in the lasteight years – would have overtaken Arsenal long ago, yet if anything the gap seems to have widened since 2006. Certainly on the evidence of this season, where Arsene’s ability to finally spend some money on Mesut Özil has galvanised the team into a realistic title challenge, targeting a sustained top four finish whilst the stadium debts are brought under control has been the right decision.

Of course, over this time as an Arsenal fan I would have wanted more trophies, I’m sure Wenger would’ve as well but lambasting him for a combination of poor luck, insufficient funds to compete with the City’s and the Chelsea’s of this world and a clear instruction to deliver Champions league football at all costs is madness. I don’t think any other manager in the world could’ve done what Arsene Wenger has done in the last eight years.

Being on a shoestring budget and often forced to sell key players such as Ashley Cole, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Robin Van Persie, Thierry Henry, Gael Clichy – often due to not having the ability nor the willingness to break down the strict wage structure in place at the club to keep these players – is something that the likes of Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and even Sir Alex Ferguson will never have to experience and a job that should not be taken lightly. Looking at it objectively, there has not been a single year since the stadium move where Wenger’s team has not exceeded expectations. Year after year after year, pre season expectations from various sources (Phil McNulty being a notable culprit who will have underestimated Arsenal in his pre season predictions for the fifth year in succession if Arsenal secure a top four finish once again this season) forecast the ‘end of Arsenal’s luck’ et al in finishing in the top four however he seems to invariably achieve it.

If, at the start of 2006-07, you had offered any knowledgeable, intelligent, real Arsenal fan uninterrupted Champions league football until the stadium debts were under control, I’m pretty sure 9/10 would have bitten your hand off. This is what Wenger has delivered. You only have to look at the sudden demise of Liverpool from the top of English football to an 8th placed league finish in 2011-12 to understand what falling out of the Champions league can to do a team. Indeed, if Liverpool are to get back into the Champions league this season it will only have been enabled by Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the failure of Tottenham to spend the Gareth Bale money effectively.

Not to take anything away from Brendan Rodgers who is doing a fantastic job, but the fact remains that had either of these teams been able to fulfil their potential this season – Liverpool would not be in the top four at this moment in time and wouldn’t be expected to be there at the end of the season. If Arsenal were to fall out of it and not have the same financial backing Liverpool have had to get back into it, indeed the loss of Champions league revenues would if anything have led to a further tightening of the purse strings, they could be facing an even longer wait than the four seasons out that Liverpool have currently had to endure, as well as being reliant on a poor quality of opposition in one unique season (such as this one) in order to return to a place among Europe’s elite.

Arsene Wenger should not be immune from all criticism. In 2007-08 his failure to buy anyone in January having gone into New Years top of the tree is for me his biggest mistake in this period whilst few would argue that his record against the bigger teams in the last eight years has been anything short of poor. Even former players, notably Patrick Vieira, have questioned his policy of refusing to analyse the opposition before a game – preferring to focus on his own team and their own game. There are even times when you might question if footballing philosophy has been as much a reason for the little transfer activity as a lack of funds.

However, the fact remains that Wenger has not had the money to compete with Chelsea, United, Liverpool and City over the last eight years and whilst zero signings in certain transfer windows is inexcusable, the vast majority of the time Wenger has actually done a very good job with the funds he’s had. Furthermore, he has set Arsenal up for the next ten years with financial stability, Champions league football and perhaps most importantly, a strong, young, British core of the team in Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Kieron Gibbs and Theo Walcott. The likes of Wojcech Szczesny, Serge Gnabry, Yaya Sanogo and even Joel Campbell all also have the ability to go on and be top players and if even half of these aforementioned players go on to realise their potential Arsenal threaten to be a major force in European football in years to come.

So, perhaps before calling Wenger a specialist in failure you should properly consider what he has achieved. In a period of transition with stockpiles of debt, are domestic cups really the most sustainable objective? Is ensuring a place amongst Europe’s elite and the perks that come from this (whilst also being in the process of clearing £400 million worth of stadium debts) not far more likely to contribute to long term prosperity for Arsenal F.C? I think Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph sums it up perfectly:

 

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