The end of Arsene Wenger’s career is fast approaching. Don’t mistake that sentence for a dramatic statement about an impending dismissal – Wenger is 66 and retirement from football management is an inevitability. Even Wenger can’t fail to see it coming.
A sizeable chunk of Arsenal fans are keen to accelerate that retirement process based on what they think is a pattern of serial under achievement by their team under the Frenchman’s direction. They believe two FA Cups in 12 years is a poor return given the talent Wenger has had at his disposal, while yearly Champions League participation has less of a shine if your team is only there to make up the numbers.
Wenger is far and away the Premier League’s longest serving manager. This summer will mark 20 years at Arsenal for “The Professor”. Stability and long term management at a football club usually equals success (or does success bring long term management followed by stability – a question for another time perhaps?), but over recent seasons Wenger has been criticized for his lack of tactical flexibility and downright naivety by repeating mistakes in the way he sets up his teams, particularly in big games. The critics have a point, the figures are there in black and white.
There is an ever increasing army of Gunners who believe that it’s time for a new direction and new ideas, but are they failing to consider and recognize the possible consequences and upheaval that changing a manager of 20 years will likely bring?
If they are looking for a comparable case study, then Arsenal fans need look no further than Manchester United post-Fergie. Granted, appointing Moyes as Ferguson’s successor was a akin to having George Formby close a show for Pavarotti, but making the correct call on a new name for the hot seat is just one part of what will be a momentous shift in the overall management of the club.
After 26 years, Man Utd was Alex Ferguson. He had sculpted and moulded the club in his image, his purple capillaries were rooted deep within every blade of grass, every brick and floorboard and into every player at the club. He was such an all-powerful autonomous dictator that when he finally handed in his master key at Old Trafford, United didn’t just have to replace a manager, they had to replace their internal organs. Replacing someone with that much influence was always going to be an impossible task, at least in the short term and this is the challenge that Arsenal will soon face.
Because after 20 years, Arsenal are Arsene Wenger. Whether the swarming legions of anti-Wenger Gunners care to admit it or not, their club has been indoctrinated in Wengerism. From cornflakes to croissants, you couldn’t name a part of Arsenal’s entire infrastructure that Wenger hasn’t influenced in some capacity.
After Ferguson’s retirement, Wenger represents the last of that traditional figure of singular control at a football club that the “manager” used to be. The modern way is to separate and delegate. Now we have Directors of Football, Transfer Committees, Development Managers and so forth and first team managers are expected to work within those kind of structures. Running a football team is more of a collaborative effort than ever before. That’s what makes the change from autonomy to democracy such a massive problem.
But while the trauma of United’s post-Fergie dip can be somewhat softened by the years of consistent success he brought the club, Arsenal are facing a probable similar post-Wenger blowout without all that lovely gooey silvery nostalgia (for Wenger’s last decade at least).
What happens when you gut an already floundering club? In terms of overall club structure, replacing Wenger will be like swapping steel girders for bread sticks, but Arsenal fans cannot see beyond the plight of their first team. Most football fans are usually myopic in that way. But if they were to really sit back and think of the implications of replacing Wenger, they might not be so quick to hasten his departure.
Alas, he will be off soon regardless. Father time has caught up with Wenger. Soon it will be vineyards and alcohol instead of dugouts and vitriol.
Instead of booing Wenger over the finish line and out the gates, Arsenal fans would do well to treasure these last moments of stability and free flowing attacking football before their club begins their conversion from Wengerism to something else, because that process could take quite a while. Just ask United fans.