Recently, the frustration with Arsène Wenger at Arsenal has started to boil over. I’ve even seen people publicly wishing death upon the man. But aside from the lunatic fringe asking for him to be taken out of the club “in a body bag” even the calmer heads are starting to wonder if it isn’t time to wind up the old man’s career. But how do you do that with a man who has served for 18 years?
First, let’s deal with the “body bag” people. In my research on Arsène’s career and philosophy I’ve noted that he never really was accepted by a certain population of fans. The moment he walked in the door at Arsenal, Wenger announced himself as an aesthete and an iconoclast and to a certain segment of Arsenal fans this was yet another sign that the world was taking “their Arsenal” away.
The world did take their Arsenal away and in many ways Arsène Wenger was on the front line of the massive change in the Premier League. A change from a mostly English endeavor into what it is now: a sport, owned by foreigners, played on English soil by foreign superstars, and streamed on the laptops of billions of people on every corner of the globe.
Every foreign manager plying his trade in England right now owes Arsene Wenger a debt of gratitude. When Wenger came to England, English fans were skeptical that a foreign manager could prove successful. Thus, Wenger’s success, his instant and repeated success, paved the way for all of these Jose come lately’s in the Premier League. English fans now no longer distrust a manager because he’s foreign. In fact, they want foreign managers.
The same with the players. When Wenger came on as Arsenal manager there were few foreign players in the Premier League.¹ The instant and repeated success of Dennis Bergkamp², Patrick Vieira, and Theirry Henry opened the doors for the foreign players in England — they settled questions over whether foreigner’s “could do it on a cold night in Stoke.” Who is the best player in the history of the Premier League? Ryan Giggs or Thierry Henry? I’m biased toward Henry myself but regardless of whether he is number one or number two, now days, fans don’t just accept foreign players, they demand that their teams buy these players for obscene sums.
And Wenger didn’t just give England successful superstars, he transformed the Premier League into a global spectacle. If I can be a bit personal for a moment, I have admitted many times in the past that it was Arsène Wenger’s beautiful football which attracted me to the sport. I hardly think I’m alone in that. I suspect that the popularity of the Premier League in many parts of the globe is at least partly Wenger’s fault.
Thus, Wenger carries the honor of being the first truly great foreign manager in the Premier League, of bringing the League their first truly great foreign stars, and of ushering in the global era of football in England. That man deserves the respect of every player who draws a massive salary, of every foreign manager who plies his trade in England, and of every fan who enjoys the sport for what it is today. That man does not deserve to be taken out of Arsenal “in a body bag.”
“Get him a body bag! LOL!” is what the pimply faced kid from Kobra Kai dojo screams in the final fight scene between Johnny and Tommy Larusso in Karate Kid. The line is so preposterous that Robot Chicken was able to easily make the perfect parody and I’m not sure if art is imitating life but Body Bags are on sale at Amazon (watch the clip to get the reference).
The problem – I find it incredible that people don’t see that there is a problem at Arsenal. I love Arsène Wenger, I think he’s a genius, I respect what he has done for the Premier League and for Arsenal but I can also see that Wenger is no longer able to make the impact on the game that he once was. I can see that players like Luis Gustavo no longer immediately jump at the chance to play for Arsène Wenger. I can see that his own players look to be abandoning him at times on the pitch. I can see that there are injury problems at Arsenal but that Arsenal have been saddled with injuries for years — this cannot simply be bad luck. I can look at the team sheet at the start of the season and see that Arsenal’s balance between attacking players and defenders was tilting at windmills. I can see that Arsenal have all the money they need to buy players and yet players are not purchased when they are badly needed. And worst of all, I can see that Arsène’s tactics are not just naive but have been badly exposed for years now and that glaring problem has not been addressed — they may be perpetually in the Champions League but they are never going to win it, not when a team just needs a single corner to beat them.
I supported Wenger through the good times (that was easy), I supported Wenger through the youth revolution (what’s the frequency, Denilson?), and I supported Wenger in the aimless thrashing around of the post-Cesc era Arsenal. I always said, give him the chance to build the team he wanted when the money ship came in. He’s had that chance and what we’ve gotten are a summer where Arsenal bid on multiple players that they needed and looked like they didn’t know what they were doing. That was followed by a £42m deadline day deal for Özil which looked a lot like they lucked into it. This summer, again, Arsenal looked to lack a clear plan in the transfer market, once again failing to address the crucial need for a center mid who can provide some backbone to this otherwise limp team, and once again landing a lucky deal on the final day of the transfer market — another forward. These are not well planned out summers of spending. These have been bumbling around summers of spending. That the manager told the world he needed a center half and then didn’t buy one is as clear an indication that they didn’t have a plan as I can imagine: it strikes me that perhaps he was saying that publicly as a recruitment tool. “We need to buy a center half” in retrospect looks a lot like “if you’re a center half and you’re unhappy with your situation, send a fax to Arsène Wenger c/o Higbury House, top top top quality inquiries only.”
Most managers run out of ideas after six months: David Moyes ran out of ideas after a few weeks, Luis van Gaal said to give him three months and it’s clear that he is out of ideas, it’s starting to look like Jurgen Klopp is out of ideas at Borussia Dortmund after a few years, and so on. Eventually, all managers even the very best managers, run out of ideas. It looks to me like it’s taken 18 years but finally Arsène Wenger has run out of ideas.
This is nothing to be ashamed of, in fact he should be celebrated for all of the ideas he gave us. All of the players in the Premier League should get a chance to thank him, every fan in the League should give him a standing ovation, and every manager should be given the chance to kiss his ring.
You simply can’t fire a manager who has given so much to the game. It’s too disrespectful because he hasn’t done anything wrong, he’s just run out of ideas. Worse, you can’t just throw the club and the team into that much turmoil by firing a legend. You need to give the fans and the players time to get used to the idea that a new manager is coming on board. And you also need to give this board time to find a real replacement: look what happened with Moyes at United, the cautionary tale of all cautionary tales.
That’s why I think Wenger should call time on his own career. Announce his retirement at the end of the season and give us all a Fergie-style Lap of Appreciation around the Premier League and Europe. I think he will get the most out of the players he has by doing that and I think he will give the board the time they need to hire Frank de Boer (and Dennis Bergkamp as assistant) or Pep Guardiola³. For me, Wenger has to do this himself or risk becoming one of those old coaches clinging to the past, trying the same things over and over, and dragging the club and players down with him. Only to be fired one day after total humiliation.
It’s time we let Wenger bow out with honor and give Wenger the respect he is due, not a body bag.
¹I don’t have the exact numbers and would appreciate anyone helping to gather this data for me.
²I am aware that Bruce Rioch purchased Bergkamp. However, Wenger made Bergkamp successful.
³Why is it always met with derision whenever someone mentions one of the world’s great managers as Wenger’s successor? People always say “he’d never come to Arsenal”. Shouldn’t we aspire to a Pep Guardiola? When did we lower our expectations?