I have spent the last three days reading old news. Old news reports on Arsene Wenger. Mostly reports from the Guardian between 1997 and 2003, and many from the first half of Arsenal’s Invincibles season. And I guarantee you that if I pull some quotes out, you can’t tell me what year they come from. If I redact the names you won’t know the difference between 2003 and 2013. Try this quote:
The Frenchman’s summer transfer budget could be limited… despite the glaring requirement for heavy investment in new defenders.
Wenger needed to spend heavily on defense and so who did Wenger buy? Jose Antonio Reyes. He also spent £4m on Jens Lehmann and Philippe Senderos that summer. Oh, and building for the future, he bought Cesc Fabregas.
Or how about this quote after a harsh beating, Amy Lawrence wrote:
Will Wenger ever learn? A familiar strategic error cost Arsenal… Selecting an abundance of ball players is admirable but incredibly risky at a level Wenger describes as ‘the best you can see in the world’. You might get away with it in the Premiership but against a side as obviously obdurate as (REDACTED)? Arsenal’s unbalanced formation was putty in (their) hands. Picking a midfield quartet from which only (one player) looked capable of winning a tackle was akin to asking for it. Little wonder the rearguard was under the cosh.
Will Wenger ever learn? …it is all too easy to pick holes in the vulnerable defense, the underpowered midfield, the overdependence on (REDACTED) up front. Wenger is a deeply analytical man and we can safely assume he has noticed these faults.
That was the column Amy wrote after Arsenal’s embarrassing defeat to Inter Milan at Highbury in September 2003. A game in which the Italians sat back, defended deep, and hit Arsenal with an electric counter attack. A counter attack which included a goal scored by Obafemi Martins. Strategic errors and a soft midfield have often been to blame for Arsene Wenger’s defeats. That and a vulnerability to counter attacks.
One month later, 30 November 2003, Amy would change tone. Arsenal would change tone. Everything about Arsenal would change and they would go on to win the League and fulfil Wenger’s prophecy of going an entire League season unbeaten. Amy wrote:
And this is where the ‘less is more’ theme comes into play. Players whose names were derisively used to exemplify Arsenal’s apparent lack of strength in depth, even by their own supporters, have stepped in and stepped up. This season very few of Wenger’s players have come in and let him down.
As you can see, even during the Invincibles season, Wenger was notorious for leaving his squad threadbare. Playing the likes of Pascal Cygan and relying on a 37 year old Martin Keown in defense and a 30 year old Ray Parlor in midfield and Kanu¹ up front. Wenger was also notorious for being a
That was, however, in a much different era. There was only one billionaire team then, Chelsea. And they were spending lavishly: £150m in 03/04 and another £150m the next season. Crazy spending which destabilized the Premier League and eventually won Jose Mourinho a few titles.
Arsenal, meanwhile were so poor that they couldn’t rub two pennies together to give Dennis Bergkamp more than a 1 year deal. Club legend, offered a one year deal. Because Arsenal were building a new stadium.
There’s no mystery as to what happened in the years after the Invincibles. Wenger bought low and got the absolute best out of a handful of players. Arsenal even slowly sold off all the old parts of the Invinchibles and nearly won the League the year after they shipped Thierry Henry to Barcelona.
The slow attrition of talent out of Arsenal picked up pace in the last 5 years. Cesc, Nasri, Toure, van Persie, all left for greener pastures. During the Invincibles season, commenting on the looming age of austerity, Wenger once joked “if I have to be a genius to be successful, Arsenal is in big trouble!”
Arsenal were in big trouble and they did need a genius to be successful. How Arsenal qualified for the Champions League in the last few years with so many teams buying off their best talent, with so many players injured, and with so many teams around them investing huge sums of money in squad depth isn’t a mystery, it’s down to the managerial skills of Arsene Wenger. If an English manager had done what Arsene Wenger has done in his 18 year Arsenal career we’d all be calling him “Sir.” Sir Arthur Wagner or something.
But frustratingly Wenger always came up short in those years after the Invincibles. I lost count of how many times people wrote “Wenger just needs one more X” or “Arsenal are perennially a player short” and “Wenger needs a defensive midfielder.” But this was the same as he was in 2003. The same as he was in 2000. He trusts his players, he doesn’t panic, he builds slowly. And with the success he has enjoyed throughout his career can you really blame him for sticking to his guns?
Arsène Wenger hasn’t changed, except in one way, he’s started spending money. The amount of money Arsène Wenger has spent on transfers in his entire career at Arsenal is roughly £126m but £95m of that spend has come in the last three years.
Challengers for the Top 4 — spending over the last 3 seasons
Man City £-135.5
Man U £-254.8
The people who bayed for Wenger to spend some flocking money have gotten their wish. Wenger has spent lavishly, buying big name players like Özil and Sanchez. And yet, as always, Arsene Wenger comes up a few players short. Or we are waiting on a player to fulfil his promise. Or there’s an injury crisis. As it always has been with Arsenal. As it always will be.
Except now after every loss now more and more people join the spittle-flecked anti-Wenger protesters. The flag wavers and banner hangers numbers grow ever larger. People are fighting each other in the stands. Fueled by faux celebrity more fans are clamoring to have their voices heard and their voices have turned from anger to vile hatred. What do these people want? Funding for cancer research? Food for starving children? No, they want to express their hatred for a man who will be remembered as the greatest manager this club has ever seen.
It’s, frankly, unedifying. With the ridiculous catch phrases, the banners, the protests, and the fighting, Arsenal fans are now looking a lot like their cousins at Tottenham.
Note that throughout this piece I have never said that you can’t wish for Wenger to step down. Personally, I hope he retires soon, if for no other reason than because it’s heartbreaking to see him dragged through the streets by the same lynch mob who attended the FA Cup celebrations just 6 months ago.
What I’m saying that this is Arsene Wenger we are talking about. A club legend and tremendous servant to the club that we all love. This is the man who led Arsenal through the desert and, like Moses, will probably never see his promised land. The man who built the Colosseum we all love to see games in. This is the man who gave us the Invincibles and 18 years of European football. You can want him out and at the same time show him some respect.
For what he’s done for you fans, for The Arsenal, and for English football, if we are going to call for his resignation, we should at least end the sentence with, “Sir”.
¹Kanu was only 28 that season but his powers had waned significantly.