Friday, March 11, 2016

Arsene Wenger: Arsenal's Teflon Don

By Justin Sherman (@JShermOfficial)

In today’s world of 24-hour news coverage and overnight “experts,” born deep in the doldrums of social media, the coaching profession has become one of the most scrutinized on planet earth.

The days of patient understanding and requisite team-building once afforded to all, is now just for a chosen few who take shelter in the land of the “elite."

But what, exactly, gets one into this exclusive club?

I’d care to guess that most people’s first choice would be championships. Others may say longevity, consistency or stability, but the true holy grail lies in the possession of all of the above.

Sir Alex Ferguson had it.

Bill Belichick and Gregg Popovich have it.

Then there’s those that had it all, but now only have some.

After Ronnie McFall of Northern Ireland’s Portadown retired last Saturday, Arsene Wenger is now the longest tenured manager in all of Europe. Appointed by Arsenal all the way back in 1996, Wenger is in his 20th year as boss of the North London club. Longevity of this magnitude is about as common as an enlightening thought coming from Kim Kardashian’s mouth.

This loyalty was afforded for good reason.

In his first eight years, Wenger brought Arsenal success they hadn’t seen for some time, stuffing the trophy cabinet with three Premier League titles, three FA Cups and three FA Community Shields. His arrival prompted a change in their football style as well -- a welcome change for a team that was once derided as “boring, boring Arsenal.”

Arsenal became the darlings of England, possessing an attacking flare and free flowing football not seen in a country dominated by defense. He brought a plethora of foreign born players -- particularly from his native France -- that were mostly unknown to English fans. The highlight of this era arrived in the 2003-04 campaign, when Wenger guided the gunners to the Premier League’s first undefeated season since Preston North End achieved it in 1888-89, also culminating in another English record of 49 straight games unbeaten. Although they were never able retain their title, Arsenal finished in either first or second place in the league in eight of Wenger's first eleven seasons at the club.

Unfortunately, the last 10 years have painted a more convoluted picture.

Wenger was instrumental in Arsenal’s 2006 move from the old Highbury Stadium to the spaceship known as The Emirates. The club signed the largest sponsorship deal in English football history, worth around £100 million, in an effort to compete with the other big clubs in the league. The club's finances skyrocketed as a result, and fans were promised the world’s best players.

Although Wenger has made some big-money signings for Arsenal -- specifically Mesut Ozil and Alexis -- his net spend record on transfers is far inferior to other leading Premier League clubs. A survey in 2007 found he was the only Premier League manager to have made a profit on transfers, and between 2004 and 2009, Wenger made an average profit of £4.4 million per season on transfers, far more than any other club. Wenger's reluctance to spend more money on transfers and his inability to replace the star players that he has sold, have often been cited by supporters as the principal reason for Arsenal's failure to win major trophies.

Since 2006, Arsenal have never finished lower than 4th in the standings, yet they have only claimed four trophies in total, and no Premier League titles. In Europe, the results have been even worse. Since 2010, Arsenal have failed to make it past the Round of 16 in the Champions League, often flaming out in spectacular fashion.

Now, it appears we have hit a crossroads.

Fans have been divided into two camps: Pro-Wenger or anti-Wenger.

Arsenal fans are letting their voices be heard.
Supporters of his will be the first to shout about his ability to keep Arsenal in the Champions League every year since the last millennium. Also, the FA Cup victory at Hull on Tuesday night took Arsenal into the last eight of the competition, giving them a real chance of becoming the first club in post-war history -- that’s post-Boer War, people --to record three successive final wins.

They enjoy the Gunners attacking style of play and, despite their shortcomings, the year-to-year consistency provides the peace of mind most fans crave.

Despite this, pockets of fans have begun to sing a different tune.

After the aforementioned Hull game, as the players celebrated a resounding 4-0 result – something 99% of other sets of fans in the league would have been delighted about – some of the traveling crowd unfurled a politely worded banner thanking Wenger for his achievements, but suggesting it was time to say goodbye.

After the match, Wenger was asked if the fans’ level of support, or lack thereof, during the remaining part of the season would influence his decision to stay on past this season.

"What I find just boring is always sitting here, after 19 years, [being asked] 'Do you think you're good enough?' If not, somebody will tell me, but it's not you," Wenger said.

"I have worked here for 20 years, and I'm always sitting here having to justify that I'm good enough to do the job," Wenger said. "Honestly, I have no problem to cope with everything, but I find that a bit boring in the end.

"I always have to convince you that I'm good enough. I've worked 35 years at the top level."

It appears, that Arsenal fans themselves have acquired the habit of comparing results against Arsenal teams of old. Wenger’s teams of old, to be precise. In that light they do not compare so well. 

I call it “Don Shula Syndrome.”

You see, Miami Dolphins fans were downright spoiled from 1970 to 1995.

I would know, I am one.

Five Super Bowl appearances, two Lombardi trophies, only two losing seasons, and one perfect season.

Still, human nature crept in. We always wanted more, and we were tired of wasting Dan Marino’s career losing to those losers from Buffalo. So, we put the bullseye on the silver haired legend and ran him out of town.

Unsurprisingly, it hasn’t been the same since, and I have become so desperate that I would strongly consider trading my liver for a playoff berth (Disclaimer: due to my college years, which included extreme alcohol consumption, I would not recommend this organ for transplant).

So maybe the grass isn’t always greener. Maybe Arsenal fans are a bunch of ungrateful, over entitled douchebags like us Dolphin fans were so many years ago.

But to stand still in the business of sport is to go backwards, and if the objective is winning major titles (ie, not the FA Cup), Arsenal have been standing still. Having built a squad capable of winning a title or getting to the final stages of the Champions League, Wenger has been unable to extract the maximum return from it, as he did in his first decade at the club.

So who will be on the right side of history?

Time will tell.

The fact is, Wenger is not getting any younger, and though one can readily sympathize with his reaction to a barrage of negative questions and feedback in the press and from fans, he is straying into dangerous territory when complaining of boredom.

It may just be a matter of time before fans and the board counter that they feel the same.

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