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Arsene Wenger’s new contract shows Arsenal fear life without him

Written by: Mrunal Nakashe

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The Frenchman’s latest extension substantiates that the club lack leadership from the top down…

So, the longest rambling saga of the season comes to an end with Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger signing a new two-year contract to remain at the club until 2019. Yet, the Frenchman’s latest extension of stay has left more questions than answers, about where the club are seeking to go and about the reaches of their ambitions.

So, did he deserve to continue? The answer to that has to be an unequivocal ‘No.’ Consider, the fact that Wenger has just endured his worst season at the helm in North London. Failing to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in his tenure that extends over two decades and once again finishing miles off the title pace in the league, not to mention finishing comfortably below crosstown rivals Tottenham Hotspur, were all body blows that would have consumed any other person in his position. Add to this, the now familiar occurrence of a hammering at the hands of Bayern Munich in the Round of 16 of European club football’s top table (10-2 on aggregate this time around) and his position should have become untenable, Indeed it could be argued that the tactician would fail to see out the season at any of Europe’s other top clubs after that defeat alone. That he won a third FA Cup in four years should have mattered little.

Arsenal have finished miles off the title pace over the last several seasons (Courtesy: BBC Sport)

In fairness, the Gunners were out of the Primer League title race before the turn of the year. While it cannot be solely blamed for their dismal campaign, the ‘will he won’t he’ saga over Wenger’s future, that rolled on for most of the season is unlikely to have helped the team’s cause.

At the start of the term when the question was put to him the Frenchman said he would inform of a decision in March, but with the team’s campaign having hit the skates then, it was not surprising that the 67-year old decided to keep his peace for the moment. As the customary end of season burst of good form kicked in he became more confident, whilst still keeping his cards close to his chest. With his future now settled, Wenger has admitted there should have been clarity earlier. Be that as it may, it is likely that when he looks back at this episode, he will have regrets on the manner in which it was handled and on the way he conducted himself through it.

It would be an exaggeration of some measure to say that all of Arsenal’s problems start and end with Wenger. For, the malaise of complacency and convenience runs much beyond him. The Londoners’ boardroom is a mess. American businessman Stan Kroenke holds a controlling stake in the club and is the man in the driver’s seat. But, he’s directly challenged by Uzbek billionaire Alisher Usmanov who is the club’s second largest shareholder with a stake of 30%. However, the Central Asian tycoon has no friends in the current hierarchy and doesn’t even get a place on the board. What’s more, he recently launched what would have to be called a hostile takeover of the club that was expectedly pushed back.

American Kroenke's track record in sports inspires little confidence (Courtesy: Sky Sports)

If an owner’s vision is supposed to be the driving force for a business, the American’s record with sports teams inspires very little confidence of his quest for success. Most of his franchises on the other side of the Atlantic are prototypes of mediocrity, languishing in mid-table although turning profits. Indeed, the bottom line seems to be so central to his ethos, that whilst it’s in the green, the lack of success on the pitch hardly matters.

The Arsenal hierarchy lack any sense of sporting purpose or direction

Then there is of course, the club’s CEO Ivan Gazidis, a man reportedly appointed with Wenger’s blessings, ironically to oversee him. While his daily workings are unknown, the South African has certainly proved inept at getting the job done in the transfer market, or holding the Frenchman to expectations. As such, it would be far-fetched to expect him to successfully carve out a plan for Wenger’s succession, whenever that may be. With those above him at such sixes and sevens, it is hardly surprising that the former Monaco boss is his own advocate and judge.

The Frenchman seems to believe he should be given credit for his loyalty to the club. For, in his heydey, he turned down some of Europe’s biggest clubs to stay with the Gunners. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In reality, he found a comfort zone and remains uncomfortable with the idea of testing himself in more demanding circumstances at a truly ambitious club. 

Arsenal last qualified for the Champions League quarterfinals in 2010

So, what is Wenger’s legacy? Let’s get a few facts straight. With 16 trophies in 21 years, the Frenchman is the club’s most successful manager. But, that must be qualified by stating that nobody has had even half his time in-charge at the club in any era. Further, he has won only three league titles, the last of which was 13 years ago. With only two Final appearances he has no taste of European success, and as recent seasons have proved, has looked increasingly out of his depth at that level. 

To his credit, the long-serving manager did oversee the momentous move to Emirates Stadium. But, he has been inept at successfully completing the transition from that period of austerity, both financially and on the pitch. And while some fans may have you believe so, he certainly did not build the stadium brick by brick himself. To put it simply, his longevity aside, the Frenchman has no leg to stand on in the pantheon of great managers, past and present

Wenger maybe staying but the question remains where do Arsenal go from here? Not too far would seem to be the answer. Truth be told, the more the Frenchman hangs on to the Gunners’ reigns the further they will continue to get cut adrift from English football’s elite. For, the manager, as great as he once was, now appears as though the ways of modern football have passed him by, apart from the occasional glimmer of hope, that has so far proved a false dawn on each time.

It would appear that for all of the upheaval that this season and those before it have witnessed, those in the Arsenal hierarchy are yet to so much as contemplate life without their ever-present manager. In fact, the more one looks at the situation of the Gunners, the more they appear to have become the ruminants of a failed institution, where the checks and balances that should ensure progress have completely collapsed.

Nearly a decade ago they embarked on a grand mission, with a utopian vision to run the club in a self-sustained manner. But, in an ever-inflating transfer market and the era of sugar daddy owners, it was a vision that drifted away from reality quite soon. Amidst their obvious class and admirable want to to do things the right way, the fact remains that the club have failed to deliver success with their approach. Now, faced with this reality, they appear so unprepared for life without ‘the fall guy’ that they are in fact frightened of it.

Some would have you believe that for over a decade, Arsenal have been in stagnation. But, in truth, they have been in a state of steady decline. Moreover, those at the club have become so used to believing their own spin, that for them, wherever they finish on the ladder is the new barometer of success. It is the classic sign of a group of people and an organisation, who beneath their confident surface, are doubting their own beliefs and believing their own doubts.

The similarities between Ferguson and Wenger stop at longevity

The latest argument for the proponents of the ‘be careful what you wish for’ maxim is, of course, the upheaval that followed at Manchester United following Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure. While, that example has little relevance in this context, at least in the case of the Red Devils each successive managerial appointment would seem to have been with the relatively pure intention of taking the club forward. The same cannot be said with any confidence in regard to the situation at Arsenal. Besides, what the backers of the current regime fail to underscore is that to live with the devil you know can never be an alternative to the fear of the unknown.

Wenger undoubtedly has a position at the pinnacle of Arsenal, but his crown is nonetheless made of thorns. Indeed, the Gunners boss has done the tightrope walk expertly over the years. For instance, when quizzed about the possibility of missing out on the top four at the backend of the season, he appeared to suggest that it was no longer a necessity, thanks to the influx of TV money into the Premier League. That was a stark departure from his long held view that Champions League qualification was an ‘invisible’ fifth trophy. He further went on to assert that 75 points, a total that had won him the title in the distant past, was an acceptable return and indeed represented progress since it was an increase of four points from the previous term. If you thought that was ridiculous enough, there was more to come.

When quizzed further on how the season could have been better he stated that like every year, he started the campaign wanting to win the title. If that assertion is taken at face value, it would mean Wenger has failed for the last 13 years. But of course at Arsenal, there are several different yardsticks to measure success and it seems, that while he may claim to be ‘accountable for results,’ no failure is big enough to warrant his job. If there is one conclusion to be drawn from the above, it is that Wenger has survived, not by earning his stripes but through careful husbandry and convenient half-truths.

Its the fans who have lost the most

The Frenchman’s last contract was for three years, this one is for two, The signs are clear that the end is nigh and if it is, Arsenal most definitely aren't prepared for it. Regardless of what happens to the club in the coming years, the biggest losers in the piece have been its fans. Marginalized and disillusioned, they now face a club that is unrecognizable from the one that generations of their families grew up supporting. What’s worse, the powers that be, including Wenger himself, couldn’t care less.

The Frenchman prides himself on always having put the club first. But, the fact remains that this season, much like in the past, as the club was dragged through the mud he stood a silent spectator. While his place amongst great managers will be debated, his lasting legacy will be that of a polarised fan base that will never again see eye-to-eye.

The Emirates will still bring in the crowds and the cash registers will still ring off Europe’s highest ticket prices, the only difference being that real fans will be replaced by tourists. Just at hand to savour yet another magnificent piece of art under London’s bright lights, of course wearing half-and-half scarves and adorned with cute smiles. With the fans gone, there is the risk that one of English football’s traditional heavyweights could die a slow death as a competitive force. Rest assured, by then Wenger will have long gone, but the damage will be done.

 

Published: Thu Jun 01, 2017 03:11 PM IST

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