Blog by: Karthik Ramesh
In banter sessions with Arsenal fans, at some point the continuity factor is certain to be raised: Arsene Wenger has spent over a decade and a half at the helm. That, they argue, is a milestone in an era where managers are treated like daily-wagers. Additionally, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure from Old Trafford, Wenger is now the longest-serving manager in the EPL. Not bad for someone who was greeted with the headline ‘Arsene Who?’ upon his appointment in 1996.
But Le Professeur’s achievement appears even more impressive when you consider that most current managers in the EPL have spent barely a year at their clubs. Brendan Rodgers, all of 14 months old at Liverpool, is the sixth-longest serving manager in the EPL. And at less than three years, Alan Pardew’s is the second longest managerial tenure in the league – fourteen years behind Wenger.
It is this very longevity that is now being challenged; and by his own supporters. A group of shareholders called the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) have called for Wenger’s contract renewal to be put on hold. The story is simple enough: the supporters want him to first spend some money on quality players and make the team a competitive force in the league again.
The topic has raged all summer and the outcome has been underwhelming: not a single major player has joined the Gunners this window, although 17 have left – further adding to the coffers. Wenger’s contract expires next summer. It is hard to think of English football without the stern-faced Frenchman; but that is now being debated as a distinct possibility, unless the board is behind him on this one. But now it increasingly appears that Wenger himself may consciously not be wanting to spend, unwilling to pay even £5 million more on a player than his perceived valuation.
To be fair, that’s how he built all his great teams. Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira were all acquired at low prices. At £15 million, Andrey Arshavin is his most expensive signing till date; and even that is a pittance by the modern yardstick. Of course, the game has changed since then –his arch-nemesis Sir Alex managed to remain successful in part because he knew when to spend big, and took intelligent punts on players. But then, SAF was endlessly adaptive; staying ahead of the curve and altering the playing field to his will in a way no other has done.
And the possibility that his old bête noire may follow him out of the door in a more unceremonious fashion is unfortunate. Wenger is one of the titans of modern football; a man who has done much to shape the way the game is played today. The EPL was truly born as a global brand when Arsenal began challenging Manchester United for the title. This was made possible because Wenger brought in the best Dutch and French players, revolutionized training and diet regimes, and developed his own brand of attacking football. It is that innovativeness that characterized his mini-era – the Arsenal decade, if you will – and set his club as a standard for victory and excellence.
But now we see a different, more stubborn man; unyielding and unwilling to change; content to point towards the modest harvest he has obtained with minimal investment, refusing to accept that the landscape has irrevocably changed since a Russian billionaire landed in London ten years ago, when Wenger started the last of his great teams. By one estimate, he has more cash to spend than the other 19 teams in the EPL combined. He has chosen to bring in a young French rookie instead – on a free transfer.
Another comparison may be drawn with his fellow Frenchman Gerard Houllier, the disciplinarian who belatedly ushered Liverpool into the Premier League era and evolved their playing style, but in his last couple of years at the club became uncertain of himself and insecure about his authority. Wenger, on the other hand, may seem the opposite: too certain of himself and needing a jolt of realism.
Everyone (myself included) praises Wenger for his staying power in the Champions League; a consistent streak of results achieved despite shoestring budgets. But competence in one domain does not necessarily extend to another. Could it be that Le Professeur has actually lost his nerve where it comes to large transfers? Has it struck anyone that, over a decade after his last big-ticket signing, the man may secretly be scared about spending big for the sake of it; unable to bear the idea that it might go wrong and he might unwittingly deplete the corpus he has painstakingly built up for his beloved Arsenal?
I’m not an Arsenal fan, but Wenger is a manager I have grown up admiring. In an era where the price of oil can decide footballing success, his model offers a refreshing change: to nurture his club the way Wenger has done instils an indescribable sense of hope about the future of the game we love. And it is both for that reason and to protect his club’s interests, that Wenger must spend. Moderately perhaps, but properly. Because if this season Arsenal’s title hopes do not materialize into anything concrete (or metallic), he may well have played his last hand.