There’s a big game coming on Sunday between Arsenal and Manchester City, and, of course, it’s a(nother) “must win” for our embattled manager, Arsene Wenger. I’ll be writing a match preview for it soon. In the meantime, before yet another referendum on his tenure as manager, I think it’s time for a bit of perspective on the man and his vision. Like everybody else, I can only share my own.
As regular readers know, I’m from California, so I come from a background of watching US sports, which are organized in a (radically) different manner with profit sharing, between clubs and players–and other “level-playing field” elements–well integrated. By comparison, English (and European) club football are like the Wild West. In 2006, when I landed at 17 Highbury Terrace and first fell in love with Arsene and Arsenal, the economy was in a bubble. The pound was nearly 2:1 to our dollar and folks believed things were headed nowhere but up. Watching fans stream from the Highbury-Islington tube station, across the Highbury Fields, and to the always sold out (and packed) new stadium–it really did seem like the advent of something big, modern and full of promise.
To my amazement, unlike in my other travels, I couldn’t get in. A few times that autumn, I tried, but the touts (they’re called “scalpers” here in the States) were well-policed and the very few tickets I saw changing hands cost well over 100 US dollars. As such, I learned the game in the nearby pubs with plenty of Gooners who were perhaps also priced out but wanting to be part of the scene.
It was a tough early season and there were plenty of grumbles to match the difficult results. New guys like Tomas Rosicky and Alexander Hleb looked promising but were not considered equal to the departed Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp. Thierry Henry and Freddie Ljungberg both carried long term injuries while Robin van Persie had some early season niggles. Cashley Cole had taken the extra 5000 pounds per week to play at Chelsea and we had only nabbed William Gallas in return. The greatest promise resided in 19 year-old Cesc Fabregas and some interesting West African players, the veteran Kolo Toure and the two Emmanuels, Adebayor and Eboue.
At the center of everything was Wenger.
The new stadium and Arsenal’s appearance in the Champions League final that past spring brought a measure of good will–and popularity–to the club, but results weren’t promising. During my stay, there were losses at (pre-Prince Mansour) Man City, West Ham, Bolton and Fulham, not to mention disappointing home draws with Aston Villa, Middlesbrough, Everton and Newcastle. By the end of November, the league title was a two team race between Manchester United and Chelsea. Arsenal would be scrambling, as they did the year before, for a top 4 place and another go at the Champions League.
Playing in the season-long CL tournament was the key. Remember, this is when the Vice-Chairman of our Board, David Dein, was president of the “G-14” clubs which hinted that a European Super League might be on the horizon. If such a league were to form, Arsenal would surely be a part of it. In the meantime, a top 4 finish and participation in the tournament was critical. Though the English Premier League had many proud clubs, this was still the era of the “Big Four” (Arsenal, ManU, Chelsea, Liverpool). ManCity hadn’t “happened” yet and Spurs, were, well, Spurs.
All of this would soon change. Dein, the man who had brought Wenger to Arsenal back in 1996, would soon be gone, as would many other big shareholders on the board. They sold out to Stan Kroenke, the billionaire husband of one of (founder of WalMart) Sam Walton’s daughters. Kroenke owned several American Sports teams (we call them “franchises”) but was not renowned for making them into champions. On the other hand, unlike the Glasers–the new American owners at Manchester United–he didn’t use his teams to leverage (debt finance) other parts of his financial empire. There was some resistance: then Chairman, Peter Hill-Wood, famously said, “We don’t want his sort,” but, soon enough, Kroenke was the majority share-holder.
I was impressed by Wenger’s calm in the midst of this on-pitch and backroom maelstorm; His faith that, with enhanced revenues from the new stadium (and CL participation) plus developing young and highly skilled players–Arsenal could weather it, intrigued me. Of course, all around me, even then, were plenty of Gooners lamenting the premature break-up of the Invincibles, too many new (and often dark-skinned) foreign players, and the fact that the gleaming (but sterile) new stadium wasn’t producing good results–on its perfectly smooth pitch–where it mattered most. My family and I had to return to the States on December 2nd of that year which also happened to be the first North London Derby at the Emirates. Luckily, Arsenal won it in convincing fashion. Later, also in the new stadium, they would beat the eventual league champion, Manchester United, to complete a league double. The first season in the new stadium was a disappointment, but there were signs of promise.
The following year, even as Henry departed for Barcelona, the club reinforced with more value-for-money buys (Eduardo, Bacary Sagna) and the team came even closer, leading the league for much of the season until Eduardo’s brutal injury at Birmingham (followed by a run of nil-nil draws) derailed the title chase. That was in the Spring of 2007. The following year Arsenal weren’t as strong in domestic play but made it as far as the semi-finals of the Champions League before being well beaten by ManU who went on to win an all-England final over Chelsea.
Another thing happened during that season: the global economic crisis and the collapse of the real estate bubble. Suddenly the value of the Arsenal’s residential project at the old Highbury ground tumbled, costing the club an estimated 100 million pounds. Surely many Arsenal supporters also had to endure set-backs in their personal finances while already exorbitant ticket prices crept up. Meanwhile, the aforementioned Prince Mansour of Abu Dhaby bought ManCity. Like Roman Abramovich at Chelsea, he was a man who commanded a fortune of well over 10 Billion pounds. City cost just over 200 million, a pittance by comparison.
It could be argued that Arsenal actually benefitted from the prince’s largess. (“You’re our feeder team,” goes the chant.) Adebayor, (Kolo) Toure, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri netted Arsenal good money in the coming years. A more painful loss occurred when Bacary Sagna (several seasons later) ran down his contract then signed for City at wages we refused to match. We also lost significant talent to Barcelona; Henry went in the summer of 2007, Hleb in 2008. Fabregas, Alex Song and Thomas Vermaelen were all sold to the Catalan club in the first half of the current decade.
As the global economy slowly (very slowly) got back on its feet and–perhaps as a harbinger of future political trends–English football began to look inward, adopting a homegrown player rule in 2010. Wenger, with his eye on the bottom line–much as Kroenke’s were (the majority shareholder hardly watched the football)–responded by buying ever younger players (who could count as “home-grown” in the first team if they’d been at the club long enough) and English ones in particular. The massive “Britcore” banner on the side of the Emirates came in 2012 and featured Jack Wilshere, Aaron Ramsey, Kieran Gibbs, Theo Walcott, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Carl Jenkinson. Others would follow, including the likes of Callum Chambers, Danny Welbeck and Rob Holding. Some of the youngsters came good, Hector Bellerin, a cast off from La Masia, the Barcelona academy, stands out, while others like Francis Coquelin found roles after loan spells elsewhere. Still others came from well off the radar. Laurent Koscielny was an unknown when he arrived in 2010 but is now regarded as one of the best defenders in England, for example.
When needs were extreme Wenger bought veterans and even brought back former Gunners (Henry, Sol Campbell Jens Lehmann) as stop-gaps. Future team captains Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta came the summer Nasri and Fabregas left and were instrumental in bringing us up from a real low point, the 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford and eventually moving us toward another top 4 finish in 2011-12. Another big blow came a year later when Robin van Persie left for Manchester United and helped them win Sir Alex Ferguson’s final title there. Again a pair of older players, Santi Cazorla and Olivier Giroud, were brought in as fillips and again Arsenal were able to retain their CL spot with another top 4 finish.
It was all too repetitive for the support and the terrace chant of “Spend some F**king Money” was heard more and more. Finally, in the summer of 2013 Wenger did just that. As Real Madrid plucked Gareth Bale from our neighbors to the north, Wenger took from the taker, spending half as much to acquire Mesut Ozil from the merengues. Still, 50 million Euros was the English record (at the time) for a transfer. Arsenal were back in the game.
Except they weren’t. Ozil, a master of filling empty spaces and finding decisive through-balls, was the antithesis of the hard-nosed English player. He did not tackle and he looked to pass before he’d dribble or shoot. It wasn’t long before the Daily Mail’s Neil Ashton famously accused him of “nicking a living.” An early season injury didn’t help, but, when Ozil returned towards the end of the season, the team got up for 4th and claimed their first trophy in nine seasons, Wenger’s fifth FA Cup.
The following summer, Wenger brought in another pricey player who looked more the part, the Chilean Alexis Sanchez. Alexis, cast off from Barcelona when they acquired Luis Suarez from Liverpool, seemed a player whose obvious enthusiasm for the game, tireless running and direct, me-first attitude might better suit the English game. Again, however, the league season fell apart and for the 5th time in as many years, Arsenal exited the Champions League in the round of 16. Another top 4 finish and another FA Cup (a record 12th for the club and 6th for Wenger) hardly mollified the crowd. Boring, boring Arsenal–sung originally (and ironically) for 1-nil wins–was now a damning subtext for the club. Ennui is how it’s spelled in Wenger’s first language. Even last season’s 2nd place finish, our best in the Emirates era, was considered unacceptable because we’d failed to take advantage of our rivals’ weaknesses. In the wake of lowly Leicester City’s miracle season and another tame exit from the CL (and an even worse one, at home, to Watford, in the FA Cup) it felt even worse. This season offered promise after some expensive additions over the summer–Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi and Lucas Perez together cost over 80 millions pounds– but Gooners have seen another title chase fade away alongside another round of 16 exit in the CL, this time by the humiliating score of 10-2 (on aggregate) to Bayern Munich.
Now Wenger and his team face a hostile crowd–their own supporters as well as their opponents’–each and every time they kick off. Current results are the worst in the Wenger era and the pressure grows with each match. Meanwhile, Ozil and Alexis won’t sign new contracts as their old ones near their end. Calls for Wenger’s sacking are louder than ever but nobody at the club–except the manager himself–seems to have the power to make that call. A new contract is on the table–or already signed–but a top 4 finish seems hard to imagine given the current toxic atmosphere and the form of the team. Arsenal have by far the toughest run-in of the top 6 teams and they may face an even tougher challenge in the FA cup. They’ve made the semi-finals and earned a trip to Wembley but face ManCity, currently 3rd in the league. If they pass that test it will be a final vs either Spurs or Chelsea, currently the top 2 in the table.
It all seems very, very tragic. Not only the current state of the football–and relations between the club and its fan-base–but the failure of the promise Wenger and Arsenal seemed to represent back in 2006.
Has Wenger been the maker of his own demise? Was his vision flawed–at least for the post new stadium era–from the start? Does the global economic downturn just as billions of foreign money flowed into the English game play a role? What about just plain bad luck? Has it been injuries, tough draws in the tournaments, bad bounces at critical moments? What about the refs? Are all results fair or could there be an anti-Arsenal (or Anti-Wenger) bias that creeps in, perhaps because of the manager being one of the first from a different country and his insistence on a new footballing culture? What about outright corruption? If Russia and Qatar can buy themselves World Cups, why can’t a Russian Oligarch or the Prince of an Emirate buy a trophy or three?
It’s all in the eye of the beholder, most probably. I’m a staunch Wenger supporter (and/or apologist) but I cannot see his tenure at the club ending happily. To me, that doesn’t mean his vision was a bad one. Sometimes things just don’t quite work out–or fate conspires the best laid plans to failure–but that doesn’t mean they weren’t worth pursuing or that the dream was wrong.
What’s your take?