The problem, as Jonathan Wilson writes, is that Arsene Wenger can be frustratingly quixotic at times.
A man of ideals, Arsene Wenger is a genius in his own right. Two doubles and an undefeated league campaign attest to that. He has also been a pioneer in more than just tactics. Pre-game squad preparation and selection, youth development, aspects of scouting (in particular international scouting) and player nutrition were all pioneered in England by the Frenchman. Indeed, it is sometimes said that Wenger’s successes at Arsenal opened the door for the influx of foreign managers into the English game as English clubs became more trusting of their methods.
But now, his revolutionary methods are no longer his advantage. Everyone else is scouting internationally, youth academies have taken special significance, as has game preparation and player nutrition. In fact, it’s not just that everyone is doing them, it’s that some are doing it better than him.
Still though, Wenger sticks to his ideals.
Not that his ideals are wrong anyway. Those same ideals have meant that considering the squad he has, and the players he keeps losing to other clubs, Champions League Qualification has been a constant at Arsenal for the past 15 years. That in itself is no mean feat.
Yet you can’t help but wonder whether the situation at Arsenal is a product of changing circumstances in world football, or a slight neglect on Wenger’s part to make things a little bit better. Or a combination of both.
Because now, Wenger’s ideals, purist in nature as they may be, seem to have reached the fundamentalist level that leads to obscuring reality. Wenger now lives in a small little world where ‘ought’ has overtaken ‘is’. Where what ‘should happen‘ matters more to him than what ‘actually does happen‘.
Hence the question begs, has Arsene Wenger outlived his usefulness?
Yes, – but ultimately not yet.
The reason Wenger remains Arsenal manager is not his successes of the past, or his ability to balance the books. It is because above all else, Wenger has set about a philosophy for which Arsenal can be associated with.
Is winning all that matters?
Cesar Luis Menotti, Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning manager once said at a Coaches’ conference,
“ …to those that say that all that matters is winning, I want to warn them that someone always wins. Therefore, in a 30-team Championship, there are 29 who must ask themselves; what did I leave at this club, what did I bring to my players, what possibility of growth did I give to my footballers? …”
That is what Wenger has done so splendidly every season. Win or not, Arsenal always leave us admiring that beautiful football that they play. Season in season out they provide the simplest pleasure of football: a pleasure that transcends age, culture and club affiliations. The pleasure that rather than winning, football is first, and simply, a game to be played. And played in the most beautiful of fashions.
Passing and keeping possession has become their mainstay. It is something that is now universally recognisable with them. That is down to Wenger and the approach that he has taken at the club.
However, in the end, success validates any approach.
These were the words used by Xavi Hernandez in an interview for The Guardian. Xavi’s club, FC Barcelona, is also another club associated with passing and possession. But then, the many trophies they have amassed have come to show that beautiful football can also be efficient. That it can be a means to a winning end.
For where many would fall short when in comparison to Barcelona’s template, not many would be as similarly close as Arsenal in terms of style. Yet their fortunes are strikingly dissimilar.
That is why the question continues to linger as to whether Wenger should still be Arsenal’s manager. Because for the past 7 years at least, Arsenal haven’t won anything with their philosophy.
Patience and Continuity
That however is no reason to stop believing in it. Philosophies take years to develop. Time is a constant ingredient, and patience must accompany it, and continue to do so if it is to bear fruit.
Alongside time however, generational continuity is required for a philosophy to truly succeed. Continuity that follows long after the master has left. For after Socrates, there was Plato, then Aristotle. Each borrowed on his master’s philosophy, but used their own genius to further the success of the philosophy.
That has also happened in football. One manager sets the philosophy, while another continues it by establishing a winning culture. For Liverpool, it was Bill Shankly and Bob Paisley. For Barcelona, Johan Cruijff and Pep Guardiola. And for Manchester United, Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson.
Arsene Wenger has already done his bit. He has set the philosophy for which Arsenal are now associated with. But maybe now, Arsenal need someone else to turn that philosophy into a winning culture. It may be immediate, as was in Liverpool’s case, or it may take years to find the next genius who will take the philosophy to the next level, as was with Barcelona and Manchester United.
And that is the real hurdle. Sacking Wenger and appointing the wrong manager may end in catastrophy. As Liverpool have found out in recent years, constantly hiring managers who do not understand the club’s philosophy may lead to confusion. Confusion as to the club’s strengths, aims and direction.
This is why keeping Wenger around is for the short term the safe option. Arsenal should however realise that in the long term, Wenger’s place is no longer as manager, but as an advisor and mentor to whoever comes in after him. Whether it is as a director at the club or in an unofficial capacity as Cruijff preferred at Barcelona is an issue that still needs resolving. Wenger may have outlived his usefulness at Arsenal – but just, not, quite, yet.