”Are you Wenger in or Wenger out?” It’s the question that all Arsenal fans find themselves face to face with eventually. Both sides are as passionate about where they stand as they are sure that the other side is wrong. The feeling amongst the supporters is one of frustration and disappointment, creating a tense and nervous atmosphere at the Emirates, and, really, wherever fans gather. Even one misplaced pass or botched goalscoring opportunity make the supporters howl in anger. And whilst supporters – at the match, in the pub, or online – will thoroughly dissect team performance, players’ fitness levels and possible new signings, they inevitably land on Arsène Wenger.
Wenger’s time as Arsenal manager is unique in top flight football. Not only do his 20 years at the club make him the longest serving manager (by far!) in the Premier League but also one of the most successful, with multiple FA Cup wins, several league titles, and, of course, the unbeaten season under his belt.
Lately, however, the trophies have dried up and, as opposition fans and journalists alike enjoy pointing out, there have been 12 long seasons since the last league title. Not even the two consecutive FA Cup trophies have quite quenched the thirst for the elusive Premier League title.
Sometimes it’s forgotten that the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium meant money would be tight, and both Wenger and the fans were well aware of this. Wenger put a lot of time and energy into cultivating young players, rather than buying ready-made stars. Sometimes it worked (Cesc Fàbregas), sometimes it didn’t (Justin Hoyte), but when it did, it proved that the club’s biggest problem was how to keep them. Season after season Arsenal fans saw their brightest stars move on to clubs such as Barcelona, Manchester City and, maybe the biggest blow of all, Manchester United.
But lack of funds can no longer be used as an excuse. There is no doubt there is money at the club; the finances are amongst the healthiest in the Premier League, and with each season the so-called ”war chest” is growing. The signings of players such as Mesut Özil, Alexis Sánchez and Petr Čech have each given supporters hope. In fact, many thought this was going to be Arsenal’s year, that they would build on the FA Cup win last season and, finally, launch a proper challenge for the league title.
When the season started off with Chelsea in freefall and the rest of the expected top teams stumbling, the feeling that this would be Arsenal’s year only deepened. Unfortunately, Arsenal didn’t get the memo. A rocky start was followed up by an equally rocky Christmas period and, as has been made even clearer over the past few weeks, the team have struggled to keep any sort of consistency in their game.
Whilst a few ups and downs might be excused, or under the weight of such expectation even
expected, the frustration amongst the fans has reached new levels of late. Instead of building on that FA Cup success, the general feeling is that the team have taken several steps backward. The possibility that fourth place may slip from Arsenal’s grasp doesn’t help matters.
These days it’s not uncommon to hear boos at the final whistle at the Emirates. Arsenal fans are growing frustrated and angry with the lack of will and fight shown by the team. There are probably as many theories on what is wrong with the team as there are Arsenal supporters around. But whether or not you are a ”Wenger in” or ”Wenger out” kind of fan, it seems as if most can agree that something needs to be done.
But does it? There are few clubs to have ever displayed such consistency when it comes to top four finishes. Sure, there hasn’t been a league title in years – nearly 12, remember? – , but that goes for most clubs. So why do Arsenal supporters feel like anything but a Premier League trophy is a failure?
Perhaps because Arsenal have come so close over the past few years but not managed to go all the way. Or perhaps because the team has improved, but not enough for these fans. Perhaps because the club have been able to sign better players, but not for the positions the supporters are craving. In the end, despite the rather stable top four finishes, it’s a long time since Arsenal were involved in a title race late into the spring.
Going for the league title seems like a logical next step, but the question is whether or not the board see it that way. Many supporters are worried that for Stanley “Stan” Kroenke, as the majority owner of Arsenal, a stable and financially sound club is more important than winning trophies. They might be right. Kroenke is not a football fan but a businessman, and as such he will never understand what drives devoted supporters. For a businessman, Arsène Wenger makes sense. He’s safe, he’s stable, and he provides an almost-guaranteed top four finish.
So even if more and more supporters think it’s time for a change, it isn’t likely that the board and Kroenke agree. Wenger is an integral part of Arsenal and replacing him wouldn’t be as straightforward as replacing the manager at most clubs. During his time at Arsenal the club, the English league and the whole game has changed massively. Changes would need to be made, changes at the highest levels, changes to the integrity of the club’s very structure. Replacing Wenger isn’t necessarily the quick fix that those calling for change might hope it to be.
Removing someone who is so deeply rooted in the club cannot be a painless procedure. Wenger, after all, helped build modern-day Arsenal Football Club. Wary Arsenal supporters, those on the “Wenger In” side of the debate, point toward Manchester as a cautionary tale. Manchester United did what they could to prepare themselves for Alex Ferguson’s departure, but nobody was able to accurately predict the effect of his stepping down. Many fear the same will happen to Arsenal when the time comes for Arsène Wenger’s departure.
Those who back Wenger will point to the consistent top four finishes and the club’s financial gains, rationalizing that Arsenal are now defined by their sense of stability and security. Yet others argue that this dependency on Wenger leaves the club vulnerable.
The fact that Arsenal, once again, are out of the title race, in a season when Leicester City are comfortably on top, is often chalked up to Wenger’s failures. So is Arsenal’s tendency to choke when they have everything to play for is another. Those who want to keep the manager, however, claim that the risk is far greater than the possible reward. They argue that it would be wrong to throw away years of stability and continuity on the off chance that someone else would be able to bring the team all the way to the title.
Is Arsène Wenger the man to bring that coveted Premier League trophy back to Arsenal? What will happen the day after he says his goodbyes to the club? Who could possibly be the right person to replace him? What would it mean to have someone else at the helm that isn’t as invested and involved in all aspects of the club as Wenger has become? Is the club really ready for the gamble it would unquestionably be to replace him?
Really, it all boils down to one question – ”Are you Wenger in or Wenger out?”