Arsene Wenger is the longest serving manager in the Premier League. His tenure at Arsenal has seen a sustained level of success and quality of play that is only rivaled by Bob Paisley or Alex Ferguson. So why are Arsenal fans ready to end the Frenchman’s twenty-year stay at the London club? More importantly, why are they right?
Arsenal have won the FA Cup twice in the last three years. They haven’t finished outside of the Top Four since Wenger took over the club in 1996. In the twenty years that Wenger has been in charge of Arsenal, they have won the league three times, in 1997/98, 2001/02, and 2003/04. They have also won the FA Cup five times. These all sound like reasons he should be kept, right? Well, maybe not. The grand majority of these honors have come at the beginning of Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal. The sad fact is, Arsenal haven’t placed higher than 3rd since 2005/06, and until they won the FA Cup in 2013/14, they didn’t win a single competition. While it can be argued that Wenger kept Arsenal competitive, there was a growing sense that qualifying for the Champions League every year was enough.
This is the crux of the argument against Wenger. It has become clear that over the last decade, the team hasn’t evolved, or even vastly improved. They may challenge for the League title every year, but that is generally for about a month in the middle of the season. Arsenal usually fall away from the leading pack as the end of the season nears, dropping to 3rd or 4th and maintaining just enough form to stay there. From a team that displays tactical brilliance and technical excellence, they devolve into solid mediocrity as soon as they have a real shot at the league. This mental fragility has been a hallmark of Wenger’s teams since the mid-2000’s.
This season especially they should have won the Premier League. Every other team that traditionally would have challenge them are struggling. Arsenal also picked up a top quality goalkeeper, Petr Cech, which was a position that has dogged them for years. The old curse of Arsenal, injuries, wasn’t even that much of a factor this year. They actually have had the 7th least amount of injuries this season. If they were able to just find some level of consistency, the title was theirs. This might be the most bitter pill to swallow. Seeing Chelsea dropping to near relegation form for much of the season and Manchester City apathetically struggling to find consistent form, this season was Arsenal’s for the taking. Instead, they now find themselves in 4th, behind Manchester City, with the possibility of not even finishing within the Top Four for the first time in Wenger’s tenure.
The most damning fact for Wenger, however, is the team’s performance in Europe. While they may have been in the Champions League every year that Wenger has been in charge, they have only made it to the final twice, losing both times (in 1999/2000 and 2005/06). Since 2005/06, Arsenal have only made it past the Round of 16 three times, and they haven’t made it out of that stage since the 2009/10 season. For a team that has comfortably finished in European positions every year, it is a terrible truth that they have only challenged for a European title twice in the last twenty years. Instead, they have become perennial also-rans, and even that is becoming less and less likely. Now, we have a team that often just kind of there, like that friend you invite to the party because you have to. For a team of Arsenal’s history and supposed ambitions, this is not even close to being good enough.
Ultimately, Wenger has a lot of control at the club. He earned it through his early achievements, but he it has left him with nobody to blame but himself. Giving a great deal of control to the manager can be a double edged sword, great when things are good but terrible when they are not. Right now, we are seeing the worst of what Wenger has to offer. Despite now having plenty of cash at his disposal, he is unwilling to go into the transfer market to strengthen his squad, a squad that has clear issues. Then you have the tactical stubbornness, leading to the longest standing criticism of Wenger — his team never has a Plan B. You also have the faltering results, or the lack of growth in the team. Finally, there is what appears to be a falling out between Wenger and the fans. Call it complacency, call it stagnancy, but the truth is, Arsenal need a shock to the system if they don’t want to fall to the wayside. If they don’t, Arsenal risk falling behind their rivals for the foreseeable future.