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Missed opportunities: sentimentalism and cold hard rationality in the Arsene Wenger debate

Many predicted that the FA Cup final would be Arsene Wenger’s last game in charge of the club he has managed since 1996. Yet just days afterwards he signed a new two year contract. The Wenger reign is set to continue, despite the club missing out on Champions League qualification for the first time in 20 years.

Many pundits criticise those Arsenal fans who say ‘Wenger Out’. They are accused of being ‘entitled’, of greedily demanding Premier League titles and not appreciating the stability he brings to the club. Yet these Arsenal fans are right to expect more from their club. Several times in the past 10 years, Arsenal have been one or two good signings away from winning the title.

“If you stand still in football, you get overtaken”

We became familiar with the typical Arsenal season – a strong first half of the season creating the possibility of a title win before a late collapse, salvaged only by yet another 4th place finish. This season even that was not achieved, and the only consolation was the FA cup win. A 5th place finish and a domestic cup is not good enough for a club of Arsenal’s stature, and the owners should have taken the opportunity to make a change.

It is a missed opportunity for Wenger himself too. While Arsenal’s season overall must go down as a failure, they ended it on a high with the Wembley victory over Chelsea. The club and the fans were in high spirits and Wenger could have left having delivered one more piece of silverware. Yet now he has signed that new two year contract, and unless he improves the club in these next two seasons, he may end his reign shrouded in disappointment.

For too long now, Arsenal have stood still under Wenger. Achieving Champions League qualification every season takes some doing, but it should be a platform for greater success rather than the peak of the club’s achievement. There is not much value in being in the Champions League every season if you never progress further than the last 16 stage, as Arsenal have not done so since 2010.

There seems to be no desire amongst the Arsenal hierarchy to improve the club’s performance on the pitch. They seem content with the status quo of finishing 4th every season and perhaps winning a domestic cup now and then. It is no surprise that many Arsenal fans want more than this. Arsenal do not have to win the Premier League or Champions League to be successful, but they should at least be trying to do so.

If you stand still in football, you get overtaken, as shown this season when the 4th place fans had come to expect was not achieved. Even Tottenham have overtaken Arsenal, and this year there was no St Totteringham’s Day.

Wenger has not gone this season, and when will he go? What will it take for the club’s ownership to realise that Wenger is not as good as he used to be? If Arsenal were to have a really mediocre season, perhaps finishing 6th or 7th (not impossible given the current level of competitiveness amongst the top teams in the premier league) then Wenger would surely get the sack, but why wait for a disastrous season to get rid of him? He has been at the club’s helm for so long that for many he is part of it, and it is hard to imagine Arsenal without Arsene.

Yet the club has to move on from the Frenchman eventually. The end of this season was the perfect time to do so. It seems that Arsenal may be waiting for the perfect time to end Wenger’s reign, yet this may never come about. Sooner or later they must take the plunge and get a new manager. By waiting this long they have missed the chance to appoint one of several very capable candidates such as Jurgen Klopp and Diego Simeone. The club should have a plan in place for when Wenger leaves. If they do not then that shows a lack of foresight from the club’s hierarchy.

It is natural to be sentimental about a man who has done so much for the club. But when it comes to making key decisions such as the man in charge of the team, cold hard rationality is required. Only time will tell whether Arsenal’s owners have made the right decision to let Wenger stay on, but that new contract could have been a missed opportunity to start a new era.

Thomas Hughes

Featured image courtesy of ‘Ronnie Macdonald’ via Flickr. License here.

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