27 March 2014

The Token Englishman: How Far Does Loyalty Extend?

Controversial content alert: this article contains some thoughts that are likely to provoke outrage; please remember when reading that these are musings, and not necessarily my own beliefs.
Arsene Wenger had little to celebrate during his big week
(CC Licence / Wikipedia)

1,000 games is a long time to spend at one club. Only four managers have ever done it in English football. It shows (and requires) loyalty and respect from 4 parties: the club, the manager, the players and the fans. Managerial stability is something very few clubs can lay claim to - look at the situation across North London - but at what point do the parties involved look at each other and decide to call it a day?

Look, this is somewhat of a 'hot sports take', after Arsene Wenger failed to win games 1,000 and 1,001 of his Arsenal career. I'm not calling for his head at all, but I'm hardly at the wheel of the In Arsene We Trust bandwagon; I'm just voicing some thoughts and hoping to inspire a conversation (which I'm sure others have had).

The defeat against Chelsea was painful, especially when you look at the deeper trend - Le Prof has a record of 1-1-13 against top-4 clubs in the Premier League over the last 5 seasons. Yes, that's 1 win and 13 defeats, with just FOUR points from a possible 45. With Manchester City visiting this weekend, that miserable run has a good chance of continuing, unless the manager and players really pull their s**t together and give a 90 minute performance the fans can be proud of. With a trip to Goodison Park coming up and Everton just 6 points behind with a game in hand, Arsenal must surely be looking over their shoulders and wondering if their streak of Champions league appearances will soon be over.

The recent struggles in the league should be weighed against the Club's progression to the FA Cup semi-finals, and with a weak (on paper) final four in that competition, hopes and expectations are high that Wenger can lead his charges to glory at Wembley, thus ending a 9-year barren streak. Surely, though, failure in that competition and would leave Arsene on thin ice and begin to see a bigger section of fans questioning his management - and maybe even calling for him to leave - especially if it were coupled with failure to secure the "other trophy": Champions League qualification. That scenario would put the most pressure on the board, as well as giving talking head types all the ammo they want to create and manipulative the narrative on Arsene Wenger's time at Arsenal.

Of course, there is the very real possibility that removing a manager who has bought so much success and stability to a club over his long stay there will see that club sink down the table and fail to qualify for even the Europa League (see: Manchester United). There isn't really a manager of quality out there to replace Wenger. Pundits and fans alike often talk of Roberto Martinez, but despite his brilliant work with both Wigan and Everton, he hasn't managed a top club, or in a European competition; Steve Bould hasn't got the experience to move along the bench; it's unlikely that a club hero - the Dennis Bergkamp or Thierry Henry type - is going to walk through the door; and managers at the major European clubs are likely to stay where they are this summer.1

Rumors have it that the Boss has agreed a two-year deal in principle, and that all he needs to do is put his John Hancock on the paperwork. This seems like a fair extension for a manager who has done so much for the Club, but a popular alternative being floated by some fans is a one-year rolling deal. This would allow either the Club or Wenger to exit the contract without any contractual or financial difficulties, and would likely include several performance requirements for renewal each season. The main issue with a contract like that is there would be no stability in the dressing room, with players always wondering who they could be playing for next season.

I'm on the side of keeping Arsene at the Club, and think he deserves to retire in red and white; but I'm also on the side of wanting more from the club I support than a succession of 4th-place finishes. On reflection of the season so far, most fans would be happy with the FA Cup and CL football, though there was the promise of so much more at the halfway mark of the season. And of course, now that Arsenal have some money to spend in the transfer market, Wenger deserves the chance to add to his squad and take on the teams that have bought their way to the title in recent years, and prove his critics wrong.

Two questions have to stick in the mind, though. How long is too long without silverware? And how many demolitions at the hands of title rivals can a manage endure?

1 With the possible exceptions of Carlo Ancelotti, whose Real Madrid side may have thrown away La Liga from a very strong position, and Jurgen Klopp, who must be getting pissed at Bayern stealing his best players every summer - and not even receiving a euro in compensation!

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