11 December 2014

Thursday Throwdown: In Arsène We Trust, Or Rust?

This post came about because I wanted a better place than Facebook and Twitter to express my opinions regarding Arsène Wenger and the board. I thought that if I wrote on my own, I was bound to invite rage and invective on to myself, because I am in the "Wenger Out" camp [I made the unilateral decision to call the two sides of the divide the AKBs and WOBs (Arsène Knows Best and Wenger Out Brigade, respectively). While these are far from ideal terms, they are known terms, quicker to write and easier to use to refer to the two main fan factions.] However, my thoughts and opinions are far more complex than that, so I thought it would be best to have a "friendly" discussion with my regular Throwdown partner Andy. Andy is generally more positive than I am, so hopefully we can balance each other out and actually explore the issues, rather than it becoming a slagging match like those seen on social media. I am not trying to be inflammatory or controversial for the sake of it; I'm sure Andy is in the same boat. While I've been vocal, both at Lir and online - sometimes in a snarky manner - all I'm trying to do here with Andy's help is explore the issues at hand.

This sight has become too common for many Gooners.
(Credit: The Herald)
Sam: After an inconsistent season, and following the boos Arsène Wenger received after the Stoke match, the voices calling for a change at Arsenal have never been louder. The Arsenal fan base is splitting in two, with both sides preferring to shout at each other in and outside of stadiums and on social media, with some fans actually coming to blows over their opposing opinions. Right off the bat, I'm going to say that I think Wenger should leave; more accurately, I think the best time for him to leave would have been after the FA Cup win. He would have left with his dignity in tact, and with fond memories and the best wishes from all fans as he'd finally ended the infamous trophy drought. These opinions started some time in January this year; at about the 20th minute in the Liverpool game, as the Scouser fourth goal hit the back of the net, I came to the conclusion that our title challenge was probably already over, and my opinion became concrete. However, I will admit that it's much more complex than just saying "Wenger Out" on Twitter or Facebook after every defeat or poor performance.

Having said all that, Andy: where do you stand on this divisive issue?

Andy: As you accurately said in your introduction, I am much more of a Wenger apologist and I remain of the mind that he is the best manager for the Arsenal at this time. Let it also be said up front that supporting Wenger and being blind to his faults do not go hand-in-hand. I have been critical of some things that Arsene has done and will be in the future I'm sure. But I believe that it is possible to find fault with some of his work while still seeing him as a fantastic manager and an Arsenal legend.

That distinction between constructive criticism and the "off with his head" attitude is at the heart of my dislike of the #WengerOut crowd. I know that if I was to go in-depth with each person calling for the manager's resignation that I would hear plenty of nuanced, well reasoned opinions, and that is part of the reason we are having this conversation in the first place. However I can't help but have an immediate, visceral reaction each time I see someone pipe up about how Wenger doesn't have a clue about tactics, or how the game has passed him by, or how he was arrogant to come back and manage again this year. The off-the-cuff snark and extreme pessimism toward a man that has brought this club unparalleled success and prosperity still baffles and infuriates me.

Sam: To answer your first point: you're not wrong for thinking that. But there is a perception that anyone who wants Wenger out of a job hates the man himself and doesn't support the Club. So the flip side of your argument - that you can support the manager while still acknowledging his flaws - should be that you can support your club, but still want more from it. The supposition that WOBs are going against the Club is far from the truth; I've supported Arsenal my whole life, and in that time I've seen the best era of the Club's history. So when someone says that they think we should be doing better than finishing 4th 6 times in the last 9 seasons, no one should be questioning that person's support. Part of supporting a team is wanting them to win. For me, 4th place and one Cup in nine years is not winning.

There also seems to be an idea that anyone in the WOB is showing Arsène no respect; in my case, at least, that also is untrue. No one should ever forget that this is the man that gave us 2 Doubles, the Invincibles and a (sadly unsuccessful) run to the Champions League Final. He also signed the greatest player in the Club's history, and managed my favorite player ever (Dennis Bergkamp), as well as giving us players like Pires, Ljungberg, Vieira, Sanchez, Özil, etc.

Here's the thing though. For me, and I think many others, "Wenger Out" is an easy, catch-all term for my frustrations at the whole club. It's not just one man who is the problem; what are your opinions on the Club's board?

Andy: If the Wenger Out sentiment was displayed with that kind of nuance then I would be much more accepting of it. I agree that there is nothing wrong with wanting your club to be better than it is, especially if it should be. Arsenal is one of the richest, most prestigious clubs in the world (thanks in no small part to one Arsène Wenger) and it is frustrating that we are stuck in this rut of finishing in third or fourth without truly challenging for the title along the way. I am not one of the people who say things like "you should be happy with fourth, a team like West Ham would kill for that kind of success" because it's a very defeatist attitude. Yes, fourth would be great for lots of clubs but if this particular club has the resources and structure to do better, then they should be held to a higher standard. We are on the same page regarding what Arsenal should be trying to do.

Where I have a problem with #WengerOut as a general "movement" is that because it is the alternative to the status quo, and because certain people at the heart of it have fallen a little too in love with their self image as rebels and iconoclasts, its very nature is one of antagonism and outcry. After all, how are they supposed to change anything if they talk quietly and politely? But because this point of view has to be aggressive and loud, I find myself quick to become annoyed when the ideas are presented in catchphrases and blurbs, and how everything seems to be an indictment on Wenger and his time with the club. I understand that to a degree this is unfair because I'm criticizing an opinion for acting in the way it has to act due to the role it has accepted, but it doesn't make the criticism any less valid.

Stan Kroenke is also the target of a lot of anger.
(Credit: ZeeNews India)
I do understand that #WengerOut has become a general term for dissatisfaction with how the club is being run as a whole, I just find that to be unfair to the man himself. To answer your question, my problems with the board are mostly with Stan Kroenke in particular. It of course is naive to expect a billion dollar company to act like a down home, local sports club, but I could do with it being at least a little less apparent that Arsenal is a way for Kroenke to print money. I wish it was owned and run by people who were more obviously fans of the Gunners and not just the money that the club brings in. I think it's necessary to have businessmen like Ivan Gazidis in order to stay competitive with the truly moneyed clubs in the Premier League, I just wish there was also more of a connection to the fans who give their support.

Is this a reasonable stance to have? Can I have my issues with the board and how things are run while also wishing that the opposition to the current rule would express itself diplomatically and intelligently rather than (in my eyes) the reactionary and loudmouthed way it is behaving now? I fear that I'm trying to have my cake and eat it too.

Sam: You make a good point about the rebellious aspect of #WengerOut, and the way it makes us WOBs seem to be louder. But this in itself causes escalation, because certain members of the AKB faction then raise their voices to meet, or overpower, the boos, and then, of course, tempers get lost and the division in the fan base becomes wider. It doesn't help things when both sides scream invective at each other. Too often on social media, people use the arguments of their side of the divide to show 'how much they support the Club'. "You're an idiot if you think Wenger should still be in a job." "I support the manager so I'm a better fan than you." These seem to be the general subtexts of a lot of arguments, which of course just feeds the fires and makes each statement come with more hatred than the one before it.

Sidebar: I don't subscribe to the argument that the fans need to be united behind the Club. How many of the so called "bigger" clubs actually have 100% unity in their fan base? Maybe Chelsea, Man City, Bayern, Barcelona, Juventus and Real Madrid. (This doesn't include clubs like Stoke or Swansea who don't have the expectations that a club like Arsenal does.) The common denominator there? Winning. If Arsenal actually showed they could consistently win trophies, or even maintain a "title challenge" past March (sidebar to sidebar: I think a title challenge is only that if you're going in to the last 3 or 4 games of the season with a chance to win it all, not collapsing after 2/3rds of a season), then maybe there'd be better unity. In England alone, Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham's fan bases will have sections that still support their clubs, but aren't happy with results. Just like us Gooners.

To answer your questions in order: Yes. I agree with you entirely on the board. No one involved seems to care as long as they are getting their yearly bonuses and dividends. There's a real problem when the Club Chairman, to paraphrase the man himself, says that whether Wenger has a plan or not, they won't question him on his results.

And yes to your second question, too. But that has to work both ways. The respect has to be mutual, and come from those who are still giving their support to the manager. There's no need to get sarcastic or angry when you (generic you, not you Andy!) reply to someone. I commented on a Boston Gooners Facebook post earlier this week (which quickly got out of hand) that everyone has the right to their opinions and should be free to voice those. Now I don't mean to be snarky here, and forgive me if I'm wrong, but isn't free speech one of the basic tenets of any democratic society? In fact, I believe it's a part of the document that this nation is built on. (OK, that was a really snarky, English thing to say. But it's true in my country too.) Yet there are certain factions who think that the WOBs should never be allowed to speak out. So it's OK to express your positive support, but negative opinions and criticisms aren't welcome? A lot of people questioned the banner that was raised at West Brom after our win there, saying that it shouldn't have been raised after a win. Well when else? If it came after a loss, everyone involved would have been accused of being too reactionary, or someone would have said that it was no proper way to support the Club. It seems like whatever people on my side of the divide do, we are always in the wrong.

If that seemed angry or direct or whatever, then I apologize. I'm just trying to voice the opinions that have come out in discussions with people that agree with me, and from what I, and others, have experienced on social media and in person for having a dissenting opinion.

Andy: This point in the article would be an excellent time to insert any Randy Marsh "what, I thought this was America?" pictures.
People telling us what we can say and when?

I don't disagree with you on this, though my philosophical objections to the WOB point of view do make it a little more difficult to go all Voltaire about your right to say what you want. For me, though I have no interest in curtailing anyone's rights to speak about the direction of the club, I reflexively bristle to the Wenger Out demands in part because of the nature of the movement as I discussed before. It's not that I don't want people with that opinion to bring it up, it's that I know that I will be immediately annoyed by it, due both to the content itself and the aggressive way that it has to be presented. Perhaps it's not the healthy thing to do but I don't really engage in the argument that much anymore because I know going in that I'm going to be frustrated by it and, go figure, I don't want to intentionally frustrate myself. It then becomes easy to mentally lump all WOB opinions into the category of whiners and complainers, even though the core of their argument is similar to plenty of things that I've thought myself before. You don't have to be part of the the camp that wants Arsène gone to see his missteps in transfer policy, questionable tactical moves, and so forth, and to complain about those things with the hopes of having them corrected.

For me, that is what this boils down to and the obvious difference between the sides. One side no longer thinks Wenger can or will change in order to fix his mistakes and the other side has faith in him to right the ship. I know that sounds like a very obvious statement to make but the difference is what colors the entire conversation because the WOB crowd needs to agitate for change without seeming disrespectful while the "In Arsene We Trust" camp (myself obviously included) plays the part of the overly patient lover saying "he can change, just give him time!" The psychology in each side is heavily influenced by their feelings for one man and therefore the argument can get very defensive or overly aggressive quick. That's of course not to say we shouldn't have it, but more to clarify why it's such a touchy subject. For the people who want Arsène to stay, there's a lot of emotion tied up into him and his tenure with the club. It's about the hope that this man, this absolute legend in football, is able to see the ways in which he has erred and change things going forward for the better, and when you start to identify with a feeling of hope it becomes very difficult to entertain the notion of extinguishing that light.

One area that I am fairly convinced the pro-Wenger camp has in its favor is the pragmatic aspect of how to move forward. People are calling for Arsène to be sacked mid-season but what on earth do you think the club could do afterward? And that's not only in terms of who we could bring in to coach the team but what manager would want to come to a club that just fired their respected and long-standing manager in the middle of the campaign? What would players like Mesut Özil, who said that he came to Arsenal because of the manager, do if such a drastic move was made? I invite you to try but I just don't see how I could be convinced that this is a sensible course of action.

Sam: You've hit the crux of the matter there, I think. For myself, and many others who share my opinions, Wenger is out of touch. It's an incredibly harsh thing to say, seeing as he is the most successful manager in Arsenal history. If anything, he's become a victim of his own success. When he arrived from Grampus Eight, he changed football in England. He brought with him revolutionary new diet and training regimes, and implemented a beautiful, flowing style of football rarely - if ever - seen before in England. He was successful for so long, but the minute Roman Abramovich purchased Chelsea, football changed again. Now, you have to spend money on established players (which we've seen recently, but for too long we were the ones selling our stars) and build a deep squad. Wenger shouldn't be blamed for not finding himself in a situation where he had a moneybags owner, but there have been glaring mistakes made in the last few years in the transfer policy. However, my feelings aren't personal. All I want is the best for and from the club I've supported my entire life. Whenever Wenger's Arsenal career ends, I will applaud him and thank him for all the successes and all the good memories he has provided, but also be excited about a new era.

Could this man be a future
Arsenal manager?
(Credit: Wonker)
I'm glad you asked that, because I've been giving it some thought. It is, of course, the go-to response for many AKBs to say "Who should come in?" when a "Wenger Out" statement appears on social media. I have 2 thoughts on this issue. The first thought is wholly based on the idea (which many in the WOB camp agree with) that Arsenal are not going to contend again under Wenger. The Club has become so completely molded in the shape of Arsène's vision and philosophy that - as we saw with Man Utd once Alex Ferguson retired - it will take time to break free from such a strong character. So say it takes 2 or 3 years for a new manager to remold the Club, sign players he likes and implement a new system before we challenge for the title again. That means that, under the scenario I just painted that we don't contend again under Wenger, Arsenal fans could be looking at another 5 or 6 years before we enjoy a prolonged title challenge. If Wenger had left last May (and having written that several times, that is the heart of my personal argument: that would have been the perfect time to leave. Right now? Not ideal, I'll admit that), then the rebuild process could have started earlier, and we may have been ready to push for trophies and more than just 4th place earlier in this hypothetical rebuilding cycle. On paper, this idea seems to be an NBA-style tanking process. Here's the thing: the sooner Arsenal return to being genuine title challengers year in, year out, the sooner I'll feel better about being a fan and less of a laughing stock to fans of other clubs.

My second scenario would be this: a certain 37-year old Frenchman's most recent playing contract has just expired. Bring him in immediately, maybe as a player-coach or something, but get him earning all his coaching badges and licenses, and have Wenger mentor him and teach him until, in 2017 Arsène leaves his Club to the greatest player of the Premier League era. King Henry would then immediately bring in Dennis Bergkamp as his assistant, and then we have a new era under the guidance of our two best players ever. Is that pipe dream completely ridiculous? And how wrong am I with my first scenario?

Andy: I've written about Wenger's outdated transfer policy before and agree that he's had his issues, but a lot of that can be traced to the lean years after the move to Emirates and how drastically different transfer policy was then, even compared to the last few years. This is a topic for another full article but while I have my problems with the way business has been done, I don't agree that it's an open and shut case that the business of the sport has passed him by.

There is a large disconnect between AKB and WOB over what can be accomplished with Wenger still at the helm. Suffice it to say, I don't believe as you do that it's a foregone conclusion Arsenal won't be able to compete with their current manager running things. I look at last year and lament the midfield injury horror show that started around January because we were keeping pace quite well. But all of that is kind of beside the point because one side thinks one way, the other thinks the other, and I doubt we're going to convince each other to switch sides. I just think it's worth pointing out that there are some very basic thoughts about possibilities for the club that each side doesn't come close to seeing eye to eye on.

As for your Henry theory, I simply don't know. I don't mean this skeptically, mind you. It's an honest admission. I have no idea if it's plausible because I don't know if he wants to coach, I don't know if Arsène is open to the idea of making our former star his successor, and I have no idea of Henry would actually be a good manager. I think the way you have it laid out is slightly "Arsenal fan's wet dream" but that doesn't mean that it's impossible or that it's wrong to hope that it works out. Hey, as I said before, I'm all about hope so far be it from me to take yours away.

One way or another, the club has to start planning for a future without Arsène. Not (in my mind) because he is past it and needs to go, but because he's not getting any younger and eventually change will have to happen. Such is life. However, there are serious questions over what the next step would be. I'm about as big a Jurgen Klopp Stan as there can be, but he's said numerous times that he's staying where he is. Roberto Martinez looks a little out of his depth with Everton right now, though I think he is a talented manager overall. There's no one in the Arsenal pipeline that is guaranteed to come along and be the next great thing. There's a lot of uncertainty going forward, and that's for a planned succession over the course of several years. With that in mind, I hope you can see why I view sacking Arsène midseason as utter insanity.

Sam: And now we come back to the board. One of the major frustrations with WOBs, and maybe the fan base as a whole, is that we don't feel we can trust the board to replace Wenger. They've shown time and again that they don't understand the fans, and are content to sit back and watch their profits go up. There isn't really anyone at the top with a footballing mind. I actually quite like Ivan Gazidis; he seems like a decent enough bloke and is good on the corporate side of things, but if he's left in charge of hiring a new manager, then I have no idea what to expect. Also, it's hard to see who would want to take over right now. All the names people mention - Guardiola, Klopp, Simeone, Martinez - are either at top clubs, struggling themselves, or unlikely to make it at the level required (sorry Roberto - I'm still a fan, though). Unless one of them wanted to take on the challenge of rebuilding a club and breaking the oil-money stronghold at the top of the Premier League, then it really is unclear who the next manager could be. But then again: how much was known about Wenger when he took over? He came in as a complete unknown; the next manager shouldn't necessarily be seen as a downgrade.

With plenty of media coverage and dissenting fans at each other's throats, this issue certainly isn't going away for a while. It will be interesting to see where this season and beyond take us.

Andy: I think the thing to take away from all of this is that the people on both sides of the argument simply want what's best for Arsenal. Of course there will be dismissive or irrational or aggressive people in each camp, but at the core this is about loving your club and wanting it to be as good as it can be. So try to see both sides and try not to give in to that all too easy impulse to shutter yourself off and see the other person as the enemy. I'll even go so far as to shake your hand when I see you for Newcastle, Sam. Cheers.

Sam: I'm glad this stayed civil, otherwise that handshake might have looked something like this...