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Arsene and Arsenal: Time for a Breakup

May 22nd, 2017 · No Comments · Arsenal, English Premier League, Football, France, soccer

For as long as I have been a quasi-fan of Arsenal FC, which is about seven years now, the debate has raged, fomented by placard-waving fans or banners pulled along in the sky by small airplanes.

Sometimes the argument is loud. Sometimes louder.

Is it time for Arsene Wenger, the coach since 1996 of English Premier League side Arsenal, to step aside?

The discussion’s decibel level seems to have reached new heights this season, particularly during a midseason slide of four defeats (including to Watford and West Brom and a draw in six matches.

But the debate continued right through a seven-victories-in-eight-matches-in-34-days finish — which left Arsenal one point shy of Liverpool in fourth place and qualifying for the Champions League for a 20th consecutive season.

Some of the struggle to make a point — Wenger out or Wenger stay — has been waged inside my own head. I have made the case, to myself, both ways.

But I think I finally have some sense of how this should go.

It is time for Wenger, 67, to step aside.

I appreciate the case for letting him stay.

–This is a rare case of Premier League managerial stability, one which almost certainly has been good for the club. Wenger’s players, his system, his team (which included a revolutionary-in-the-90s attentiveness to diet and conditioning, as well as to stylish, attacking football) usually combined to form a coherent and high-functioning system.

–Change for change’s sake almost never works out, in soccer. You may be very unhappy with a coach — until he is gone, and the successor does no better or (probably) worse. And if someone replaces Arsene this year (and whose name will share the first five letters with the club’s?), what are the odds he will do better than fifth place and 75 points, which is how Arsenal finished the league season?

–Even after 21 seasons, Wenger still has the intellectual flexibity to embrace change, like going to a three-man defense this season and getting results from it. He may be 67, but he is a 67 who can escape from the gravitational pull of “I never do it that way.”

–And yes, Arsenal the club owes Arsene a debt of gratitude which should include, on the club’s debit side, a willingness to let the tall Frenchman decide when it is time.

A pretty good argument.

But also based more than a little by playing on our emotions. “He brought Arsenal back to prominence; he in many ways made the Premier League the hard-running competition it is today.” We owe him.

So, the flip side. “Arsene needs to go.”

–Arsenal long ago went stale. What was once revolutionary is now reactionary. Wenger’s breakthrough methods have been embraced by all sorts of teams and done better by many — including Barcelona and, now, Tottenham.

–At some point, in a variation of the point (above), Wenger turned his preferences for stylish soccer into a fetish. The club seemed to endorse tidy passing even if it came at the expense of goals — or even shots on goal. It was art for art’s sake when it needed to be “art for victory’s sake.” Arsenal came to be seen as Fancy Dans who preferred a non-contact game.

–Despite the occasional FA Cup (three since 2005), over the past 12 years (with a chance for one more, on Saturday), Arsenal has never seemed likely to win the league nor make a sustained run in the Champions League, over the past decade.

It is like Wenger’s goals now are “participation” trophies. Running near the top of the table, but no risk to win the league. (Not since 2004, anyway). They are in the Champions League, but they have zero chance of getting to the final. This is why Jose Mourinho once called Wenger: “A specialist in failure” — which stung but also hit close to home. The reality is, Arsenal scares none of the Premier League’s best and is no longer considered one of Europe’s top sides; the club now loses players to clubs that really are “big”. Which should not be the case for a club with the most expensive tickets in world football.

–Wenger will be 67 next season, and yet the club allows him to make nearly all personnel decisions as well as all coaching decisions. Shouldn’t some of that authority be shared with someone else? And if Wenger is not ready for that, maybe it is time for someone else (chief executive Ivan Gazidis or club owner Stan Kroenke — yes, the man who owns the Rams) to help him see the wisdom in that.

–And isn’t changing him in this offseason the best time to start the first day of the rest of  the club’s life? This is perhaps the most pressing reason to make a change. It is coming, the change. Whether it is next week or three years from now.

Meantime, will the club, under Wenger’s leadership, suddenly contend for a championship next season? Can they win the league? Can they get to the Champions League semifinals? Can they recruit game-changing players and keep the few (Alexis Sanchez is about it) they already have?

That all seems unlikely, and more than a few Arsenal fans have reached a point where (they say) they would accept a season or two deeper in the top 10 of the league — as long as they know a potential championship is looming.

I chose to be an Arsenal fan, in part, because I was in a press box in the summer of 2009, at a France-Romania World Cup qualifier in Paris, when I saw a tall, distinguished-looking French gentlemen speaking with English reporters.

Eventually I figured out: That’s Arsene Wenger. Seems like a really nice, polite guy.

From that day, I was an Arsenal fan, though I did not accept it for another years or so.

But now, nearly a decade later, the coach who lured me into the Arsenal camp needs to walk away before he oversees more damage to everything he built up.

It is tie. Even if Arsene and Arsenal, names listed one above the other in the Premier League directory, defeat Chelsea to win the FA Cup on Saturday. I hope they do, but it will not change my mind about the need for change.



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