Ars(è)nal, one year before the end?
Arsene Wenger enters its 21st season at the helm of a club that has almost become his. But it remains only a year contract with the French manager and never pressure has been stronger on someone who was rebuked by some of the audience at the end of last season. Unable to bring the title for 12 years, a departure of the Alsatian coach could precipitate the collapse of an entire system criticized by fans of the Gunners. (Article published in issue 302 of the magazine Onze Mondial (October-November 2016))
Sunday, August 14, 2016. Thousands of Gooners (Arsenal fans) parade through the borough of Islington to join the Emirates Stadium, the tool of the United Arab Emirates airline installed for 10 years in north London. Near the official shop of the club 2016–2017’s tunics are proudly exhibited. Before the clash against Liverpool for the resumption of the Premier League, recklessness has regained the home fans. The counters are reset. Last season, forgotten … Well, not for everybody.
Sunglasses on the nose, Mark expects kick-off on one of the stone benches adjacent to the enclosure. Subscriber for 25 years, he seems less serene than man frantically agitating the Union Jack next door. “I am worried about our central defenders, with the injury of Gabriel and lack of Koscielny” confesses the English. But it is a question about the last year of Arsène Wenger contract that makes him shake. For him no doubts: this is the last season for the Alsatian. “He will try to bring the title back before to go but we all know that it will be very complicated. He should have left after the victory in Cup, it was already nine years that we had won anything. It was beautiful. Without mentionning last season which should have been for us.”
A big helvète colony joins the aisles of the stadium, jerseys flocked “Xhaka” on the back. The smiles and the impatience of a big game under the sun could almost forget the contrast between “Wenger IN” (in favor of maintaining the French) and “Wenger OUT” (for a departure) that inspired the fans last year. A clash “embellished by the media” for some, reflection of a “deep split” for others … “It was 50–50”, reflects Mark. “He remains the greatest coach in club history but is exceeded tactically and persists in his vision of football. Which is very respectable, for sure, but no longer suited to current football. When you see the money the club has and we don’t move by making all rely on inexperienced players …”
Teams appear on the renovated pool. “It will be a very intense game against Liverpool, these clashes are always unpredictable” explained Wenger in the pre-match program. 90 minutes later, it is hard to prove him wrong. The show is a perfect mix of what an English game is: something exceptional. Out of the ordinary. A missed penalty and a goal few seconds later for Walcott, Coutinho’s amazing free-kick, classy combinations, overtaken defenses… And a masterpiece, an absolute screamer signed Sadio Mané which just cause the public whistles and even the escape of a part of it. “Look at them!”, yell a Swiss couple. “It disgusts me…” For their first time in the home of the Gunners, they show their indignation seeing fans who desert the central tribunes while the score is 1–4. Some of them come back a minute later after Oxlade-Chamberlain’s goal. Others prefer to launch Pokemon Go to hide their disappointment. During the entire match, Reds fans have done much more noise than the whole Emirates. This Sunday, the “difficult environment at home” singled out by the French manager a few months ago is back. Weariness too. A new banner has appeared on North Bank side: “over and over and over again”.
A promising start, a sudden implosion and too late return. “Typical Arsenal” will say fans after this first fixture. Inevitably the next day in the British press all is the coach’s fault. “The hard truth is that Wenger’s bad decisions were at least as important as bad luck of the Gunners, Matt Hughes wrote in the Times. Rather than bestir oneself on the transfer market to strengthen his team, the Frenchman adopted the default position by launching kids and trusting players who still have to show they can be trusted — with predictable results damaging.”
A thwarted lovestory, between glorious memories and uncertain future
Leaving the aisles of the stadium, bored fans are dissecting. Once again it is the manager’s case that emerges from this collective performance-cons. In the viewfinder: managing the summer transfer window. For 10 years Arsenal markets are just smoke and mirrors. Not a day without a rumor about the imminent arrival of buzzwords in north London. And almost every time fans must deal with the same bitterness. Wenger always responds to critics by the same press conference language elements. “We need to identify needs”; “We do not recruit to recruit but because we think it can be beneficial to the team”; “We’re always looking for top players but they are not always available” … far from exhaustive list. Latest find little relished by fans, “responsible attitude” to be adopted in the club’s transfers in relation to the 600 people employed now Arsenal. A little phrase quickly diverted on the Web. The fake resignation letter from an employee explaining that he preferred to go to “relieve the finances of the club” spread at full speed and gave ideas to Wenger parody account on Twitter (@wengerknowsbest ) …
Admiring, sometimes hateful, respectful but especially exasperated, the Gooners have an upset lovestory with the 66-year-old man. A rather unique story because never their passion for the Gunners would have materialized without innovation and wins of the French first years at the head of the club. The subject is sensitive, it affects fundamental. Former Nagoya coach ended the “boring Arsenal” developing a passing game and counter-attacks a previously perceived as a model. He put the club on the map of Europe by piling Champions League campaigns. The development of the Gunners multinational company? The showcase trophy topped with six Cup and three championships? Park Chu-young on one of the most beautiful lawns of the world? Made in “Tonton”, emotional nickname given by French Gooners.
“I am a great admirer of Arsene Wenger, I will never be for his departure”. A British Twittos of 20 years old who calls himself “Dare to Wenger” summarizes what brought the lanky man with serious problems of zippers.
“He transformed the club and English football. I think the transition from Highbury to the Emirates was well managed. The two consecutive wins in Cup were positive signs with the signings of Özil, Alexis or Cech. I think now the transition is complete and we can assess whether the French is still the right person for the club. This season is crucial.”
Vincent Fabre, supporter at the head of French blog Gunners wants to give credit to Wenger.
“His qualities are innumerable and not only human and intellectual. When you do not win you are always wrong, most of the public does not seek further. But tactically he does not have anything to envy the current top names if not an unlimited checkbook and a valid squad. We should ask whether, today, the great tacticians would be able to keep a team made up of bits and pieces on the most difficult championship podium in the world and in Champions League every season for 18 years. I’m not sure that not being champion this year cost him his job. He is the only one who will decide to go or not.”
Wenger out before someone bigger?
Near Tony Adams statue, former emblematic captain, many fans congregate. “It’s amazing, it’s always the same” plague a supporter with a Gervinho’s jersey. “And it lasts for 12 years!” adds a much edgier man. The Holy Grail — which refuses to Alsatian coach for over a decade — grit the teeth of those who want to take stock and switch to a new era. Others extend the problem to the Board and point the finger at Ivan Gazidis, the general manager of the club, but especially the American billionaire Stan Kroenke and mustache. The main shareholder uses the media exposure of his toy to grow his money. A unilateral enrichment because the fans are struggling to see their own profits (Arsenal is still european champion of the price of subscription). Who knows if it is not a whole system which could collapse once Wenger dismissed?
“The problem is not just Kroenke but more broadly the American sports culture, explains Vincent Fabre. For US investors, sports structure is a cash machine that can integrated into a holding alongside a baseball or American football club. The history or tradition does not interest them. Premier League clubs owned by Americans are all more or less affected by the same disease: public mood lowered, expensive subscriptions, required profitability. Kroenke has allowed Arsenal to consolidate and develop its financial base and step over without too much damage the heavy part of the funding of the Emirates. But today someone is missing, someone who instils a little ambition at the club.” However “the criticisms against Kroenke also aim Wenger, recalls Mark. He is a part of this political to not spending money. He just likes to manage, have a nice lawn to practice an attractive game but that does not bring titles.”
25 years ago a subscription to Highbury cost a hundred pounds. Today it revolves around the 2 000 (pounds) at the Emirates. A heresy for Jake Shepard, 18-year-old Gooner, which led him to start a petition six months ago. “I created it when the club announced that there would be an increase in ticket prices, he said. The petition obtained 7500 signatures and overloading was abandoned. It returned to the front of the scene recently with the bad start of the club and the lack of activity on the transfer market.” The promotion of his petition was facilitated by its subscribers on Instagram ( more than 128,000). And Jake Shepard does not want to point the finger only the tariff policy of the club but also the responsibility of the Board, as evidenced by the title of the ad: “Stop Stan Kroenke destroying Arsenal Football Club”. “I love the club but Arsène Wenger is not going anywhere. The first reprimand returns to Kroenke who said he did not buy Arsenal to win trophies but to make money. But the way that Wenger defends this politics in press conference is not acceptable. Jake remains clear: he does not expect from this petition to put out the largest shareholder. “But if it helps him to awaken a bit, it’s not bad. My dream is to see Kroenke, Gazidis and Wenger out. But it’s almost impossible.”
Faced with this situation, several groups of fans try to be heard. This is the case of the Arsenal Supporters Trust (AST) which has over 1000 members with shares in the club. If their ownership is minimal, they try to promote interests of the fans and fight to give them a voice. Like every year a questionnaire was sent to members of the AST. It offers to return to a bunch of issues of concern to supporters. If it remains a cluster of opinions the results are no less revealing. Only 11% are satisfied with the work of Stan Kroenke. When asked to rate from 1 to 10 if the leaders do everything to help Arsenal to win again the Premier League, 65% of answers are focused of 1 to 5. Even Wenger’s departure (or not) is subject of voting and distrust is evident as 8% are in favor of the renewal of his contract after 2017. The majority trend? Maintaining him until the end of the season before to examine the situation depending on the results obtained. A pragmatic option that puts the Alsatian technician under pressure and leads to think about a future transition. Not easy when the example of Sir Alex Ferguson is in the rearview mirror. Everyone has an idea (Guardiola, Koeman, Simeone Klopp Howe). Unless a former player (Henry? Arteta?) is privileged, which may require more time to redraw a structure and offer some reprieve to the French coach. “He is always a good manager and you never know what can happen when a new coach arrives, confessed Dennis Bergkamp last April. I’m sure he is still ambitious to win trophies. As long as he does not lose the link with the team …”
You can also read: “A cosmopolitan and globalized club since Wenger’s arrival” (with a map of all players under Wenger era)
The crowd moves toward the subway station Holloway Road, still closed after games. During this painful resumption of the championship, Wenger’s out streamers that marred the stands at the Emirates last few months remained in the closet. For now. Maybe the “Arsène, thanks for the memories purpose it is time to say goodbye” or “Time for Change, Arsenal FC not Arsène FC” will re-emerge before the end of the season.
Dropped by former glories of Highbury, “AW” seems increasingly lonely and know that nothing will be forgiven him this season. Recent arrivals Lucas Perez and especially Shkodran Mustafi have (some) reassured the fans. Proof that the regularity and the work done by the Frenchman since 1996 is still praised by players. Dropped by former glories of Highbury, “AW” seems increasingly lonely and know that nothing will be forgiven him this season. Recent arrivals Lucas Perez and especially Shkodran Mustafi have (some) reassured the fans. Proof that the regularity and the work done by the Frenchman since 1996 is still praised by players. In the arms race, Manchester City, United or Chelsea seem to have an edge. The fight for the title started badly for the Gunners but they are not so far away from the Citizens (five points behind before to play Burnley). There is still time to correct the situation but for Wenger the end inexorably approach.
Twenty years ago Arsène “who?” hit the headlines of the English press which gently mocked his unpopularity. When his London adventure will stop, it is a bet safe that a mark of recognition will be testified in all British newspapers. His name in gold letters will embrace the name of a club he led through the rise and fall of football at twenty-first century.
To go further: “Gooners Out, Tourists In : a decade of Arsenal Change at the Emirates”, article by Robert O’Connor for Bleacher Report tracing the development of the club last ten years ; “Welcome to Arsenal: the smallest big club in the world”, blog post Callum Perritt for The Gooner Ramble.