If you have read Part I of my Season Preview for the Gunners (and if you haven’t, then click here and go read it), you know that I’ve basically just asked about some of the big questions that will impact their 2016-17 campaign. Not all of them though and none were included in that piece that are as big as the one I’ll ask here. It’s one I’ve been dodging since the end of last season. So with all that said…
Is this Arsene Wenger’s last season?
And we get to the question that will hang over the entire season unlike any other. It’s here that I must apologize for not having written that final piece on last season’s review on my thoughts over the long-serving Arsene Wenger and his position at the club. Life did get in the way and, by the time my thoughts had congealed, the summer was in full swing. So let me sum up first what I feel and then go into what I think will happen. (And we really should start by acknowledging that no one — not the players, not the pundits, not anyone — but Arsene Wenger knows what he will do).
I feel that Arsene Wenger is a manager who loves to train, who loves the practices and loves his players. The moniker of “Le Professeur” has never been an incorrect one. He’s someone who lives and dies for his players to learn, to excel and maximize their potential. It’s why he’s been so willing to give chances to young players. It’s why he’s stuck with talented but inconsistent players like Robin van Persie, Theo Walcott, Nicklas Bendtner, Denilson, Johan Djourou and so many others. Some finally came good while others, though not with Arsenal, found a spot in other team’s rosters. It’s why the defections of Cesc Fabregas, of Samir Nasri, of Emmanuel Adebayor and of Robin van Persie stung so much. Wenger had put up with their inconsistencies only to watch them depart as they were coming good.
He’s also a man who lives for seeing his teams flowing freely into attack. Remember that epic goal against Norwich? I think that’s the quintessential Arsene Wenger team goal. Fans and pundits might go crazy for the solitary super strike or the wondrous free kick, but for a team crafted by Arsene, it’s the pull of wingers taking defenders out and creating space for forwards and midfielders, which results in pretty passes getting pinged back and forth before the ball ends deftly in the back of the net that makes football such a great sport. In some ways, Arsene is a purist – a man who believes in the beauty of the game and tries to bring it forth as much as possible.
However, I also feel that Arsene is a man who is growing exasperated with the aspects of his job which don’t involve the team. Foremost is the concept of transfers. If he were to be injected with truth serum, I get the sense that Arsene Wenger would start railing at the idea of the transfer market and the fascination by the media and by fans with the entire enterprise. He’d decry how supporters have become enraptured with the concept of throwing millions upon millions of pounds at super agents, at glitzy names and at clubs desperate to ride the gravy train. He might even speak to how success isn’t really found that way — all evidence to the contrary — and bemoan the culture of the sport and how it is selling its soul. And you know what? He would not be wrong.
Look at major blogs and online news websites. What stories get clicks? Transfer rumors. What stories get retweeted and shared and linked to by supporters? Transfer stories. There are no ITK Twitter accounts or secret agents revealing secrets about the physio room or which player is playing well with which player. The intricacies of every day running of a football club basically bore us, but not transfers. (If you don’t believe me, think of this: how much time in FIFA do you spend setting practices and trying to deal with squad intricacies and how much time do you spend buying and selling players in the transfer market?)
Here’s the problem though: Arsene is stating the same positions that cowboys uttered as automobiles began to roll into the Old West. Or that train and ship builders said as they saw airplanes soar through the skies. Progress always comes with the end of old ways. It is the nature of progress. And, rightly or wrongly, this is the progress of world football. The Premier League is swimming in money — so much that the 20th-placed team this season will make as much money as teams like Bayern Munich or Juventus will make from winning their respective leagues. This money, coming from major TV deals, is not expected to decline any time soon. But it’s not the only revenue stream. Global TV and streaming deals, merchandise, partnerships with major corporations, summer tours abroad; these are some of the ways clubs from Manchester United to Middlesbrough are going about to generate revenue.
That revenue creates demands beyond the normal for a player or a manager. You hear it when fans complain about the high ticket prices. You read it when supporters start going on and on about “war chests” and the structure of their clubs — from owners down to the stewards. You see it when fans hold up banners and chant to “spend some fucking money.” As clubs have moved away from community organizations to entertainment machines, so have their position on supporters, who become consumers. They’re the customers who order $100 kits every season and who frequent the club shop. They’re the ones streaming content or are ordering the TV package with their club’s TV channel on it.
Consumers though expect something for their entertainment pound/euro/dollar; particularly when they’re spending large quantities on it. They don’t want to see the same thing, but something bigger and grander. They don’t want the same James Bond movie or hear the same album from Kanye West or the same FIFA video game. It’s basic human psychology. We keep hitting the same pleasure button over and over and it’s going to take more to generate the same good sensations. Look at Barcelona and Real Madrid fans — are they happy they won La Liga and the Champions League respectively last year? Or do they feel disappointment at not having won the other trophy?
Against this tide, Arsene Wenger is but one man. An intelligent, devoted to his ideals and, at times, obstinate man. One who has spent 20 years at the head of a club and seen its position in world football rise and challenge those long-held as the powers of English soccer. This has been done via intelligent training, smart transfers and a conviction to his methods. It has led to titles and trophies and success. And in a decade or less, his successes have either been equalled or bettered by Chelsea and Manchester City thanks to their seemingly-endless resources. Meanwhile fans bemoan his position, rail against his once-revolutionary tactics and shout for his departure.
I do wonder if the lean years immediately after the move to Emirates changed something fundamentally in how Arsene saw the transfer market. I think back to stories of people living through the Great Depression or World War II and how rationing became so ingrained into them that they could never do away with it long after it stopped being a necessity. Sometimes I think Arsene – a man already predisposed to look for the deal – has found it impossible to shift his thinking as the club emerged from those lean times into a modern player market that’s been jacked up by the incoming funds from super benefactors and mega-TV deals.
If you were to ask me today, I think Arsene Wenger will use this season as his last. I don’t think he’ll sign a new contract for certain before the new year. We will get the trickle of usual “contract negotiations/contract doubts” stories as a new deal goes unsigned. Then sometime around the time of the last match of the season — May 21st against Everton at Emirates — we will hear that he is opting to walk away. That this will be his final match in charge of Arsenal Football Club. Segments of the “Wenger Out Brigade” will start to celebrate, but I imagine that the majority of the Gunners support — many who have known no other manager — will be disappointed to see him go. And that’s regardless of whether or not Arsenal win the Premier League crown that has eluded them since 2004.
With all that said, let me end this long-winded diatribe. The season is in full swing. The Transfer Deadline Day is mere hours away. Before we know it, all will be revealed. Truth is that the fun is never in where Arsenal end but in the ride – the ups and downs – and all the people who share that crazy, scary, disappointing, exhilarating ride. Because it is about the matches and the performances…but mostly about your fellow Gooners.
COME ON YOU GUNNERS!