I am busy at work in both the Premier League Postmortem and the Arsenal Season Review. So don’t fret. Those are coming. However, I did not want to let this opportunity pass by given the news of today. Specially since I get to say…I was wrong.
Last September, I said that I felt this would be his last season. That, by the time Arsenal took on Everton in the league closer, we would know that he was departing at long last from the Arsenal touchline. I even said that this would be done in order to engender a sense of unity and reflection that would allow for Arsenal supporters everywhere to give their greatest living manager the send off he so richly deserves.
Boy, did I get all of that wrong. I mean, you rarely expect to get it all wrong, but this was spectacularly off the mark!
Despite the protests, the chants and songs, the planes that flew overhead, the “will he?/won’t he?” back and forth with the media and everything else that happened this past season — you know the stuff out on the pitch — the die appears to have been cast. And Arsene Wenger is set to extend his run as Arsenal manager for another two years. Following his third FA Cup triumph in the last four years and a private meeting with majority shareholder/de-facto-owner Stan Kroenke, things appear all set for the man who has overseen Arsenal for the past 20 years to remain at his post.
The reactions to it have been the expected: elation from some quarters, rage from others and resignation from the rest. Fact is that, even as the season teetered and toppled into ignominy and misery, there was always a feeling that Arsene Wenger would not walk away from the club that has defined him as a manager and leave it in such shambles. The weary figure he cut against the touchline and the frustration shown at reporters asking time and again about his future may all have been true reflections of the emotional toil of the moment. Still, he has admitted in the past he would have continued managing even if it was not at Arsenal.
That is a key point I don’t think I or many take into account: Arsene lives and breathes and eats and thinks about football all the time. He doesn’t have a horse racing team or a vineyard to pull him away. There’s no large family with kids and grandkids — that we know of — which requires his time and attention. He is not quite a monk, but quite devoted to his life as a football manager, coach and pundit — when he’s not managing or coaching, he’s on French TV, providing analysis and punditry.
Does that sound like a man who’d give it all up? Like he’d walk away from the biggest job of his career?
Consider also the landscape of the Premier League and how it has shifted since he took over in 1996. Back then it was Manchester United as the top side. His Arsenal teams quickly rose up to be their main rivals through the turn of the century. Then he saw the rise of Chelsea and Liverpool to form the old “Big Four” — just as Arsenal were moving from Highbury to Emirates Stadium. As his Invincibles side was stripped and he shifted towards putting the team in the hands of younger players like Fabregas, Adebayor and Van Persie, Manchester City was bought and rose up. They competed, challenged, but kept coming up short; only for his best assets to get pipped by clubs like Chelsea, City and Barcelona. He kept adding pieces year after year — Vermaelen, Koscielny, Ramsey — all at a bargain. Then the explosion in 2012: Ozil. Sanchez. Cech. The bad days were over. Arsenal was ready to rise once again.
Look, how we split the responsibility pie chart for the repeated failures of Arsenal to contend in the Premier League or their yearly Round of 16 Champions League crashes is entirely subjective. Suffice it to say that every element — board, manager, players — share in that responsibility; even if, at times, it has felt like the bulk of the blame has gone right on the shoulders of the veteran manager. Granted, he often makes a rod for his own back in his answers to the media or lack of answers.
To me, and this is just my opinion, I’m fine with him extending his stay a further two years provided the club are also working on how things will shape up after he is gone. Arsene is a 67-year-old lifer — so he’ll be 69 when he reaches the end of this deal. Even if he’s managed to climb back atop the Premier League and wrested the crown from the Chelseas and Citys or finally obtained the coveted European trophy he’s missing from his CV, the fact remains that we are closer to his departure than ever before.
Truth is that we have other issues within the club that must be looked upon. Where is our Chief Executive, Ivan Gazidis? The man is eager to show up when speaking about a new deal with some big business, but when the season is going to crap, he’s mute. Would he have picked the new manager? Why does it take forever and a day to complete transfers for new players? How in the blue hell were the contracts of so many key first team players allowed to get to within 12 months of their end??
Issues within Arsenal Football Club extend beyond the role of the manager. And as much as many see him as the roadblock keeping the club from reaching its full potential, others see him as the person trying to keep the boat from capsizing. It’s in this duality that we have existed for the last few years and, while it seems as if we’re signing up for two more years of it, the simple fact is the blame for it should not be placed exclusively at the feet of Arsene Wenger.
Let me end on this: During the last few seasons, there are times when I have agreed with many others that it was time for Arsene to call it a career at Arsenal. Part of me still wonders how things are supposed to change when nothing really has changed. Though I do not for one second doubt his commitment and love to Arsenal, I do worry about his lack of willingness to work under any system but the current one.
The job of manager may not have changed for him, but it has in the modern world of football. It’s more than just than the rise of the Director of Football. Scouting networks are vaster. Coaching regiments are more intense and year-round. The world Arsene Wenger saw in 1996 is here now and Arsenal are, surprisingly, lagging behind. Despite the wealth accrued from the move to Emirates and the new massive TV deals that Arsenal are benefiting from, it feels as if everyone in authority at Arsenal is more than happy to continue running things like a mom-and-pop shop. That, more than the manager, has to be the big change this summer.