On May 15 2004, Arsenal Foootball Club made history by becoming the first team since the 1800’s to go a whole domestic season undefeated in England. The Invincibles, as they were known, beat Leicester City 2-1 at Highbury to put their selves in the history books. It was an astonishing achievement and the man who masterminded it was Arsene Wenger. Speaking about the achievement, Wenger said: “Without a doubt going the whole season unbeaten is my greatest achievement. If you win the championship you feel someone else can come in and do better than you. It was always my dream to go the whole season unbeaten because there’s not much more anyone can do to beat that.”
Wenger had created a legacy which no one could ever tarnish. Or so we thought.
Fast forward to the present day and the Frenchman faces the most important three months of his footballing career. Destroyed 5-1 by Bayern Munich in the Allianz Arena in a Champions League last 16 first leg tie, the general opinion amongst football fans is that there is now an undeniable feeling that Wenger is coming to an end of his managerial career in North London, with his contract expiring this summer.
This was not the way Wenger, the fans or the club wanted it to end. But how has it got to this? Why does the club’s season consistently fall away in February/March every season? I have narrowed it down to three key points which I believe are the main reasons why things have turned sour.
- Failure to identify and sign players of a high enough level required to play for the club
Whilst the Arsenal squad has some outstanding talent in it, such as Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil, Wenger has failed to significantly strengthen/replace players at crucial times like Sir Alex Ferguson at Manchester United was so good at doing. Luis Suarez, Wayne Rooney, Gonzalo Higuain, Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kante, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Yaya Toure, Didier Drogba, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gerard Pique are some of the high profile players which Arsenal have missed out on signing in the last decade or so and whilst it cannot be realistically expected that the club go and spend £150m every transfer window like other clubs in the Premier League do, there is a general feeling that Arsenal are always a defensive midfielder and striker away from taking that final step and winning a major title.
- He has fallen behind the times in terms of tactics and motivation
In the times of ‘Gegenpressing’ and 3-5-2 formations in the Premier League, there is a feeling that Arsenal lack any sort of Plan B and their style of play has now become outdated. Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football analysis showed a recent Arsenal performance away at Manchester City – a game in which they lost. During the analysis, a clip was shown of Arsenal’s midfielders walking around the pitch, barely jogging, to try and break up the Manchester City attack. It was something which attracted significant criticism from pundit Gary Neville and was a view which was shared by thousands of fans, too. How can it be that a side who should be competing for the title are performing like this? In recent seasons, Wenger has been criticised for his pitch-side demeanour, often looking like a manager who is clueless and cannot influence the result from the touchline. Whilst some fans may say it does not have much of an impact on the game, managers such as Antonio Conte, Jurgen Klopp and Tony Pulis are great touchline motivators and that reflects in their team’s performances, giving everything for 90 minutes.
- The board do not put pressure on him to succeed and win trophies
Whilst the early years of Wenger’s Arsenal career are undoubtedly a huge success and the feat of qualifying for the Champions League year upon year consecutively is a fantastic achievement, the board of directors at the football club only seem to care about one thing; the business side. Making money and staying out of debt is now the number one aim for most professional football clubs in this country and also for many clubs in Europe, given the sums of money involved in the higher reaches of the professional game now. To an extent, this has meant that trophies and league titles are a secondary concern for the powers that be at Arsenal. The Champions League attracts enormous revenue streams for a football club, with up to £20m being available just for participating in the group stages of the tournament. This, added on top of the Premier League TV money, sponsorship deals and more, means Wenger has not been under great pressure to deliver a league title or European trophy for several years. Although professional pride ensures the players will always try to win games to achieve these goals, it is inevitable that the attitude of ‘top four over everything’ is on the players’ minds – with the celebratory photographs in the team changing room after securing fourth place on the last day of the season a couple of years ago backing up this thought.
So, who replaces Wenger if/when he goes? Below are the three names which I think would be great replacements and why.
- Diego Simeone, Current club; Atletico Madrid
Many fans’ first choice to replace Wenger, Simeone is undoubtedly one of the best football managers in European football currently. He has turned Atletico Madrid in to one of the most organised, determined, athletic sides not just in Spain, but in the whole of Europe and has seen the traditional two horse La Liga title race turn in to a three horse race thanks to his work over the last few years. He has shown a great enthusiasm to bring through youngsters from the Atletico youth academy, such as Koke and Saul, but has also shown his intelligence and skill in the transfer market by signing players for a small fee that have gone on to be some of the best in their position in the world – with Griezmann and Godin prime examples. Some people have noted his defensive style is sometimes a hard watch, but his record at Madrid’s second biggest club is extraordinary and guarantees results. A move to Italy may appeal to Simeone more at this stage of his career, but could he be tempted by a move to the Premier League if the call is ever made?
- Ronald Koeman, Current club; Everton
The Legendary Barcelona and Netherlands player fits the Arsenal mould – promotes youth, his teams play excellent football and he has a very good reputation for signing the right players in the transfer market. His spells at Southampton and Everton have shown what a capable manager he is in the Premier League, with his career at Southampton being a particular highlight in England. During his time on the south coast, Koeman’s Southampton achieved their highest ever Premier League finish, sixth place, highest ever Premier League points total, 63, and qualified for the group stage of the UEFA Europa League. Perhaps a surprise choice for many, he would be the ideal fit in my opinion.
- Max Allegri, Current club; Juventus
Allegri has been linked with a move to Arsenal in the media for a few months now, with leading Italian newspaper Corriere Dello Sport saying the Italian is the preferred choice ahead of Thomas Tuchel (Dortmund) and Eddie Howe (Bournemouth) to take Wenger’s place. Some fans in the UK may not be too familiar with Allegri, but the reality is he’s a fantastic football manager. After beginning his managerial career in 2003 with several smaller Italian sides, he played a key role in Sassuolo’s rise through the lower Italian divisions, and subsequently led Cagliari to their best Serie A finish in nearly 15 years, winning the Panchina d’Oro Award for best Serie A coach in 2009. His performances as head coach of Cagliari earned him a move to Milan in 2010, where he remained until January 2014; in the 2010–11 season, Allegri helped Milan to their first Serie A title since the 2003–04 season. After joining Juventus in 2015, he immediately won the domestic double in his debut season, and achieved the same feat the following season. An astute tactician with a steely personality, he would be a fantastic choice to take the hot seat at the Emirates.
Whatever happens with Arsene Wenger in the next few months and however many “fan reaction” videos are released, people must not forget the influence he has had on English Football in the last couple of decades. He introduced a style of play which we had not seen before in this country, as well as a reputation to unearth and promote promote youth into the first team which was at one time unrivalled in World Football. Without him, Arsenal would not have the 60,000 seater stadium they have now, along with memories of an team that did the unthinkable and go a whole season undefeated. They would not have been able to witness players such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Cesc Fabregas, Alexis Sanchez and many more play for their side, either. For the sake of his legacy (and the fans sanity), now is the right time to walk away before any more damage is done.
Merci, Arsene, Au Revoir.