Monday, August 29, 2011

What's next for Arsenal, Wenger?

At times, there's a certain stubbornness when it comes to clubs parting ways with an established coach. The quick exit that we see so regularly - especially in Europe - might happen often enough to be the standard, but there are examples of teams that seem unable to tell when it's time for a change. Public pressure and results might be against the coach, but somehow he keeps his job.

J Hutcherson writes of the unique relationship between Arsenal and their manager, Arsene Wenger.

If you happen to be an Arsenal fan, you've probably raised your level of concern about your manager. Arsene Wenger's squad was on the wrong side of an embarrassing 8-2 loss to Manchester United over the weekend, and they're at risk of losing control of their season in September. This from a club that disappointed in not putting up more of a challenge with a 4th-place finish last season.

With that in mind, the expectations at Arsenal are always going to be at or near the top of the table. Failing to get the team there has to be a concern, especially in England where it can be a quick slide from contender, to respectable, to trouble.

Part of that might be why Wenger doesn't seem as in danger of losing his job as another coach might in the same situation. Wenger has earned his leeway. He was the architect of one of the best runs in the history of English soccer - much less the more recent history of the Premier League. Arsenal's undefeated streak lasted for more than a season, he's won the title three times, and he's kept Arsenal in contention. It's that last item that might be the most important.

Under Wenger, Arsenal has had the title chasing stability to open a new 60,000-seat stadium and put distance between themselves and their London competition for most financially viable club in the capital. Anyone else in that role, and Arsenal's steps forward could just as easily become steps back. It's worth keeping in mind that Wenger has managed under very different chief executives, moving from David Dein to Ivan Gazidis.

No team hires a former Major League Soccer executive without the concept of cost control in mind, and that's been the story of Arsenal in recent seasons. They've played a very different game from the clubs nearest them in the table, working to make sure the budget is sensible while keeping the squad competitive. There's an argument that the Arsenal version of success - and by extension Wenger's - is almost unique at Premier League level. He's expected to do more with less than his rivals even though he built the modern version of the club and his own reputation under less stringent finances.

There's an argument that grows stronger with each loss that Arsenal have taken their financial football too far. Wenger hasn't been able to replace players at the level a club like Arsenal requires. His squads lose strength seemingly every season. His ability to hold the squad together enough to keep winning - i.e. his job - grows more difficult each time another player exits.

When Dein resigned as vice-chairman of Arsenal in 2007 Wenger offered to resign with him. After all, Dein was as important to Arsenal's era of dominance as the manager he hired. As the story goes, Dein talked Wenger out of it for the good of the club. No one at that level of the clubs administration seemed to suffer from the illusion that they would be better off without Wenger. That same thinking might be what's keeping him employed now.

Yet you have to wonder what's in it for Wenger. For all the talk of the challenge of returning a club to former glory, it's not the same when you're financially handcuffed the way Wenger seems to be. In many ways, his Arsenal no longer exists. The club is about implementing cost controls and financial fair play well before UEFA tries to enforce their new rules for how clubs spend their money. In other words, Arsenal have created a playing field that puts their manager, their squad, and their fans at a competitive disadvantage now. What that means for the future is more of an open question than Arsenal would like.

For their manager? Would anyone really blame Wenger for reconsidering his role in the light of recent events? He doesn't have the squad to compete against the Premier League elite, and there's an argument that Arsenal's finish last season was an overachievement rather than a disappointment. His squad is noticeably weaker in a market where Arsenal doesn't have the buying power of their nearest rivals. He remains playing against restrictions imposed by his club that seem beyond his influence.

It's the club that has in no small part worked against sporting success by putting so much stress on finances, real estate ventures, and stadium construction rather than doing as much as possible to compete in the transfer market and on the field. Their success is tempered in a way that doesn't work for most Premier League teams.

For Wenger, it's living through an era when everyone else in the Premier League - no matter how begrudgingly - wouldn't have minded being like Arsenal. Now? Arsenal are chasing their nearest rival Tottenham for contending team to fall off the most from last season. And yet, without Wenger in charge there's still the feeling that it could be worse.

That's where the Arsenal story takes a different turn. It's not so much about Arsenal parting ways with Wenger as it is Wenger parting ways with Arsenal.

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