An ode to Wenger: In praise of English football’s ‘prophet in the wilderness’

Sport

What more could we have expected of Arsene Wenger’s 1000 Premier League games celebration; a momentous achievement marred and tainted by an unfortunate outcome. For this is the story of Wenger, a man who’s vision and acumen has provided a British football team with the most workable and sustainable financial model conceived in the Premier League era, but who continues to be vilified by his club’s own fans in particular for his team’s performance on the pitch.

In the age of oil-rich tycoons and sudden managerial changes, Arsene Wenger’s reign as Arsenal manager has broadly been the personification of calm and stability. Setting aside his more tangible successes, the most enduring aspect of his tenure will probably be his footballing philosophy, both on and off the pitch. The holder of a degree in economics, Wenger was one of the first to realise that sabermetrics, or ‘soccernomics’ as it later became known, could be successfully applied to a sport that is still so irrationally dominated by gut feeling and intuition. Just as Moneyball took the sport of baseball by storm, masterstrokes such as signing midfield lynchpin Mathieu Flamini on the basis that he averaged 14km of running per match have helped to at least open the door to companies such as Opta and Prozone, and set football down the road to a statistical evolution.

Alongside this, Wenger has overseen and pioneered one of the most successful commercialisations in sporting history and set Arsenal on the surest of financial footings. Rather than get carried away with the riches of a booming Premier League franchise, Wenger has managed the move to the Emirates Stadium in an impeccably responsible manner. While rivals clubs such as Chelsea focused on short term success, Wenger has prioritised a stable financial model; all the more important now in the advent of Financial Fair Play regulations, and has made sure that Arsenal didn’t jeopardise their access to a huge commercial market that Chelsea could so easily have tapped into themselves. Furthermore, the excesses of oligarchs has actually played right into the hands of Wenger, offering him a readymade market of inflated prices for the steady stream of premier academy talent that he had discovered and nurtured using the very same sabermetric analysis.

For all of this, Wenger’s critics still have a point. For all the commercialisation, the adherence to financial fair play, Arsenal are yet to win a trophy since their FA Cup triumph in 2005. Billy Beane may have been forced to implement his Moneyball philosophy partly due to a lack of funds but the overall objective was simple: he wanted the Oakland A’s to win the World Series. While it would be wrong to claim that Wenger has failed in this objective; his 1998 double and 49 games unbeaten in 2003/2004 would prove otherwise, the fact remains that he has failed to balance the demands of a new stadium with the constant clamour for silverware. Football is not a business. Above all else, it is a game that fans and players alike want to win. Although 4th place may be viewed as a success in the boardroom this isn’t a view shared on the backstreets, and patience with Wenger has been growing painfully thin for some time. Financial stability, you could say, should be the default platform upon which clubs make their challenge for titles, but this should be a means for success and not be counted as pure success in itself.

Through all this irritation and annoyance however, Arsenal fans are guilty of being short-sighted. No doubt nine years without a trophy will do that to most people, but Arsene Wenger has created a system that will still hold firm in 90 years. When the oligarchs begin to lose interest, when Financial Fair Play finally begins to bite, Wenger’s rich blend of academy players and commercial success will finally bear the kind of fruit that it has been threatening to since the Emirates was built. There will come a time when Arsenal Football Club win trophies again. Maybe this time could have come sooner if the Frenchman been a touch less stubborn, but his methods will be vindicated and you can be sure that Arsenal fans will still be thanking Arsene Wenger long after Chelsea fans have finished thanking Roman Abramovich.