Almost halfway through this league season, Arsenal stood in sixth-place. Discontent amongst the Arsenal fans, which had been brewing for many years (exacerbated by exorbitant ticket prices), arguably came to a head on 7th December last year. At that time, after their team had lost 3-2 at Stoke, Gunners fans booed, shouted “out” and yelled “fuck off” to Arsene Wenger, Arsenal’s manager, as he boarded a train home to London.
Since the turn of the year, the hecklers have become increasingly quiet, largely because their team’s performances and results have significantly improved. In recent weeks, they’ve been playing the most thrilling football in the country. Nonetheless, it still wouldn’t be crazy to suggest that Wenger should leave at the end of the season. Not necessarily correct, but not crazy either.
Firstly, we’ve seen these kinds of resurgences before from Arsenal. On 1st February 2012, after a gruelling season, Arsenal lay in seventh-place in the league. They won nine of their next 10 league games and ended up finishing third. On 20th January 2013, after another difficult half-season, Arsenal were in sixth-place; they won 10 of their next 12 games and ultimately came fourth. In each case, the Gunners failed to follow up their excellent close-season with a consistently good campaign in the next.
Secondly, Wenger himself could have several criticisms fairly levied against him. Lately, for example, his transfer record has been erratic. Of their recent big-money signings, Santi Cazorla, Olivier Giroud and Alexis Sanchez have been clear successes; Lukas Podolski, Nacho Monreal, Mesut Ӧzil and Danny Welbeck have been clear misses so far.
Wenger is more than a man in an enormous coat
Wenger’s development of existing players has also been mixed. For example, the emergence of Francis Coquelin might seem to demonstrate Wenger’s unfailing talent to nurture young players. However, Coquelin burst onto the scene only because his manager felt forced to play him, as other players were injured. Maybe Wenger deserves credit for helping the young defensive midfielder reach his current standard. Alternatively, maybe Wenger deserves criticism for taking so long to appreciate Coquelin’s talent; he has recently admitted that the player’s emergence has “surprised” him.
But there’s a deeper reason why the club’s fans, board, and Wenger himself should give serious thought to the idea of him leaving at the end of the season.
One of the ideas that Nick Hornby explored in his book, Fever Pitch, is the suggestion that we don’t follow football in pursuit of success but, actually, we follow it in order to make an emotional gamble.
Why, for example, do we ridicule and barrack those who regularly hop from supporting one team to supporting another (especially if the latter team is in the midst of winning trophies)? If we followed football in order to latch onto success, then we would surely respect successful “glory-hunters”. After all, these people – if they do it properly – make good predictions about who’s going to win and bask in the triumph. If we were all trying to do the latter, then we’d laud their behaviour. Instead, however, we think such conduct is contemptible. This seems to imply that we think they follow football in the wrong way.
As Hornby himself argued, we actually follow football in order to make our lives less emotionally bland. When following a football team, the happiness that’s derived is the result of what’s essentially a random lottery of who we support and how well they do.
Under Wenger, Arsenal – who Hornby actually supports – are offering less and less of an emotional gamble to their supporters. Indeed, many of us feel confident about what will come at the start of each season.
“They’ll finish in the top 4 – maybe second-place – but they won’t mount a season-long, convincing run for the title.” Anyone who thinks that their current form definitely implies that they’ll be contenders next season should bear recent years in mind.
“They’ll get out of the Champions League group stages, but they’ll go out in the Round of 16.” They’ve done this for the last five seasons in a row.
“They’ll do at least decently in domestic cup competitions, and they could win one of them.” But this inspires only temporary appeasement in the hearts of many fans; the unrest at the start of the season occurred despite last year’s FA Cup victory.
Above all, many people feel confident that Arsenal will not strike deep hopes or grave fears into the hearts of the Arsenal fans. Instead, the faithful will pay a great deal of money over the course of the season rarely to have their emotions stirred beyond experiencing muted frustration and, possibly, fleeting joy if they win the cup.
Of course, if Wenger did leave at the season’s end, it’s very plausible that his successor would – for a few years, at least – struggle do better than him given, if nothing else, how difficult it would be to re-adjust the club to the Frenchman’s absence. Say, for example, Jürgen Klopp took charge next season; would he be more triumphant over the next few years than Wenger would? Maybe, maybe not. The moderate success that Wenger has reliably delivered for the last 10 years – a few FA Cups and continual qualification for the Champions League – would be at risk.
But the most important consideration is whether a new manager, such as Klopp, would change the team and atmosphere in a way that would make the Arsenal fans feel better. That, and not moderate success, is ultimately what’s most important. Success is only valuable insofar as it makes the fans feel less bored and unstimulated as they would without football. For example, a strong hope of winning the Champions League that happened to coincide with a strong fear of coming sixth in the Premier League would perhaps be preferable, for many Arsenal fans, to the bland safety that the Wenger regime has offered until now.
Whether or not Wenger should leave Arsenal this summer is unclear; but we shouldn’t simply assume that his staying would be for the best.