For nearly a decade now, there have been murmurs of discontent regarding Arsène Wenger’s management of Arsenal. As Arsenal see yet another Premier League title slip from their grasp, those murmurs are quickly becoming a roar.
It’s fairly easy to pinpoint the source of Arsenal fans’ displeasure; they haven’t won a Premier League title since 2004. A pair of FA Cup wins in recent years have placated some supporters, but it is certainly fair to say that the past decade has not been a successful one for Arsenal. And now, following a 3-1 drubbing at the hands of league-leaders Chelsea, they now sit a full twelve points adrift of the top spot. Not helping the situation is the constant stream of excuses coming from Wenger himself. Despite not having any European football for two months prior to their meeting with Chelsea, Wenger claimed that at least some of the fault for the loss was due to tiredness in his squad. It’s hard to have faith in a manager who can’t take responsibility when his side loses.
Referees are a favourite target of Wenger’s excuses. Should there be any hint of a controversial call against Arsenal, you can be sure that Wenger will blame at least one goal on it. Nothing could sum-up the frustration that so many other managers clearly feel towards Wenger than the comment of Everton manager Ronald Koeman earlier this season when asked about Wenger’s post-match comments: “I’m not surprised because it’s the third [home game] in a row I won against Arsenal and three times in a row it was about the referee”. Arsenal are a team in need of change, and it is very hard to create effective change when the manager won’t even hold himself accountable.
Whilst Wenger’s attitude is clearly unhelpful, the problems very much start on the pitch. Whilst it isn’t obviously apparent what this Arsenal team is lacking, a stark comparison can be made with the Arsenal sides that have managed to win Premier League titles under Wenger. The three sides to win the league under Wenger allowed 26, 33 and 36 goals in their respective seasons, this current side are on track to concede 44. Whilst this is not an enormous discrepancy, it is significant. Of course, no manager has even been able to roll out elite teams every season, but there should be questions about whether Wenger has ever succeeded in building a strong defensive unit.
The core back four that led Arsenal to their first title under Wenger was comprised of players who were already at the club when Wenger arrived. The 2002 squad did see some changes though, with the addition of Sol Campbell from Tottenham and Lauren from Mallorca. These players, when combined with the remnants of the old guard and the emergence of youth development product Ashley Cole, allowed Arsenal to remain defensively excellent. The only addition that made a significant impact on the 2004 team was Kolo Touré, a player Wenger signed for loose change. Wenger did manage to build an excellent defensive team in the early 2000s , but it is only when you look at the scale of his spending in this area that the problem becomes apparent.
Without a consistent goal threat, Arsenal are overly reliant on performances from Özil and Sanchez to keep them going week to week
During his first three seasons as Arsenal manager, Wenger spent just £4.5 million on defenders. Over the next three years he spent £15.5 million on defenders. During the spell encompassing the two later championships he spent just under £4 million. That means that in the nine years encompassing his three titles he spent less than £25 million. In the thirteen years since then he has spent approximately £130 million on defenders. Over the past three seasons alone he has spent over £70 million on just four defenders, none of whom have started twenty games in a season for Arsenal and two of whom have performed so badly they are currently loaned out. It cannot be said that Wenger has never signed a good defender, but it certainly seems fair to say that he has struggled signing defenders, and that this is a trend that is only getting worse.
Whilst this Arsenal side do certainly play the attractive flowing football that Wenger has always been famous for, there are other differences between this Arsenal side and those that gave him much of his early success. Whilst this Arsenal side is full of attacking playmakers, the lack of a true striker who can perform consistently has been an issue. Giroud’s consistency is lacking, and while he was able to rescue a number of games for Arsenal during January, he has since faded once more. No Arsenal player has scored more than twenty goals since Robin Van Persie hit thirty back in 2012; Thierry Henry reached that mark for five consecutive seasons during the early 2000s glory days. It goes without saying to anybody remotely familiar with Arsenal that those championship teams were spearheaded by some of the best forwards the Premier League has even seen, notably Ian Wright and Thierry Henry. Since Van Persie left, Wenger has signed a number of strikers (totalling around £50 million) but none of these have been for more than £20 million and have scored just 93 combined goals in 258 games. Henry didn’t even play that many games for Arsenal and he managed to score almost twice as many goals! Without a consistent goal threat, Arsenal are overly reliant on performances from Özil and Sanchez to keep them going week to week, which really doesn’t help their title chances.
Arsenal are a team in need of change, and it is very hard to create effective change when the manager won’t even hold himself accountable.
Whilst harder to quantify in terms of goals scored or allowed, what Arsenal are perhaps missing most is the presence of Patrick Vieira. Vieira was one of Wenger’s very first signings as Arsenal manager and went on to play over four hundred games for Arsenal across all competitions during his nine years with the club. Widely regarded as one of the best defensive midfielders in the history of the game, Vieira was able to control the game and generate attacks for Arsenal. The only comparable defensive player at the moment is N’Golo Kanté, and nobody playing today has Vieira’s combination of defensive effort and playmaking ability. Clearly it isn’t fair to expect Wenger to be able to fully replace a player like Vieira, yet his failure to do so has exposed the core issue with Arsenal under Wenger; they are a team hugely dependant on the play of individual stars. Whilst Wenger’s system allows star players to flourish, it is also heavily reliant on them. Özil and Sanchez are both very good players, but relying on them to generate all of your attacking threat on a consistent basis is unrealistic. Neither is Dennis Bergkamp.
Wenger’s time at Arsenal is likely nearly over. Ian Wright recently reported that Wenger has told him that his time at Arsenal is “coming to an end” and his contract is due to expire after the season. Whilst Wenger’s time at Arsenal can certainly be said to have been successful, his inability to generate consistent performances and his ludicrous excuse-making has made the last few years hard to bear. Even so, it will take a lot of bravery (or foolhardiness) for anybody to accept the position of his replacement. I wonder if David Moyes fancies a change of scene?