The accepted spin from Arsenal’s PR machine is that Arsene Wenger is doing a grand job. Since he was appointed manager on October 1 1996, Arsenal have qualified for the Champions League every year (they have never won it, mind).
Arsenal are rightly proud to have won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups during the Wenger era (but nothing since Patrick Vieira’s winning penalty at the Millennium Stadium in 2005). They will also throw in the Invincibles or Thierry Henry’s 226 goals in 370 appearances to reinforce the the argument that Wenger is the greatest manager of all time. After 16 years at the club, it is easy to be swept away by the nostalgia.
Wenger was a great manager, but that was then. And this is now.
As a regular over the years at Wenger’s press conferences at Arsenal’s London Colney training base, the phrase ‘judge me at the end of the season’ are a common theme. Fair enough, except he has been saying that every year since 2006 and ever since that defeat against Barcelona in the Champions League final the team has been in terminal decline.
Today he relies on that phrase most weeks, buying him time when he recognises that the supporters are about to turn on his team. It is a useful get-out: by the time the season ends, no-one cares for the teams finishing second, third or fourth.
Club football comes to an abrupt halt for two months and by the time everyone returns fully-charged from a summer break, all that counts is what happens in the future. The past is the past and there is nothing quite like the present. Good for Wenger, but not if you happen to be a Gunner.
Losing against Swansea on Saturday was another depressing spike in Arsenal’s season and there are too many of them for a club ranked the fifth biggest in Europe by UEFA. In terms of income only Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich are considered to be bigger clubs than Arsenal. They are a serious player in European football, although Arsenal will attempt to fool you into thinking otherwise.
That philosophy protects people in well-paid positions, particularly the near £2m salary paid to chief executive Ivan Gazidis and the £7m per annum paid to Wenger. No-one walks away from that kind of money and Wenger isn’t about to start considering his future. He can point to the statistics and sway you into believing Arsenal are on the verge of something special again after seven years without silverware. It isn’t about to happen any time soon.
The move to the new stadium is often cited as one of the main contributory factors behind their failure to impose themselves on the opposition. It’s not true.
Under Wenger they won 187 games at Highbury and boasted a win ratio of 70.6 per cent at their famous old home. Since the move to the Emirates in 2006, they are only a fraction worse off (70.3 per cent) after more than 140 games inside their magnificent 60,000 capacity stadium in north London. In terms of wins, no other Arsenal manager in the history of the club can get anywhere near Wenger’s 57.7 per cent record.
Harry Bradshaw, who managed Woolwich Arsenal at the turn of the century, won 50.8 per cent of his games in charge. Herbert Chapman, who won the club’s first FA Cup in 1930 boasts a 49.9 per cent win record; George Graham, who led the team to the league title in 1991, won 48.9 per cent of his games in charge of Arsenal.
Wenger’s past achievements are not insignificant, but he broke up the team that reached the 2006 Champions League final in the Stade de France and has never recovered. He systematically ripped up that side and started over again after years of sustained success with a balanced team.
It is easy to name some of the great Arsenal players of his time: Seaman, Lauren, Cole, Keown, Adams, Ljungberg, Vieira, Pires, Fabregas, Bergkamp and Henry. The current team is incomparable, well short of the standard required to compete for the Premier League title. Wojciech Szczesny, for example, is a good keeper, but not good enough. The same will be said about Carl Jenkinson, Theo Walcott, Mikel Arteta, Gervinho and others in that Arsenal squad. They are way off the pace, almost to the point of embarrassment after Manchester United stretched their lead over the Gunners in the Premier League to 15 points after just 15 games.
The Gunners have averaged more possession (59.9%) than any other team in the Premier League this season, while only Manchester City have allowed their opponents fewer attempts on their goal than Arsenal's 155. As with all of Wenger's Arsenal teams, they keep the ball well, but this one are still clearly lacking something in their game.
The Champions League provides a welcome distraction this week and they are already assured of their place in the draw for the second round on Thursday, December 20 in Nyon. The club will be delighted with the progress to the next phase and some will claim it is a magnificent achievement for the (fifth biggest) club in Europe to reach the last 16.
They will fall well short again this season, but the manager has fallen behind the times.