Arsène Wenger’s Sweet Spot

February 24, 2017

Recent heavy losses to Chelsea and Bayern Munich have again prompted much talk of Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger’s shortcomings.

With Wenger’s contract due to expire in June and Arsenal’s chances of supremacy in the Premier League and Champions League scuppered, strident and influential voices are saying the club and manager should part ways. His failures are cause, they say, for termination.

Terms of the debate

As ever with arguments–especially over such binary functions as Wenger In/Out—there’s a risk of constructing straw men. Even so, I’d characterize the core contentions in these ways:

  • The manager is tactically naïve
  • He has displayed an inability to motivate today’s players for the big occasion
  • He indulges too many underperforming players
  • His footballing philosophy has proven inadequate
  • Events and results have unfolded in predictable fashion

Evidence exists to support each of these points. Except the final one, which is maddening to anyone like me who has limited time for entertainment and chooses to follow sport precisely because of its potential for the unexpected.

Despite the foundations of these arguments, I would like to suggest that they don’t fully reflect Arsenal’s current state of affairs under Wenger.

Expanding the perspective

We can conduct a fuller, more accurate examination by contrasting Wenger’s FA Cup record with his team’s performances over league campaigns.

Wenger is the most decorated modern FA Cup manager. In 19 tournaments, he has raised the trophy six times. With one more success, he will be the most successful FA Cup manager of all time, moving ahead of Aston Villa’s George Ramsay (1855-1935).

Longevity and a flow of excellent players have certainly played parts in Wenger’s record.

Just as important, though, has been his philosophy and approach. What Philippe Auclair has called the manager’s “jazz” style—a less structured system encouraging individual autonomy and expression—has the potential to merge stunning aesthetics and overwhelming victories.

That brilliance and beauty can be rare and fleeting, but when they coincide, we witness an extraordinary sporting accomplishment. The most recent example was Arsenal’s 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa in the 2015 FA Cup Final.

Another element of skill in knockout competitions is avoiding major upsets. In this, Wenger has unquestionably succeeded. Only once in his tenure have Arsenal lost to a lower-division team in the FA Cup. That 2013 defeat to Blackburn was a real low point.

The point here is that discrete, win-and-advance matches in which conditions are level or slightly favor Arsenal bring out the best in Wenger’s sides.

Points of contrast

In other, high-profile situations, the approach has been found wanting. The Champions League knockout stages are the most stinging recent example.

Wenger’s style doesn’t thrive one-on-one with Europe’s elites because conditions are rarely neutral. Whether it’s officiating, higher-pedigree and richer opposition, less-advantageous scheduling, or other factors, Arsenal find the going difficult at the business end of the Champions League.

His freeform philosophy can also be detrimental on the frequent occasions that tactical precision and structure carry European nights.

For 13 years, the ultimate achievement has eluded Wenger in the Premier League as well.

Each campaign, Arsenal start with an incredibly tight margin of error. It’s so narrow due to the strong correlation between financial outlay on transfer fees and wages and the final league finish. And let’s keep in mind that if the title is the only measure of satisfaction, 19 teams end up dissatisfied.

Over the scope of a 38-match season, Wenger’s philosophy has not produced a credible title challenge since at least 2008. Since the Invincibles of 2003-04, Arsenal have exceeded 80 points just twice. Historically, that is the bare minimum for contention.

This record suggests that Wenger’s approach isn’t enough to overcome Arsenal’s financial disadvantage relative to bigger spenders Chelsea, Manchester United, and Manchester City.

And yet, there’s a credible case that Wenger has exceeded the league performance we should expect given the club’s expenditures. To date, his teams have never finished lower than fourth place. In the past 10 years, no other club can make that claim.

What do you expect?

Expectations are, therefore, the issue. In many ways, Wenger is suffering from the standards he himself set, at least in league play. His three triumphant teams enjoyed structural and cultural advantages that more recent sides have not.

On the other hand, Wenger still has the philosophy and the players to achieve domestic cup greatness. That won’t arrive every year—the quest for beauty and brilliance on the day does risk irredeemable defeat. But isn’t it worth watching for the potential?


Comments

  1. Football Nerd - February 24, 2017 at 10:49

    A very interesting read Hap, the key question you raise is should we be satisfied with Cup success? Also, in 2015 the Villa side managed by ‘Tactics’ Tim Sherwood were woeful on the day. Personally, I have enjoyed our cup success but am frustrated by the lack of tangible progress or improvement in the ‘bread and butter’ of the League or the Holy Grail of the Champions League.

    Reply
    • 900ftGooner - February 24, 2017 at 11:00

      Thanks, Gaz. I agree about Villa’s abject performance in that final. The run the previous year, when we beat That Lot, Liverpool, Coventry, and Everton to reach Wembley might illustrate my point better. I would also say that there have been league campaigns when Arsenal should have contended longer, even if winning it didn’t happen in the end.

      Reply

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