Thursday 21 September 2017

Arsenal at a crossroads as fans turn on Wenger

Arsene Wenger has some tough decisions to make as he reflects on Gunners' implosion. Photo: Getty Images
Arsene Wenger has some tough decisions to make as he reflects on Gunners' implosion. Photo: Getty Images

Mark Fleming

The footage of Arsene Wenger once again resembling Basil Fawlty as he threw a bottle of water to the floor in anger and frustration at the Reebok Stadium on Easter Sunday is one of the enduring images of the season.

His petulance reinforces the view proposed a week ago by Harry Redknapp that Arsenal's failure to deliver in key games has transformed Wenger into one of the biggest "nutters" among Premier League managers.

Arsenal's form in recent weeks, however, would have tried the patience of Job. Having played themselves into contention in four competitions, they have managed to lose all their important games and will once again end the season trophyless.

Wenger seems alone in believing his team will grow organically into one that has the strength to consistently come out on top against Manchester United and Chelsea.

His angry reaction to an interview by Cesc Fabregas with a Spanish football magazine in which the Arsenal captain appeared to criticise the club's current youth-focused policy, suggested deeper anxiety; someone was touching a raw nerve.

Wenger believes his policy of buying young players and nurturing them is compatible with winning trophies. He can also point to his own record of finishing in the top four of the Premier League in each of the 14 seasons he has been in charge. Over the 14 seasons before Wenger took over, Arsenal had finished in the top four on just six occasions.

Wenger's 14 years can be conveniently broken down into two almost equal periods of seven years -- up to the 2003/04 season, followed by the period to the present day.

Before the summer of 2004, Wenger was one of the most successful managers in English history, winning both the Premier League titles and FA Cup three times in seven and a half seasons.

His teams married beautiful football with great resilience, and Arsenal reached their zenith in 2004 when the 'Invincibles' managed to go the entire season unbeaten.

That summer, however, witnessed a power shift in English football, with Chelsea's move to employ Jose Mourinho as manager.

The combination of Russian money and Portuguese guile transformed Chelsea and in the space of one season they supplanted Arsenal as the main challengers to Manchester United.

The Chelsea factor caused the leading clubs to re-evaluate themselves, with a rush to attract rich foreign owners with money, to varying degrees of success.

Nurture

Wenger's response was to nurture his own young talent, with the club in the process of having to fund the building of the new Emirates Stadium. That approach brought him the FA Cup in 2005 -- and nothing since.

Where once it was a policy born of penny-pinching necessity, it has become his own particular badge of honour.

The more money other clubs spend, the more Wenger seems determined to keep himself reined in.

Since the 'Invincibles' season of 2004, Wenger is actually in profit concerning transfer dealings, with £10.8m in the bank, thanks mostly to selling Emmanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure to Manchester City, while at the same time recruiting players such as Andrey Arshavin (£15m), Samir Nasri (£15.8m) Theo Walcott (£9m) and Thomas Vermaelen (£10m).

Such frugality is remarkable, given the net spending of his rivals -- Manchester City who have spent £435m since 2004; Chelsea £397m; Tottenham Hotspur £239m; Liverpool £142m; and Manchester United £108m, despite selling Cristiano Ronaldo for £80m.

However, there is no need for Wenger to be so miserly now and the expectation from new majority shareholder Stan Kroenke will be that his manager will spend some money for key acquisitions.

Wenger was non-committal yesterday, saying: "We have to strengthen the squad where it needs and make the right decision on that front. It (transfers) is always in my mind every day."

Arsenal also have a strict pay structure, which rules them out of certain high-level deals, but their wage bill is actually higher than those at Liverpool and Tottenham, although it is significantly lower than those at Chelsea and the two Manchester clubs.

Some Arsenal fans are now openly calling for Wenger to leave, filling message boards and radio phone-ins with anti-Arsene rhetoric.

For the critics, the first seven years of Wenger's Arsenal career, and the magnificent way he has shepherded the club's move to their glorious new stadium without losing their top-four status, is less important than the club's current apparent acceptance at being also-rans.

Wenger's comment two weeks ago, when he said: "As long as you are second in the league, I am ready to sign for the next 20 years," suggested he was happy to settle for second best.

His behaviour on the touchline at Bolton, however, showed his desire to win remains as strong as ever. (© Independent News Service)

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