Tuesday 20 March 2018

Comment: Why losing alone won't be enough for Kroenke to sack Arsene Wenger

Arsene Wenger
Arsene Wenger
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. Photo credit: Nick Potts/PA Wire
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

At the beginning of last year's American Football season, the Los Angeles Rams had that illogical optimism that every club, player and supporter gets when they believe that this year might be different.

There was the buzz of having moved to a new city from St Louis, a decent defence and one of the league's best young players as well as having acquired what they considered to be the first choice from all of the best available college players.

One of the problems, however, was that their coach, Jeff Fisher, hadn't won more games than he had lost in a season for five years, and it quickly turned out that Jared Goff, the quarterback they had picked first in the draft was as ready for professional football as a bleeding man is to swim with sharks.

None of which has any relevance to the Premier League until you realise just how much it took for Fisher to get fired by owner Stan Kroenke, the majority shareholder of Arsenal. Losing, on its own, wasn't enough.

Fisher, like Wenger, seems a decent bloke and last season started promisingly with three wins out of the first four. They then lost four in a row, but it was off-field issues that would undermine Fisher.

Eric Dickerson is a legendary Rams player whose opinion carries plenty of weight with supporters and, if you change the names, his criticism of Fisher could have been any one of the many Arsenal players who have lined up to hammer Wenger in the last few seasons.

"I like Jeff Fisher, I do," the Hall of Fame running back said. "But liking a coach and then winning football games is two different things. It's no different from a player that's not performing. What do they do, they cut him or release him. The same thing with a coach, I mean, if you're not gonna perform and you can't have a winning football team, you're just not gonna be there."

While Wenger tends to keep his cool at criticism from former players, Fisher contacted Dickerson and, according to the latter, told him he was no longer welcome at the stadium. That went against one of the cornerstones of management: never to fight back from a position of weakness.

Despite all of this, Kroenke handed Fisher a new two-year deal before a game against the Atlanta Falcons in December in which, at one point, they found themselves 42-0 down. Their inept defeat meant Fisher equalled the record for the coach who has lost the most matches in NFL history.

After the game, Todd Gurley, who had been magnificent in the previous season, felt they "looked like a middle school offense" and questioned the team's effort level.

The following day, eight days after his two-year deal was announced, Fisher was fired.

Stan Kroenke watches the LA Rams, his American football team CREDIT: USA TODAY

For Kroenke (above), losing alone wasn't reason enough to sack Fisher, nor was a group of supporters weary and angry at their Groundhog Day seasons of under-achievement. But mixed in with the PR disaster of his argument with Dickerson and a player signalling that something was wrong inside the dressing-room, Kroenke finally decided to act.

There were echoes of Gurley's words in Theo Walcott's comments after the defeat to Crystal Palace in which the Arsenal captain chose to apologise for something which happened, rather than attempting to do something to prevent it in the first place.

"We can only apologise. They wanted it more. You could sense that from the kick-off," he said in that classic way footballers have of taking responsibility but deflecting it at the same time, perhaps towards the coaching staff who should have prepared them better.

In the culture of most American sports, however, coaches are king and take the title of 'Coach' with them to the commentary box in the same way US presidents are referred to as Mr President long after they have left the White House.

Wenger, too, will be respected long after he finally leaves Arsenal and may get around to writing his long-promised book in retirement. He may choose to follow the path of George Karl whose magnificently named Furious George book lashed, among others, Carmelo Anthony, of whom he said: "He had no commitment to the hard, dirty work of stopping the other guy."

Anthony was Karl's star player with the Denver Nuggets basketball team, also owned by the Kroenke family, and was part of a team that could beat anybody when on their game and lose to anyone when they weren't.

In his nine seasons there, Karl won more matches than he lost and reached the play-offs in every one of his nine years, but fell at the first hurdle in all bar one.

What Kroenke will have noted is that since he eventually fired Karl in 2013, the Nuggets haven't made it to the play-offs. American sport is littered with teams and players whose statistical achievements are impressive but haven't the trophies to back it up which, from Wenger's perspective, makes him the ideal owner for the past decade.

Wenger can point to his incredible record of reaching the Champions League knockout stages and argue that even if Tottenham finish above them this season, they will only be the sixth club to do so - after Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Liverpool and Leicester - when Wenger has been in charge for a full season.

Defeat tonight at Middlesbrough or an FA Cup semi-final humbling might stir Kroenke into action but, given that the Rams won four of their 16 games last season while the Nuggets had 40 wins and 42 losses with the worst crowds in the NBA, he might think that things at Arsenal are not actually that bad.

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