For much of the Premier League season, most prolifically during its winter period, Arsenal chief executive Ivan Gazidis has been boasting a new contract in the pipeline for Arsene Wenger, that will take the Frenchman’s tenure into an unprecedented third decade at the club.
Back in January, the South African businessman informed journalists; “Arsène will be extending with us and, at the right time, we will make that announcement. We have always supported Arsène, the board and Stan Kroenke have always been completely behind him. Arsène has always been committed to the club. He’s the right person to see us forward.”
But when that optimum occasion will actually be is still awaiting confirmation; recent reports in the tabloids, namely the Daily Mirror and The Metro, have claimed that the 18-year serving Gunners gaffer is getting cold feet, and could decide to ‘walk out’ at the end of the season.
Usually I tend to take speculation from the British press with a pinch of salt, but the £160k per-week contract, that would affirm Wenger’s position as one of the best-paid managers in world football, was agreed in principle over twelve months ago. At the same time, with this being by far the latest the Frenchman has ever left it to extend his contract since arriving in North London in 1996, one can safely assume that Le Prof is having some doubts.
In my opinion, quite rightly so. A few weeks ago, Arsenal were flying high at the summit of the Premier League table and comfortable contenders for the English crown for the first time in the best part of a decade.
But as they enter a final stretch of burdening league fixtures, that includes Tottenham, Chelsea, Manchester City and Everton in the coming weeks, whilst Liverpool’s form appears to have found a whole new gear, there’s now a greater likelihood that the North Londoners will finish the season in fourth place than at the top of the table.
Should that be the case come May-time, then Arsene Wenger owes it to the club to refuse his new contract and step down.
That may seem like a fairly radical view, but it would be rather disturbing to witness a Gunners side that lead the Premier League title-charge for four months end up in the same ultimate position they found themselves in last year. They may as well have not bothered debasing the club’s entire transfer policy by forking out a record-breaking £42million on Mesut Ozil in the summer.
Similarly, the sagas of Arsene Wenger’s January windows are becoming like Groundhog Day. Once again confronted with the task of adding a striker to his roster, the North London boss hesitated and dwindled, before telling the British press he wasn’t interested in any of the targets the club had been linked with in the tabloids.
Then, after trying to convince Schalke to sell him Julian Draxler for significantly less than his actual worth, Wenger brought in 31-year old, injury-stricken loan signing Kim Kallstrom – hardly what you’d call an ambitious acquisition – before remarking that he wouldn’t have launched a bid for the Sweden international if he had more time.
Preposterous. Wenger had a whole month to actively negotiate with other clubs – in addition to an entire half-season to plan for the winter window – and although the likes of Dimitar Berbatov, Alexandre Pato, Mirko Vucinic or Sebastian Giovinco may not have been the most long-term signings, they could have provided the fire-power to get the Gunners over the finishing line this season. Berbatov for example – a two-time Premier League title-winner, which would have made him the only prior English title-winner on the Arsenal roster – left Fulham for Monaco on a free transfer. A rare flex of pragmatism, and Arsenal’s title charge could still be in full flow right now.
It’s not so much Arsene Wenger’s qualities as a manager; just glancing at the Gunners alumni that blossomed under his leadership tells you everything you need to know about the Emirates manager’s abilities to nurture, develop and transform talented youngsters into world-class players.
But rather, his ideology of persistently building from within; of viewing every acquisition in terms of cost-effectiveness rather than quality; of planning ahead in five, ten and twenty year cycles rather than committing himself to solely focusing on a single campaign; comes with disturbing limitations. Translated into successes and failures on the football pitch, that limit appears to be fourth in the Premier League table, and a continual malaise of silverware.
Don’t get me wrong, the Gunners have decisively improved from their hot-and-cold campaign last season, particularly becoming more consistent against the Premier League’s more rank-and-file opposition. But the worry is that, despite this obvious progress, the North London side have been left no better for it. It seems that the Wenger philosophy, as morally justified and commendable as it is, will always lack the ruthlessly cruel efficiency required to take the club to another level.
The coming summer window could parallel last season’s in terms of its importance to Arsenal’s cause. A new sponsorship deal with Puma worth £150million over its five-year duration will, according to the Telegraph, leave Wenger with autonomous control over an £80million transfer budget ahead of next season.
That money could be trusted in the hands of the current Arsenal boss, who will probably spend it on several players under the age of 24 who may or may not go on to great things in their later careers, in another five-year plan. Or it could be given to a new manager, with new ideas and with the confidence to take the club in a different direction. Most importantly, it could be given to a pragmatist that will view silverware, rather than the progression of young talent, as the club’s ultimate priority.
Gazidis and co. will shudder at the thought of Arsene Wenger walking out of the Emirates after the disaster campaign David Moyes has endured in the wake of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement at Manchester United.
But that’s why it’s down to the Frenchman to make the decision for his employers; like Ferguson at Old Trafford, Arsenal as a club has institutionalised around Wenger’s personality and philosophy, and resultantly, the fear of losing him will always outweigh the optimism of finding an adequate successor.
A near-decade out of the title race and almost nine years without a trophy however, should Arsenal’s season end as fruitless at the last, Wenger owes it to himself and the club to admit that wholesale change is necessary by refusing a new contract.