Arsène’s Legacy: Arsenal and Identity

Arsene Wenger with the FA Cup. Photo courtesy: Arsenal.com
Arsene Wenger with the FA Cup. Photo courtesy: Arsenal.com

“He stays with what he believes in. And I think people who do that are outstanding coaches. When you talk about consistency, Arsene’s never changed the way that his side has played.” – Sir Alex Ferguson, on Arsène Wenger.

There’s  a fine line between preserving identity and insanity (the act of repeating the same pattern expecting a different result). Yet when a manager and a team are one and the same, like all relationships, it undergoes a series of ebbs and flows, because in today’s society, real commitment and loyalty are rare commodities. But, as Arsène Wenger approaches the beginning of his final season at the helm of Arsenal, questions abound about his legacy and the passage of time and evolution of the game may be passing him by. Is Wenger a relic of a bygone era? Are so we fully immersed in a world where all that matters is that work is a detached and transactional exchange, a delicate balance where all managers are constantly teetering on the brink of losing their jobs if they fail to meet the requirements of the board, the fans, the players and countless other factors? Does identity and adherence to principle and unity of message matter?

A discussion about Wenger ultimately becomes an exercise in what is truly most important. Arsenal has its own rare identity. Though it’s a top club, a global powerhouse and has cash reserves to boot, it retains a sense of familiarity and history, something smaller clubs enjoy. Yet this is a balance. How long can it keep up this dual identity or will it go by the wayside with the eventual departure of Wenger, a name synonymous with the club? When he is gone, the Arsène in Arsenal will be gone and fans will inevitably miss him.

In their recent tour of the U.S., Wenger came across very contemplative and humbled. “Look at my hair and my wrinkles. It’s always been very difficult. I think I enjoy it because I am a competitor. I believe clubs are about identity and values. I share completely the values and identity of this club. In the modern game nobody speaks of that anymore,” he reflected.

An Arsenal fan makes his feelings known at the home defeat by Swansea this month. Photograph: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock
An Arsenal fan makes his feelings known at the home defeat by Swansea. Photo credit: TGSPhoto/Rex/Shutterstock

Wenger is the last of his kind in the Premier League. As Sigi Schmid departed from Seattle last month, in spite of the downturn in Seattle’s fortunes that led to his removal from a club his name was synonymous with, there was a sense of loss within the game of one of its greats.

“I personally think after all the success he’s had there, and what he’s brought to that club, I would have loved to, obviously, have seen him stay. I would have thought that he earned that,” Bruce Arena remarked. “[Seattle] need to do what they think is right for their club. I know the ownership group there, the management group. They’re good people. So I think they just felt it was in their best interest. I don’t have to agree with that, but that’s the way it came down.”

Yet all must move on and we exist in a world of interim positions where all of us are replaceable. Someone’s waiting in the wings to take our place in the natural order of a saturated economy. And that is accelerated by the instant gratification ethos and rapid response of social media-fueled news cycles. Wenger is not immune to the pressures he faces. Is there room in this world for real values and ideology or are managers and teams destined to succumb to external pressures? While fans have gotten more restless for trophies as the years pass by, with the growth of social media, they now have the power to unite off the pitch like never before to pressure clubs into action.

“We live in a society where people are very opinionated. And I have a very public job where it’s going to happen.” – Arsène Wenger. July 30, 2016.

This season, all eyes are on the return of Jose Mourinho to see whether his golden touch works on Manchester United, Pep Guardiola’s switch to EPL’s Manchester City and Antonio Conte’s arrivial at Chelsea. The rate of turnover at three of Arsenal’s historically biggest rivals is the new normal, so few bat an eye at the pace with which managers come and go in modern EPL.

“In this country, it’s a very different kind of difficulty. Here you have a number of clubs who think they should be No. 1. In Germany, there is one team who think they have to be and one team who think they should be. The rest hope for I don’t know what. It’s different.” – Jürgen Klopp, Liverpool.

Arsène Wenger has been the manager of Premier League’s Arsenal since October 1996, making him second to just Sir Alex Ferguson of Manchester United. In that time Arsenal has won 3 EPL titles, 5 FA Cups and 4 Community Shields and has a win percentage of 58%, putting him in the top 4 (following Mourinho, Ferguson and Mancini). It’s been 12 years since the days of ‘The Invincibles’ and 10 years since their best Champions League run. Arsenal also boast the longest run since they were last relegated (pre-Premier League days) back in 1912 from Division One. Since ’96, Arsène’s era has been split into two distinct phases: the first set when they consistently placed 1st or 2nd until 2005, at which point the 4th and 3rd place years began. And last season, was shaping up to be a historical first with Tottenham almost finishing above them in the standings (a first in 21 years), dissapointing supporters who saw them at the top of the table in January. Yet the Gunners pulled themselves out of the funk and Tottenham’s collapse at the end of the season meant a 2nd place ranking, the highest for Arsenal in 11 years. Still they were a full 10 points behind the fairy tale finish of Leicester City FC, by the end of it all.

BORING, AVERAGE, DULL?

“I think boring is 10 years without a title. That’s very boring. You support the club and you’re waiting, waiting, waiting for so many years without a Premier League title, so that’s very boring.” -Jose Mourinho…2015. 

Mourinho and Wenger have traded barbs over the years and the two have little in common with their styles of management and leadership. Mourinho is a trophy winning magician whose charismatic and boldly flexible tactics have won his teams titles in over four countries. But he got sacked by the same club he helped win one of those titles. He’s definitely not boring.

Meanwhile, Arsène’s contributions transformed Arsenal and English football, taking what was once uncreative “boring, boring Arsenal” and building it into an iconic beautiful game that reached its highest level in 2004 with the speed, power and counter-attacking skill of The Invincibles. He globalized the look of the game too making it more inclusive to non-Englishmen. He’s since then developed a new homegrown spirit in the dressing room.

Wenger had to adapt and buckle down in response to the decision in 2000 that Highbury, was too small and limited Arsenal’s potential income. In 2006 Emirates stadium was finished at a cost of £390 million.

“I had a huge sense of responsibility when we built the stadium to get the club through it without going bankrupt. The first years were difficult, and also explained why we lost some players.” – Wenger, via Arsenal.com.

For years Arsenal saw their high profile players depart. Patrick Vieira, for £13.75million in 2005, followed by Thierry Henry, Ashley Cole, Emmanuel Adebayor, Samir Nasri, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie. The Gunners could not afford replacements of the same stature and the bottom line profited from the transfers while their game suffered and fans moaned. Since 2006 they’ve operated from revenue, sponsorship, redevelopment of Highbury into luxury flats and the selling of players.

Arsene Wenger with Robin Van Persie. Photo credit: Ian Hodgson
Arsene Wenger with Robin Van Persie. Photo credit: Ian Hodgson

Having paid off the stadium, they are still keeping to a business-minded philosophy rather than accumulating debt like other clubs, such as Manchester United and Chelsea who owe £255 million and £1.1 billion respectively compared to Arsenal’s £6 million, they’ve been in a position to continue making costly signings such as Ozil and Sanchez. Yet their stingy signings last season, Petr Čech and Mohamed Elneny, and their inability to woo the bigger names this summer are concerning to those to want to usher Arsenal into the modern era of football.

Perhaps the silver lining to an absentee and hands off ownership of Stan Kroenke is that he may never input his money or time into the club, so they’ll always be creatively resourceful and frugal. It’s become a part of their ethos. Whereas most say it’s Arsenal not waking up to the new reality of spend big or go home (without a trophy), some purists feel it’s truly focusing on building a self-sustaining football club that will eventually reward itself and its fans.

SHOW US (SOME OF) THE MONEY?

Arsenal’s loyal fan base still waits for a big name to join the likes of Granit Zhaka (£33.8 million), Rob Holding (£2 million) and Takuma Asano (£5 million) with likely £100 million to have been available to be spent this summer. As August 14th’s opening against Liverpool approaches with an ever-decreasing pool of players, the restlessness of supporters becomes a daily feature in the headlines. Riyad Mahrez, Julian Draxler, Alexandre Lacazette all remain possibilities but the Gunners’ current injury woes are all too familiar with the likely 4-5 month loss of seasoned veteran and defensive leader Per Mertesacker. According to the 2015 numbers, Arsenal had the 3rd highest income in League, £345 million, and the 4th highest wage bill, £192 million.

Not only that, but Arsenal became the first Premier League club to hit £100 million in income received from the Premier League last season, almost £8m more than champions Leicester City.

https://twitter.com/martynziegler/status/735115756430630916/photo/1?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

In spite of the influx of resources and record ticket prices, Arsenal still clings to their frugal past as a part of their identity in investing in the future. Chief executive Ivan Gazidis urged supporters to not have high expectations for the summer transfers citing that they have multiple priorities.

“This year we’re investing over £20m in developing our facilities – our training ground for young players and our academy and the main training ground. Those are investments that are being made for the long-term future of the football club, for the next 10, 15, 20 years,” Gazidis emphasizes. “And we’re making those decisions in exactly the same way, and Arsene Wenger is actively involved in them, even though he probably won’t see the fruits of all of those investments.”

A ONE MAN BALANCING ACT?

Arsenal v Sunderland - FA Cup Third Round - Emirates Stadium - 9/1/16 Photo credit: Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley
Arsenal v Sunderland – FA Cup Third Round – Emirates Stadium – 9/1/16
Photo credit: Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley

All these years, Wenger has been the face for the identity of Arsenal FC. He has weathered the storms and he has taken the majority of the criticism and accolades as they come and go. It’s a benefit for a club without a vociferous and micro-managerial ownership group. It’s someone the media can berate and question. It’s someone the fans can vilify. It’s someone the game can crown. He’s therefore all the things a manager must be and then some.

In spite of that, the powers that be are careful to point out that he is not invincible. Gazidis is quick to play his cards when pressed to the point. “We don’t have any sense of nostalgia. Our support for Arsene Wenger is not based on the history of what he’s done for our football club, as extraordinary as that is,” he emphasized this summer. “We need to win major titles and we feel that pressure every day.”

“We would not be successful if we simply went out into the transfer market and tried to outgun our competitors. We’re run in a self-sustaining way, and a way that we believe in, because we believe it gives us certainty for the future, and enables us to plan our future with confidence.”

Arsenal has an identity that is worth more than money can buy and now the added benefit of the money to steer the market in a potentially unique direction. What Leicester City proved last season was that the Premier League Title isn’t necessarily won by the biggest spenders. What Arsenal sets out to prove, but have yet to do, is they can determine how they want to win the game by perhaps revolutionizing the system once again.

WINNING THE ARSENAL WAY

“When we win, we will win on the back of our own effort, on the back of our own hard work and revenue that we as a club generate based on our power as a global brand. We won’t win on the back of a wealthy benefactor reaching into his pocket and solving the problem that way.” – Arsenal Football Club chief commercial officer, Tom Fox

Not surprisingly, fans were outraged and dismayed last season after the post-January collapse that nearly cost the club a top 4 finish. Many rebuke Wenger’s crew for actively losing the title. Instead, Wenger asks them to look at it with perspective and true love for the game itself, not just club loyalty. What the Foxes accomplished last season was historic and by beating them twice, Arsenal at least proved they did something almost no one else could.

“You say we should have won the league but Leicester lost three games in the season… You have to respect the performance. It’s not the name that wins the championship. You have to respect that. They lost only 3 games, two against us, that means basically no one else beat them. You have to respect that.” – Arsène Wenger, July 30, 2016.

A FAN’S PERSPECTIVE ON LEGACY

In the end, this is a defining season for Wenger. The financial shackles have been off for years and the adjustment period should be over. The next two purchases will really prove his mettle. If he’s able to survive and thrive this season with the trophy, he may very well be offered another contract or retire with class and adulation. Regardless of the results, there are fans out there who still believe he will always be known for changing the game.

Arsenal v Sunderland - FA Cup Third Round - Emirates Stadium - 9/1/16 Photo credit: Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley
Arsenal v Sunderland – FA Cup Third Round – Emirates Stadium – 9/1/16
Photo credit: Action Images via Reuters / John Sibley

“I get a feeling if he has a successful season, they’ll give him another contract, at least pushing, if not winning the title, pushing hard. Not like last season, comes down to the last game, if it’s something like that that might set him right. If it’s a bad or average season, it’s going to be his last season. A lot have caught up and moved on to his style of playing. A lot of teams know how we play so they’ll come and be very defensive and try to aim to stop us. It has worked for a lot of teams over the years. But he showed last season in the big games, we did alright.” Robbie Lyle, Arsenal Fan TV founder.

How will history judge Wenger? Probably better in hindsight than most currently do. While those who know the game as well, like Sir Alex Ferguson, respect and even applaud the strict adherence to an identity as being part of the brand on and off the pitch, most fans of the game with their singular definition of winning, feel the trophy is well overdue. It begs the question if one more title would be enough to end the dialogue of defeatism. The game is no longer the beautiful game in this current environment. It has evolved and Arsenal is attempting to withstand the pressure of the rising tide of high stakes.

The 2015/16 season of the Foxes brought with it a needed fairytale to make soccer fans fall back in love with what was becoming entangled in a mire of big money. Hopefully the lesson is not lost on everyone as the upcoming season’s battles begin.

“He revolutionized football in England when he first came. He changed the diets of footballers. He changed the style of play. He’s done so much for English football as a whole. I think his legacy will always be intact,” Robbie Lyle concludes with the absolute certainty of a lifelong supporter of his club.

 

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