You can make your jokes about Groundhog Day, Sisyphus pushing the boulder up the mountain or simply Waiting for Godot. Like many, I’ve probably used all of them when talking about Arsenal and Arsene Wenger. Everything is so familiar and so repetitive. From the guys on Arsenal Fan TV to the calls for “change.”
First, a word on the game and the outcome.
It would have taken something improbably Herculean to overturn the 5-1 first leg deficit at the Allianz Arena and that wasn’t going to happen. What you could legitimately ask for is a decent performance and until Laurent Koscielny’s red card and penalty, that’s what you got.
The rest of the game might have had emotional significance but little of practical note. It was Bayern running up the score as is their wont. Not because they’re bullies, but because they think this is how you respect an opponent: seven years ago, they beat Sporting Lisbon 5-0 in the away leg and then proceeded to unnecessarily pump them 7-1 in the return. It’s Bayern. It’s what they do.
But the broader point would not have gone away even if Koscielny had stayed on the pitch and Arsenal had rolled to a 2-1 or 3-1 win. There are major issues here.
Full disclosure: I was one of those who thought Arsene Wenger had progressed up the learning curve. I thought the team finished well last season, that Alex Iwobi would ascend to the next level, that Santi Cazorla would stay fit all year, that Shkodran Mustafi would be enough of an upgrade to settle the defence, that Granit Xhaka would make an impact beyond physically hurting opponents, that Olivier Giroud would play (and score) regularly and that Wenger would take on board some of the obvious tactical shifts in European football and stiffen up the back six through actual work on the training pitch.
Having spent time with Wenger over the years, I figured he’d have the ingenuity to learn from past mistakes and that this could be the season where it all comes together and we see genuine progress. I knew there were major structural issues at the club but I imagined there was enough talent and brains upstairs to overcome them.
Yeah, I know. It didn’t quite work out that well for me, did it?
It seems obvious to me that there are two ways out at this stage. You either believe Wenger will realize both the problems and how to solve them. Or you make structural changes.
I’m not sure the latter will happen any time soon. Or, rather, maybe he can identify some of the issues — a core of coddled players who never quite kick on, have been there forever and play like role players rather than the A-listers their wages suggest they should be, a lack of a viable defensive structure, a lack of leadership — but it’s not clear that he can fix them.
And so you look at structural change. I’m not talking about whether or not Wenger sticks around; in some ways that’s secondary. I’m talking about what the club’s goals are and how they pursue them. Wenger is only a part of that.
The first thing that strikes you is that this is a club that has been around for 131 years yet, for better or worse, it’s all about one man: Wenger. The majority owner, Stan Kroenke, hardly ever surfaces and when he does, he usually lives up to his “Silent Stan” moniker.
There’s a board, whose chairman goes by the name of “Sir Chips” and whose role seems to be wielding the rubber stamp. The executives at the club (secretary David Miles, recruitment specialist Richard Law and the chief exec, Ivan Gazidis) are talented and respected but they too seem to exist, at least in a footballing sphere, with a single purpose: to rotate around Wenger and do his bidding.
In other words, Wenger enjoys an omnipotence at the Emirates, which is unparalleled in the recent history of the game apart from one notable exception. And let’s get that exception out of the way. It’s too easy to say “well, it worked for Sir Alex, didn’t it?” For a start, Sir Alex Ferguson is an outlier, a sample size of one. More importantly, he was far from omnipotent during the first 15 years of his tenure. His power grew with his success.
Wenger is different. The first decade or so at the club, the one that was marked by real innovation and plenty of silverware, was spent sharing power with David Dein, the Executive vice chairman who was de facto Director of Football and a constant presence at the training ground and in the media. The Dein-Wenger dynamic was hugely successful but when it ended, it wasn’t replaced by anything. It became “All Arsene, all the time” instead.
Sure, there’s an argument to be made about supporting the manager and letting the “football men” get on with their job without interference from the “suits.” Talk to any manager and he’ll complain about interfering owners and executives and tell you that “if only” he was allowed to get on with his job. But there’s also a lot to be said for creative tension and balance of power and differing viewpoints. There’s a reason why very few successful organisations, not just in football or in sports, are thoroughly top-down with one unquestioned voice speaking from the top of the mountain. From the outside, this sometimes feels like North Korea, albeit without the potent weapons.
Let’s be clear, it’s not as if there aren’t folks at Arsenal capable of offering different vantage points. There’s Steve Bould, some very savvy scouts and a whole analytics company, StatDNA, that the club actually acquired a few years back. But what appears to be obvious, as evidenced by the glacial rate of change, is that these other inputs aren’t moving the needle.
So the question is whether you’re happy with the status quo. The fact that Wenger was offered a new contract without the club having any idea if he was going to take it (and, indeed, he has yet to commit) speaks volumes. The decision makers are so terrified by the idea that he might walk that they offer him another two years even though he himself has given no indication that he wants to continue.
What kind of a message does that send?
It’s hard to escape the notion that Wenger suits Kroenke just fine. Arsenal have been profitable for 14 consecutive seasons. They have cash reserves in excess of $275 million. Since 2008, they have averaged nearly $30m in pre-tax profits and, all the while (this is where the big money is), the value of the club has appreciated.
Of course, in that time frame they’ve also won nothing other than two FA Cups. You have to go back to the 1980s to find the last time they had so little to show for an eight-year period.
A year ago, in a rare public appearance at the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Kroenke said that “if you want to win championships, then you would never get involved [as an owner].” In other words, if your primary motivation is winning things, then it’s not smart business. The quote is often taken out of context, so here it is in full.
Kroenke is not quite the profit-over-silverware ogre some make him out to be but he’s not a million miles away either. After all, this is the guy who became majority owner of the NFL’s St. Louis Rams in 2010 amid reassurances that he would not relocate the team to Los Angeles in search for higher profits. “I’m born and raised in Missouri,” he said. “I’ve been a Missourian for 60 years. People in our state know me. People know I can be trusted. People know I am an honourable guy.”
Kroenke even brought up his 86-year-old mother-in-law who, he claimed, “attends every Rams home game as an enthusiastic fan.” Needless to say, when the 2016 NFL season kicked off, the Rams were playing in Los Angeles.
Kroenke cited financial reasons to justify the move last year. Yes, he’s so rich (his in-laws, the Waltons are even richer) that he could bankroll a losing Rams team for centuries. That’s what a fan would do. But he’s a businessman first and foremost. If you don’t like it, that doesn’t mean you throw in the towel. Businessmen are responsive to their customers (i.e. their fans). There are ways to hit back. There are ways to protest. No business owner wants unhappy fans.
In St. Louis, because the NFL allows it, he had the option of simply moving the club. At Arsenal, that thankfully can’t happen. Turn against him and he will do what smart owners do: either acquiesce to marketplace demands or sell up and get out.
The real question is whether enough Arsenal fans realise this and have an appetite for it.