Arsène Wenger shouldn’t be dismissed – he’s the reason most clubs envy Arsenal

Perhaps the great debate over his legacy shouldn’t really be a debate at all.

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When it comes to football management the lines between stability and stagnancy are blurred. Sir Alex Ferguson’s sustained success at Manchester United, achieved only after a trophy-less teething period of five years, is the oft-cited case for patience. Arsène Wenger’s reign at Arsenal, however, is regularly presented as proof of an unsatisfying plateau. The fact that Wenger’s glass ceiling is placed higher than most teams can ever hope to achieve – his personal haul of 17 major trophies won in English football is just one less than Manchester City’s total as a club – has not dulled debate about his current position and legacy.

The Wenger Out brigade represent a distinct wing of Arsenal’s fan base. They are convinced that past glories – winning the 2003-04 Premier League title unbeaten for example – cannot be used to hide Wenger’s shortcomings in more recent campaigns.

Relativism, some of the Frenchman’s detractors argue, offsets the need for perspective. And the advent of social media platforms has exacerbated this stance. YouTube channel Arsenal Fan TV, which has over 600,000 subscribers, is widely recognised as the most radical harbinger of the Wenger Out movement. Following Arsenal’s 3-1 defeat at West Bromwich Albion last season, a regular interviewee on the channel, “Troopz”, voiced his concerns. He said: “West Brom fans are taunting man now blud. West Brom are not a big club, yeah. We are a big club fam.” Arsenal went on to finish fifth in the Premier League table last term – five spots higher and with 30 more points than the Baggies. They also won the FA Cup for the third time in four seasons.

Troopz and Arsenal Fan TV, admittedly, don’t capture the full spectrum of Wenger Out sentiment. Other critics of Wenger, like the blogger Tim Stillman, are more measured. They appreciate the success they’ve experienced under him, but are frustrated with the enduring rigidity of his transfer policy and worry that his tactics are outmoded in 2018. Stillman wrote for the Guardian last year: “Life as an Arsenal supporter is not that bad and most of us recognise that. We follow a talented team and there are many worse things than finishing in third or fourth place every year. But we want something different, even if that means failing in a different way.” Stillman is right. There are many things worse than finishing in third or fourth place every year. Aston Villa, Leeds, Newcastle, Sunderland, Coventry City, Blackpool and Hartlepool fans, among others, may want to offer their two cents on the matter.

But Stillman, and any football supporter, shouldn’t be begrudged for wanting the best possible for their club, nor should paying customers be denied the right to question whether they are receiving value for money. A report from European football’s administrative body UEFA earlier this month revealed that Arsenal earn an average of £74.09 per fan through the turnstiles. Yet the gulf between Arsenal and the likes of Barcelona or Bayern Munich is self-evident. The same could be said, though, for the gulf between Arsenal under Wenger and most other clubs in the world.

Consider, then, that the exorbitant price of football – on the terraces or in transfer fees – is not something Wenger himself controls, and certainly not an issue exclusive to Arsenal. Barnet, who are at the bottom of League Two, charge an average of £25 per ticket.

The civil war at the Emirates Stadium – pitting Wenger Out versus Wenger In – is in truth a symptom of a wider disease: the failings of the moneyed game. It is a situation not dissimilar to the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union. Wenger is the status quo – an establishment with visible cracks. But just as Brexit has not proved to be an immediate panacea for all of the UK’s problems, it seems unlikely that Wenger’s departure will provide one for Arsenal’s.

And what are Arsenal’s problems exactly? The club are sixth in the table, 23 points adrift of the pace set by super team City, and suffered an ignominious FA Cup exit at the hands of Championship side (and let's not forget two-time European Cup winners) Nottingham Forrest. They have lost their best player, Alexis Sanchez, for a discounted fee to United; and the rest of their squad is clearly not as good as 03-04’s “Invincibles”. The Wenger Out brigade rue the season as over.

Except it isn’t. Arsenal are still in the Europa League and, courtesy of a 2-1 comeback victory over Chelsea this week, have reached the Carabao Cup final – the club’s fourth domestic cup showdown in the past five years.

While the halcyon days of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp might be behind Arsenal, the charge that Wenger can no longer be considered among football’s top managers is nonsense. Antonio Conte, who led Chelsea to the Premier League title last season, has just one victory in eight games against the elder statesman of north London.

Wenger is ultimately a victim of his own success. But his fall from grace has been far less of a tumble than others’ – see again Villa and Leeds. And though the extremes of glory might have faded for Wenger and Arsenal, it is his long-term planning which has maintained them a place at the table of England’s footballing elite, even if they rarely, these days, dine at its head. In asking how many of England’s football fans would trade their own team’s fortunes over the past 22 years for Arsenal’s, then, we should not be shocked by the answer. Most of them.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman

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