Historically, Arsenal fans are very faithful human beings. “In Arsene we trust” is the motto shared by plenty of Gunners around the globe, and in Arsene Wenger they have trusted for the majority of his tenure. The level of trust shown by the fans to the Frenchman is – although irrational – somewhat understandable. After all, this is the man who brought the glory years back to Arsenal, the man who won them a league and cup double and the man who engineered an unbeaten season in the 2003/2004 season.
However, since their FA Cup win the year after that, Arsenal have won diddlysquat, as season after season their best players flew the nest for other, more attractive and more successful nests. Yet still the trust persists. This is a trust not just shared by the fans, but apparently by the men in charge too, with majority shareholder Stan Kroenke coming out this week and saying that he would like Wenger to be given a new contract.
The question is: why do these people trust Wenger so much? This is a man who hasn’t won a trophy for 8 seasons. That might be fine if Arsenal had never been successful, but for a team who were in fact highly successful, their decline has been so blatantly obvious to everyone bar the most blinkered of fans. The decline has been such that a team that were arguably the best team in the world at a certain point are now scrabbling around for fourth every year in the Premier League.
Let’s ask first why that’s good enough for Stan Kroenke. It’s good enough for Stan Kroenke because ultimately, the Arsenal board doesn’t really seem to care about winning things. As a business, Arsenal are tremendously profitable, and with a massive stadium and exorbitant ticket prices, the money will just keep rolling into the Gunners’ coffers. So long as Arsenal keep qualifying for the Champions League, the money will just keep coming in, and as far as the board is concerned, that’s all they care about. Kroenke seems to be overjoyed that he’s found a Frenchman with an economics complex to preside over one of the biggest falls from grace of recent footballing history. Wenger is a manager who can be relied upon not to ask for more transfer funds, not to ask for more expensive players and not to ask the board to pay the players more. In short, Wenger is an owner’s dream.
But the more pertinent question is: why is Arsenal’s recent record good enough for the fans? Bar a few youngsters, most of the Arsenal faithful will have lived through the “Invincibles” season and therefore most of them have seen Arsenal at their very best. Why are they willing to deal with what is a very obvious decline?
The first answer is that they are eternally grateful to Wenger for the work that he has done in the past. Wenger has won three league titles with the Gunners; accounting for a nearly a quarter of all the titles in their history. Prior to that, Arsenal were not consistently near the top, and it seems that the work Wenger did in leading his side to three league titles has given him an eternal infallibility as far as the Arsenal fans are concerned.
Perhaps another aspect of this ill-fated belief in Wenger is that Arsenal happen to play very attractive and watchable football. Their one touch total football is a far cry from the ‘boring Arsenal’ of yesteryear, and for fans who lived through the George Graham era, Wenger’s football is no doubt a massive breath of fresh air. Arsenal fans are football fans after all, and if you’re a football fan, you want to see nice football. As Wenger has developed his playing strategy, the endearment that he receives from the fans just seems to increase, and consequently, Arsenal fans are proud of the way they play under Wenger, and have no wish to see that cease.
There is also a belief – propagated by Wenger himself – that Arsenal are on the cusp of returning to their former glories. This notion is like a drug for Arsenal fans; the anticipation of returning to the very top is what keeps them going, keeps them attending matches and keeps their faith in Wenger alive. However, a look at recent history as well as their current squad suggests that the North London club are unlikely to be returning to the top any time soon. There have been plenty of false dawns for Arsenal in the last few seasons, and logically, this season is just another one of those.
Plenty of Arsenal fans will no doubt say, “It’s different this time, we’ve got Mesut Ozil”, and there’s no doubt that the Gunners are a better side with the German on the pitch than not. However, the Ozil signing itself was a curious one. After all his lecturing and moralising about football economics, why would Wenger suddenly sanction such a hugely expensive deal for a player that – although effortlessly brilliant – they didn’t really need? I believe the answer is that Ozil acts as yet another sticking plaster that restores the fan’s faith in the manager. Wenger already knows that Arsenal fans are proud of the way his team play football, and by investing in a highly attacking, highly creative and highly skilful international footballer, Wenger is sending a message to the fans saying, “we really mean business now”. Except they don’t. If they did, they’d buy a new goalkeeper, a new centreback, leftback, rightback and a winger. Ozil is a fantastic player, but he doesn’t address the issues that are still very much present in the Arsenal side, and until these issues are addressed, Arsenal are destined to be perennial also-rans.
It is now close to a decade since Arsenal last won a trophy, and yet, for the reasons we’ve discussed, the Frenchman still enjoys considerable trust. I could be made to eat my words, but I really think Arsenal fans need to wake up and smell the coffee. Okay, if you’re just looking to finish in the top four, then the chances are you’ll do that. But why is that enough? Your club used to be pretty much the best in the world; why are you now content just to scrape into the Champions League? If you’re not, and you have real ambitions to win the league, why do you think Wenger will provide that for you? In May we’ll know whether he can for sure, but in May, Wenger may have also signed up for another three years, and is highly likely to bring three more years of mediocrity – by Arsenal’s standards – with him.