The dust in the Arsenal trophy room is starting to choke manager Arsene Wenger. After 7 years without a new piece of silverware to add to his collection, the Gunners boss is now in unfamiliar territory with the fans who are now questioning if its time for a change. All of the hard work and rewards that Wenger brought in the first half of his extended tenure as manager, is now fading into a distant memory with the Arsenal faithful who have stood by too long watching and waiting for the club’s next success. In the last 7 years, Arsenal have had chances to end their drought (most notably in the Champions League in 2006 and in the League Cup in 2011 where they lost out both times at the final hurdle) but have been unable to do so. There were high hopes of a potential cup success this season going into last nights League Cup Quarter Final game against League two side Bradford City, but yet again Arsenal failed to get the job done and Bradford progressed to a semi final appearance. Unlike in previous seasons where Wenger has fielded a second string team in these types of competitions, he began the match with a strong starting 11, making only 3 changes from Saturday’s win over West Brom. Wenger’s disregard for the competition after the match will not have helped his case as the fans remember the better years of the Wenger reign.
Wenger’s achievements at Arsenal have held him in high regard with its owners, board, players and fans since his arrival in 1996. Wenger, the second longest-serving coach in the Premiership behind Manchester United’s Alex Ferguson, arrived at the club as relatively unknown but quickly impressed onlookers with his new philosophy and approach to the game. Out went the tried and tested methods of Arsenal of old, replaced with a more continental approach focused on performance, diet, preparation, technique and mental toughness. Wenger brought with him new ideas about how a professional should act, on and off the pitch, and how they were ultimately responsible for their own condition, not the club. It came at a time of turmoil at Arsenal as then captain Tony Adams announced publicly about his drinking problem, ony two years after his teammate Paul Merson had admitted to being an alcoholic and cocaine addict. Wenger would not tolerate the british drinking and partying culture that went hand in hand with football in the 90’s but stood by his captain during the players darkest hours, something that Adams would never forget and would push him to repay Wenger in later years.
Arsene knew that to get the best out of his team he needed to eradicate the existing culture and rebuild the team from the ground up, which is exactly what he did. With a solid back line of Adams, Bould, Dixon, Keown and Winterburn with David Seaman in-goal, Wenger focused on building from the front in his earlier days. He dispatched with the likes of Ian Selley, David Hillier, Steve Morrow, John Jensen and Eddie McGoldrick early on in favour of more talented players like Dennis Bergkamp and youngsters like Patrick Viera and Nicolas Anelka. Buying talented youngsters would be part of Wenger’s underpinning philosophy of rebuilding the club as he oversaw the redevelopment of the club’s youth infrastructure. Scouts were dispatched across the globe with the remit to find raw talent that Wenger could mould into world-class players. Over the years, his scouting network uncovered numerous gems including Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars, Fredrik Ljungberg, Kanu, Cesc Fàbregas and a certain Thierry Henry who would go on to become an Arsenal legend under Wenger’s guidance. Arsene also knew how to get the best out of more senior players like Ray Parlour, Tony Adams, Ian Wright and Dennis Bergkamp, who had never shown his true potential as a world-class player until he arrived at Arsenal.
What Wenger did was build a team on two fronts – the first, a solid unit on the pitch that would go on to become the team known as the Invincibles due to their unbeaten run in 2004-2005 that stretched for 49 games. And secondly he was creating a production line of new players who would step into the gaps left by ageing or departing players. As one world-class player left, a youngster of the calibre of Cesc Fabregas would emerge from the youth team to take his spot, seamlessly fitting in as if they had played there for years. Wenger has been clever in the transfer market too, buying players when they are young and cheap then selling them for a higher price some 5 or so years later. He is the only manager in the league to be net positive for signings since his arrival at the club. Arsenal have never spent beyond their means but this led to problems as clubs around them splashed the cash on players. The move to the ne Emirates Stadium in 2006 would fuel a new cash injection for years to come but it didn’t change the philosophies of Wenger who still sold aging players before they reached their peak and lost their value. Legends like Henry, Toure and Fabregas all left the club over the years for inflated prices which allowed Wenger to reinvest in the next crop of youngsters and some starting players but he has never managed to really build a team capable of matching once more.
Leagues have been lost due to poor runs and lack of goals, cup defeats handed to them due to inexperience and slackness, all of which disappoints Wenger to his core. Arsenal have been consistently contenders in the league but have dropped away regularly in the past 6 years at some point in the campaign. Cups have had split focuses which has prevented realistic wins from happening. And cracks are appearing, not only within the team and the youth setup, which still produces but not sadly any english talent, but within the structure of the club as owners change and directors depart. Wenger looks to still have their belief but the 7 year itch is in need of a scratch. Wenger knows he has a squad capable of winning a trophy but questions are being asked if the now 63-year-old has the passion and ways to steer his team towards one. The Arsenal board will not react foolishly as they know replacing Wenger will be no small task. Afterall, how do you start replacing the heart of the club when it’s not stop beating just yet?