The Decline -- and is it to be the Fall? -- of Arsene Wenger

By Paul Gardner

Sadness -- though the rather lovelier French word tristesse seems more fitting -- haunts me when I consider what is happening to Arsene Wenger.

It does not matter that most of Wenger’s present woes are self-inflicted. Never mind that he has lately been making rather foolish statements about his predicament.

What hurts is to see the strained face, the red eyes, the deepening facial lines and the frightening -- but frightened -- glare of a man at bay.

Wenger does not deserve this. Not because he has been a loyal servant of Arsenal. And certainly not because of his now rather distant days of glory with the club -- frankly, I don’t give a damn about Arsenal. But Wenger deserves better as a forthright champion of The Beautiful Game.

For me, he is one of the few coaches with a right to that description. During the past two decades, years that have seen the relentlessly depressing advance of defensive, negative -- and overtly physical -- soccer, Wenger’s has been the most reliable voice reminding us, over and over, that soccer should not be played that way, that it should be a game of skill and artistry.

Mind you, being faithful to Wenger has not always been easy -- he did, after all, stick by Patrick Vieira, hardly a paragon of clean play, and somehow he never seemed to see the action whenever one if his players was red-carded, something that happened much more than it should have done. But Wenger’s voice has been the rallying cry, the only one that has spoken out clearly against the crudeness of the English game’s Neanderthal wing, the only one that upbraided Tony Pulis’s Stoke City for their overtly rough-house play.

The belief in The Beautiful Game was the rock on which Wenger built his early Arsenal teams. Teams that everyone admired for the beauty of their play. Teams that won trophies regularly.

But that was then. Things have been going downhill for quite a while now. No trophies for -- how long is it? Eight years? Sorry, Arsene, but when things are not working -- for eight years, ye gods! -- change has to be at least considered. And that is something that Wenger has been finding difficult.

The change must not be in Wenger’s devotion to skillful soccer -- but in how he sets about achieving it. As to that, one thing needs to be recognized from the start: Arsenal, under Wenger, has not been among soccer’s major spenders. It simply does not have the money that Manchester United and Chelsea -- and now Manchester City -- can fling around.

Wenger has been wondrously clever at signing excellent players at bargain prices. Sometimes his cleverness has looked rather unpleasantly too clever: His poaching of the teenage Cesc Fabregas from Barcelona, without paying a fee, may have been technically spotless, but it left a nasty taste. Most of Wenger’s targets were French -- half of the famous unbeaten team of the 2003-04 season were French -- including Thierry Henry, bought for $11 million from Juventus.

Wenger’s preferred players have continued to be French, or French-speaking, but the quality has dropped off alarmingly. Marouane Chamakh? Abou Diaby? Sebastien Squillaci? Gervinho? Johan Djourou? But the old acuity was at work with the signing of Robin van Persie (just $3.6 million!), while some young Brits -- Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, Kieran Gibbs and Carl Jenkinson were showing promise.

Somehow, a team never appeared. For all his brilliance, van Persie, during his eight years at Arsenal, won only the FA Cup, and that was in his first year, 2005. Players came and went and it really did look increasingly as though Arsenal only entered the market late in the day, looking for last-minute bargains. The buildup to the current season was typical, with the late signing of Per Mertesacker, Santi Cazorla, Nacho Monreal, Lucas Podolski and Olivier Giroud. Not, by any means, a hopeless bunch, but this looked more like panic buying than team building.

Top players departed -- Fabregas, van Persie, Samir Nasri and Gael Clichy -- either in search of a club that actually won trophies, or simply a club that paid them more money.

Which brings us to the sorry scene of an Arsenal team that gets beaten at home by lower-level Blackburn, and follows that up by getting annihilated by Bayern Munich, also in front of its own fans at the Emirates.

Then we get something we never thought to hear -- Arsenal fans booing this Wenger team. And an ominous absence of all those “In Arsene We Trust” banners that used to festoon the stadium. “What do you expect,” snapped the increasingly short-tempered Wenger after the Blackburn debacle, “People to applaud when you lose a game like that? It's absolutely normal.”

What was not normal, of course, was for Arsenal -- Wenger’s Arsenal -- to play such poor, such ordinary soccer. It is not too fanciful to hear the booing as a lament not for the loss, but for the loss of The Beautiful Game.

Whatever magic Wenger was working in the early days has dried up. The players he is now signing are not good enough. And too many of them do not fit the Beautiful Game motif.

Along with the booing comes all the talk of Wenger departing -- fired, pensioned off, stepping down, moved sideways, kicked upstairs -- whatever, but no longer the man in charge at Arsenal.

That must not be. Not only Arsenal, but the entire sport of soccer needs Arsene Wenger, needs him as a stalwart who has stuck to his vision of skillful soccer through thick and thin. If things are not going so well, a hefty part of the blame for that lies with the club itself, with owner Stan Kroenke.

It is clear that Wenger -- restricted by the club’s frugality, can no longer conjure star players out of thin air. Things have changed -- maybe the rest of the world has gotten wise to Wenger’s sleight of hand operations. He needs help -- money -- from Kroenke to go out and buy a couple of really top players. It may be argued that the coming UEFA regulations on fiscal prudence make that impossible -- or even unnecessary.

Even if that be so, there is another step that needs to be taken, and this one is entirely up to Wenger himself. No one else is involved. I’ve mentioned 17 Arsenal players already, some good, some not at all good -- but they do all have one thing in common: none of them is from Latin America.

That omission -- better call it an aberration -- of Wenger’s defies explanation. Here we have a man ferociously faithful to the Beautiful Game -- yet he will not sign the very players, the Latin Americans, who are most likely to give him that game. That very phrase, The Beautiful Game, was Pele’s way of describing the soccer that he and his fellow Brazilians played back in the 1960s. And it is still Latins who are responsible for most of the top creative ball artists in the game. But not at Arsenal.

Sure, Wenger has signed a handful of Brazilians and Argentines -- but none of top quality, and none who could be classified as major exponents of the beautiful game. The Latins he has employed have often been defensive players, almost never creative players. The unlucky Eduardo probably comes closest to representing the Beautiful game. The Brazilian who lasted longest was Gilberto -- a defensive midfielder -- with nothing particularly Brazilian about his game. More recently there have been Denilson and Andre Santos, both of them now on loan to other clubs. Then there was the Mexican Carlos Vela, signed as a promising youngster, repeatedly praised by Wenger -- yet rarely put on the field. He too was eventually loaned out -- he is now a regular scorer with his new club, Real Sociedad.

Wenger’s aversion to Latin American players cannot be a matter of money. There are plenty of low-priced young players available to a coach who scouts and assesses them correctly. When Luis Suarez went, as a 19-year-old, to the non-fashionable Groningen in Holland, he surely didn’t cost them a fortune. Palermo paid Huracan only $6.5 million for the 20-year-old Javier Pastore (and when you consider that Wenger paid twice that for Gervinho ...).

Now, it needs to be said that there is in England a very obvious attitude, a very English dislike of South American players. Maybe you have to be a psychologist to work out the reasons for that, but the discrimination is clear. England is way behind every other European country in signing Latin Americans. Just as England is way ahead of everyone else in finding excuses for not doing so.

The Latins can’t adapt to the English game, they don’t like the weather, they miss their food, they won’t learn the language and on it goes. Never mind the amazing success that Juninho had at Middlesbrough in the early years of this century -- that must have been a fluke. His triumphs did not encourage English clubs to go on a Brazilian spending spree. Just as the success of Ossie Ardiles in the early 1980s had failed to ignite an Argentine boom.

Basically, the English see the Latins as lazy, and that is all there all there to it. I’m using the present tense. Because ... just ponder this quote from Michael Owen, a skillful and intelligent English player, as he contemplated -- just this past week -- Liverpool’s signing of the Brazilian Philipe Coutinho: "His challenge for the next few years will be to make sure he doesn't drift in and out of games and has an impact over the full 90 minutes. You don't normally associate work rate with players from South America ...”

Maybe Wenger has subconsciously absorbed that insidious bias. It is clear that Wenger is not that interested in Latin American players. He rarely signs them, evidently has little interest in scouting them. It is a quite inexplicable blindspot for the man who is widely regarded as among the most intelligent and perceptive coaches in the modern game.

So -- please, Arsenal, give Wenger more time -- and more money -- to rebuild a team that can once again delight us with The Beautiful Game. The sport needs Arsene Wenger, and it needs him to be with a big club that backs him to the hilt.

But please, M.Wenger, come to your senses and overcome this ridiculous mental block that is depriving your team of the very players who would help you most. Please, dispel the melancholy tristesse that is settling on those of us who admire the man, and who love The Beautiful Game.

15 comments about "The Decline -- and is it to be the Fall? -- of Arsene Wenger".
  1. Ken Jamieson, February 20, 2013 at 9:40 p.m.

    Quite interesting. Although Mr. Gardner's assertion that Arsenal's lack of success is related to their "aversion" to Latin American talent may be oversimplifying the situation. At a time when Chelsea, Man U, Man City and Liverpool seem to be breaking the bank every transfer window, Arsenal's frugality has been the main culprit of their failure to bring in silverware.
    UEFA's fiscal responsibility may change a lot, if it truly ties club spending to football related revenues and if it has the stomach to actually penalize clubs that overspend because their billionaire owners can,
    Over the past decade, Arsenal has been funnelling profits into paying off Emirates Stadium, now that it is paid off the pressure will be on Wenger, Kronke and company to become a major player in the transfer market, and not on the selling side.
    With regards to Latin players, while they are the artists of the beautiful game, they also have a reputation as divers and play actors. One need only watch games from the Brasilero or other Latin American leagues to realize that along with the deft ball skills and artistry comes cunning and guile and a penchant for playing the officials.
    Luis Suarez is a good example of both the up side and down side of Latin American players, talent but also a tendancy to play act and try and con the referee. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not really paying attention.
    The beautiful game requires more than just skill on the ball, it also requires fair play and a smidgen of ethical behaviour. Perhaps if more Latin American players embraced these qualities they would be more sought after.

  2. Ramon Creager, February 20, 2013 at 10:02 p.m.

    That was indeed sad. They do have some players who cannot be considered second rate: Cazorla, Monreal, Podolski, maybe even Walcott (all four have been called up to their respective national teams). What struck me was not the lack of flair at the top, but a defense that just didn't have it together, and a midfield that simply couldn't hold the ball. In fact, all 3 of Bayern's goals came from the left, and it's hard to believe that the presence of Monreal wouldn't have helped. That said, there is no escaping the realities of money in today's game and Latin American players do provide the best value.

  3. Allan Lindh, February 20, 2013 at 10:42 p.m.

    He's one of the world's ten greatest coaches, maybe five, but money talks, ye yells, and Wenger will probably be long gone from Arsenal before UEFA finds some way of reducing the gross distortions of Billionares from the game. So he's rich, he's had some great moments, and the time has probably come. Hope he just walks away with some of his health and sanity intact. It is after all the Beautiful GAME -- it's not cancer, it's not nuclear war, it's not global warming. Walk away, find a nice place in the south of France, drink some good wine, coach the local youth team. And thank you for all the great moments.

  4. Kent James, February 20, 2013 at 11:18 p.m.

    No, Allan, bad comment! What you said may be perfect for Arsene, but what about the rest of us? We need him to stick it out, even if he could justifiably retire to the South of France as you suggest....

  5. R2 Dad, February 20, 2013 at 11:46 p.m.

    If Wenger is to stay, and it appears he wants to and has the board's support, he will have to channel his inner Wenger from the early 2000's, when David Dein was his confidant. Since Dein's departure Wenger's buys have been hit or miss. What's needed is the combination of experienced players with excellent young players like they had around 2004. Hispanic/south american players aside, the markets have changed and the professor has not kept up. Spain is arguably playing the most attractive football at the moment and Italy has rebounded from their lows of the previous decade. Germany has improved since 2006 without overspending, so there are plenty of other places for aspiring players to go other than the relatively-physical Premier League. What makes this non-spending worse, though, is that Wenger and the board have frittered away the club's desirability as a destination, and he is about to learn how difficult it will be to get that mojo back--along with the CL money he will not be getting next year. If Wilshere was smart he won't stick around for the rebuilding--the wear and tear will be too much. Better to play in a league that will protect him (la liga) on a team that doesn't need him so desperately day in and day out.

  6. Chris Mitchell, February 20, 2013 at 11:50 p.m.

    One of the obstacles to signing Latin Americans is that they are often denied a work permit for England unless they are of proven calibre. It is harder to take a risk on a promising player, while the top quality players cost a lot of money.

    But Arsene has actually signed a number of Latin American players, and attacking ones too. That they have not lived up to expectations is hardly the managers fault.
    * Julio Baptista was long admired by Wenger, who signed him on loan from Real Madrid. "The Beast" looked to have the qualities to succeed in England, yet after some early promise (4 goals in a cup game against Liverpool) his second half of the season was an absolute stinker and he was sent back to Spain.
    * Carlos Vela shone as a youth product and actually had plenty of chances to impress at Arsenal, yet he failed to shine. He was highly rated as a finisher, yet he got plenty of chances at goal and didn't put them away.
    * Eduardo typified one reason South Americans seem reluctant to play in England - after a great start to his Arsenal career, where he struck up a great partnership with Adebayor, his leg was shattered in an ugly tackle and he never really played to his potential again.
    * Andre Santos may be nominally a left back, but he was a very attacking one. He did much to reinforce the stereotype of Latin players being lazy, and his Arsenal career seems already over.

  7. john davies, February 21, 2013 at 7:28 a.m.

    You as a Fulham fan of 60 years I feel sorry for all those Arsenal fans who have not won anything in 8 years, try 60 for size.John Maddern put it best there can only be one winner, the game now is won by the teams with the most money,the rest of the teams including my Fulham get the scraps.There's no coaching anymore, you know these players earn in one week what most of us take 2 years to earn, if I don't perform I get fired, if a team loses these days we blame the coach, if a team wins we interview the players and ask them where they are now going, amazing.

  8. Charles O'Cain, February 21, 2013 at 9:38 a.m.

    Wenger gets far too much credit for being a proponent of "beautiful" football. His successful teams always had their share of the "physical" play he is blind to except when practiced by his opponents (Arsenal have won no competitions since Vieira's last kick for them in 2005), and most of his complaining results from the fact that his more recent teams have just not been playing well enough for the intensity of the EPL. His single-minded focus on youth makes him the ideal candidate for coach of the France U-21's, and he should move on. There are a number of coaches in the EPL who are focused on skillful attacking football (Martinez, Laudrup, Pochettino, Villas-Boas, Lambert, Rogers, McDermott, and even the Old Master Sir Alex come to mind), none of whom so regularly whine about results, and many of whom have far less resources to draw from than M. Wenger, whose one great gift to English football was Thierry Henry in his prime.

  9. Gus Keri, February 21, 2013 at 12:58 p.m.

    Nothing wrong with Wenger. Nothing wrong with his policy of buying certain type of players he knows how to handle. In his first 7 season, he was on par with Man Utd winning 3 EPL in 7 years. Then, few things happened. 1- The stadium was built and spending was cut short. 2- the spending of two other clubs, chelsea and Man City, skyrocketed. Now, Arsenal has to compete with the rest (Tottenham, Liverpool, Everton and others) for 4th in the league and the other cups. sometime they win and sometime they lose. This is life. The answer is always about money, money and more money.

  10. Millwall America, February 21, 2013 at 3:33 p.m.

    Arsene will need to dump his dedication to the Beautiful Game if he doesn't start getting more money. It requires highly skilled (=very expensive) players to successfully pull off that style, which is precisely why most teams don't and shouldn't try to play it. Tony Pulis gets a lot of stick for the way his Stoke City teams play, but he did manage to take a low-budget squad all the way to the FA Cup final a couple years back, which is more than Arsene has done.

  11. Andres Yturralde, February 21, 2013 at 3:35 p.m.

    It's not so much that Wenger is losing. That's not really the point. We know he's a winner and has delivered trophies in the past. This whole issue is really more about the way he's losing these days. The team suddenly lacks cohesion, spirit, and drive. And now all that is pouring over to the press conferences and interviews. When it gets to that stage, then I begin to think that there is something very wrong in the state of Arsenal.

  12. ROBERT BOND, February 21, 2013 at 4:34 p.m.

    pull for the gunners because they try to play the game right, & because of Per(& now Lucas), since you can see the EPL, so you may as well have a horse in the race-but i am mainly for die Roten,hoping BeIn or now maybe Fox will get Buendesliga Spiel, hard to get Gol-point being, i watch both, & which manager has decided it's time to move on, & let someone else take them to tthe next level? did JH look stressed?(still think it was dumb to pull Mueller out with a few minutes to go, as pumped as he was, scoring what should have been the winning goal)....

  13. Gak Foodsource, February 21, 2013 at 10:54 p.m.

    The first part of this article is really well written, and then Paul starts talking about Latin America. What does Latin America have to do with Roman Abromovic or Mansour Bin Zayed? Wenger lost the core of his team - Fabregas, Nasri, Van Persie - within three years. Of course Arsenal is going to struggle. The loses were so abrupt and significant, it forced Wenger to start doing things he never, ever did - signing players over the age of 25. I don't think Wenger is short on cheap, talented players. He has the best scouting network in the world. Instead, I think he has lost the model he used to bring those players along because his team has been destroyed. Youngsters that used to be nurtured slowly into the system under the guidance of experienced all-stars now enter the game prematurely and with all the pressure. Fabregas had Viera covering for him on the field, Henry taking the pressure off him, and Ljunberg to learn from in practice. Wilshire has only Wolcott to steal the occasional headline. Special environments produce special players, and special managers can build special teams. In Wenger's case, I think losing the former has clearly prevented the latter.

  14. Karl Ortmertl, February 23, 2013 at 1:01 a.m.

    Wenger is a victim of his past success. He made silk purses out of financial sow's ears in the past, but has no longer been able to do so. Arsenal fans have been spoiled, altho' it was Wenger's acumen that spoiled them. Now that the team has returned to normalcy based on it's financial resources, Wenger is being blamed for no longer performing miracles. I've always liked Wenger's teams for their style of play, but it's hard to see any way that he can be able to stay at Arsenal much longer with the high expectations no the low amount of spending money - way too much pressure.

  15. Jamie Nicewander, February 27, 2013 at 12:02 a.m.

    Your right Creager, money is ultimately Wengers foe.
    Without the money invested in the team, Arsenal will become another English club, nothing more, or less, just another club.
    It would be great if Wenger brought across a bunch of Argentinians, they could buy homes in a cul de sac near the beach and have carne asadas every weekend while making fresh tortillas ...all while listening to blaring latino tunes,,,and theyd name that cul de sac....The Falklands...
    Ahhhh if only Arsenal cared about their club instead of their investors.

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