Arsene Wenger should stay. That’s what I think. And I think that way because I respect his unflinching devotion to skillful and entertaining soccer.
Of course, even suggesting that soccer should be entertaining is a risky business these days, likely to provoke scorn and contempt and accusations of ignorance about the real purpose of the modern game -- which is nothing more complicated than to win games and make money, and the hell with the beautiful game.
I guess I’m intimidated by all that, for I feel the necessity to back up my defense of Wenger with some down-to-earth stats. Just the sort of thing to impress people who don’t give a damn for the aesthetics of the sport. So allow me to unroll some incontestable arguments in favor of Wenger staying put.
Studies have been made by groups of undoubtedly very clever persons, proving (well, almost proving) that firing the coach is not the best way to handle things when a team keeps losing games.
In 1997 researchers from two British schools -- the Universities of Wales and Hull -- conducted what Reuters called an “exhaustive study”.
Certainly, the numbers were impressive. Between 1972 and 1993 the researchers analyzed 821 “spells of soccer management,” taking in 42,624 games. These are games from the four divisions of the English league (they include just one season from the Premier League, which started up in 1992).
The researchers looked at the 18 games that preceded and the 18 games that followed the firing of a coach. They found a slight improvement: the “win ratio” went up, from 0.42 to 0.46. Though they immediately undermined the apparent benefit by pointing out that results are always likely to improve after a bad spell (“No team carries on losing forever”).
More telling were the stats from the teams that did not fire the coach. Their 18 games, following similar bad spells, showed a winning ratio of 0.49.
Decidedly un-dramatic stats, then, leading to a conclusion that favors not firing the coach: the average recovery from a poor spell that leads to the firing of a coach is “less impressive” than the typical recovery achieved by teams that do not fire the coach.
German researchers from the University of Muenster had their say in 2003. A lot of exhaustive work here, too, for the study covers 35 years of Bundesliga activity (1963-1998), focusing on 206 coaching changes. The changes don’t work, say the researchers:
"Three or four games after the change you notice an improvement in performances, but it doesn't last.” The Germans used a 12-game period as their yardstick, and concluded that the results over the 24-game period (12 pre-firing, 12 after the change) didn’t change that much.
In one specific test (a pretty important one for clubs), firing the coach in an attempt to avoid relegation, the move flopped badly, apparently making matters worse. Of the clubs who fired their coach, 60 percent were relegated anyway. While only 37 percent of the clubs who stuck with their coach went down.
The two studies already mentioned deal with attempts to secure short-term improvement -- and both conclude that clubs are unlikely to get that by firing their coach.
Another English study, from Warwick Business School, was published in 2006. This was more interested in the long-term effects of coaching changes, and it came out pretty solidly in favor of not firing coaches. Its starting point was the gloomy fact that, between the beginning of the Premier League in 1992 and 2006, an entire year had been knocked off the average time that a coach held his job in England. It had gone down from 2.72 years to 1.72 (by 2015 it had shrunk to 1.23 years).
Clubs that indulge in frequent coach changes, it was alleged, paid the price with poor results (though I don’t know what proof lies behind that charge). Much better to have faith in your coach -- the study showed that coaches with 10 or more years of experience won 12 percent more games than managers with no previous experience.
That last stat seems directly relevant to Arsene Wenger. He’s been around in the Premier League longer than anyone -- at Arsenal since 1996. His record has been excellent, occasionally brilliant, but it’s getting him into trouble because Arsenal hasn’t won anything lately. What probably rankles most is that, despite its record of qualifying for the UEFA Champions League in every one of the past 17 years, the club has never won the trophy -- the most coveted of all the club honors.
Arsenal’s last won anything two years ago, which seems pretty recent, but the win almost doesn’t count ... because it was the English FA Cup. And whatever that competition’s fans may like to think, it is no longer regarded as a big deal.
Arsenal is in line to win it again as it’s in the final in May. But victory there will come almost as a proof that Wenger can now win only a second-level competition. It may not save him.
Nor should it. Wenger deserves much more than to be rescued by victory in a modest competition -- or for that matter, to be sunk because he failed to win such a competition.
I want Wenger to stay because he deserves enormous respect for his stalwart insistence on playing skillful soccer, and not sliding into the ugly grind-it-out mentality that so often besmirches English soccer. It has been a brave and lonely stand -- one that few coaches are prepared to make in this day of pragmatic soccer.
I want Wenger to stay for at least another season, mostly because I don’t want to see him either fired or ushered abruptly off the scene, to be nudged sideways into a bogus job with a flashy title but no authority. Something much more dignified and worthy of the man must be worked out.
Of course, it would be nice for Arsenal to win next year’s Champions League, that would be a wonderful exit strategy for Wenger. But suddenly -- and this is what worries his critics -- the team looks to be not good enough to even qualify.
Behind that worry is the nagging feeling that Wenger is now simply too old for the task, that his ideas are old-fashioned, that the sport belongs to a new generation of coaches -- you know, the sideline showoffs like Mourinho and Conte and Guardiola.
I do not believe that to be so. Because the values that Wenger represents -- the core values of the beautiful game -- are lasting, fundamental values, unlike the ephemeral tactics and systems and game plans so dear to modern coaches.
The enormous contribution that Wenger had made to soccer, and in particular to the development of the sport in England, must not be neglected.
The difficult bit for Arsenal will be to find a graceful way of moving in a new coach. Because if Wenger -- and the man is a young 67, an active 67 -- wants to be still involved in the every-day and on-the-field activities at Arsenal, it will be very difficult for the club to find a new coach. Who would take the job ... with the legendary Wenger still on the premises?