Between 1953 and 1970, Arsenal won nothing. During this period, their longest without silverware since their first ever trophy in 1930, they lost two League Cup finals, never got past the FA Cup quarters, and finished on average eighth in the league. I wasn’t around to remember it, but I suspect it was grim.
Fast forward 42 years and barring a miracle in the Champions League, the current dry spell will stand at seven seasons. It’s been frustratingly repetitive over that time, but when top-level football is as competitive as it is, Arsenal have no right to be winning trophies. The ridiculous sense of self entitlement some fans have adopted recently has led to regular calls for Arsene Wenger to be removed. But in fact, Arsenal should be grateful they still have him.
Leeds United, Liverpool, Newcastle, Everton, Tottenham, Blackburn, and maybe after this season Chelsea, have all at some stage been in the Champions League and out of it again. Apart from Everton, they have all changed managers in a failed attempt to establish themselves in European football’s elite competition, and apart from Liverpool and Chelsea, their subsequent fates have ranged from relegation, mediocrity and financial ruin. A worthy barometer of success in modern football should be qualifying for the Champions League, which Arsenal have managed for 16 successive years. This is an unexciting, yet underrated achievement that demonstrates why Wenger’s methods are still perfectly suited to the club's financial model.
Gooners are tired of hearing about ‘sustainable businesses,’ but if they want a team near the top of the table and in the Champions League, the current way the club is run is what they’re going to have to put up with. Fans and pundits bemoan the club’s lack of spending, but the dull truth is that they can’t risk ruining the accounts. Spending £30m on a striker who doesn’t score goals would ruin Arsenal financially if it resulted in no Champions League football. It’s fine for Chelsea – their finances will recover – but there’s nothing to stop Arsenal going down the same route as Leeds if big money signings don’t work out. They have no pass into the Champions League every season – they plan it carefully, and earn it.
However, Wenger was wrong to claim this week that finishing in the top four is like winning a trophy. It doesn’t, and never will, replace the joy of seeing players lift silverware, the day at Wembley and the history that’s made, but it is a huge achievement. Consider the budgets of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea and the money that Liverpool spent in the summer, then consider that Arsenal have a good chance of finishing above the latter two. It may be the least fans expect, but it’s pretty much the best they can do.
The players could try harder, you might say, and you’d be saying it with reason having witnessed two feeble cup exits in the space of four days. But this isn’t down to Wenger either. The players he’s picked, relentlessly defended in the media and shown almost blind faith in have let him down badly. Andrei Arshavin, Theo Walcott, Tomas Rosicky, Gervinho and Marouane Chamakh have all at some point this season been accused of looking disinterested. Lack of talent isn’t a player’s fault, but lack of effort can’t be excused.
Wenger was wrong to claim this week that finishing in the top four is like winning a trophy. It doesn’t, and never will
Tactically, some of Wenger’s decisions this season have been puzzling. Michael Cox of Zonal Marking, and respected Arsenal blog Arseblog have both written in the past few days of the on-field problems encountered this season: the slower build up, the sideways passing and the lack of variety in the play among them. These issues can’t really be denied, but they are the most easily adapted. Changing a style of play by signing the right players and working on the training field deserves to be Wenger’s remit for one more year at least.
Whether he is open-minded enough to change again is another question. He has rebuilt his teams on several occasions, with varying degrees of success, but the most recent change, from passing midfielders such as Hleb, Nasri and Fabregas to quicker wingers like Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Gervinho hasn’t worked out. Wenger isn’t blind enough not to notice this though, and will act upon it.
There will be always be fans that will want their club to spend what it takes to win a trophy, but they’re missing the point. For Arsenal, the risk of failure is too great, and the sense of entitlement of some fans doesn’t match up to it. Until the club discovers a winning football formula in their restrictions they will have to live in hope rather than expectation that the seven year itch ends soon. Whether Arsene Wenger will still be around when that happens is anyone’s guess, but he deserves the time to stick at it.
You can follow Joe on twitter at @joejtyler
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