Watching football fans watching the football
There's a banner that regularly appears at the Emirates Stadium.
It reads: "In Arsene we trust".
It's a banner that's emblematic of the respect that exists for one of the world's best managers. An acknowledgement of the transformation of an entire club, of the admiration for the one man responsible for that transformation.
It's a banner that underlines gratitude for an individual who had a vision for a footballing Utopia and who dared to make that vision a reality.
A man who took less than two seasons to turn a stale, underperforming club into Premier League champions, change the culture of English football and thereafter raise the bar for those targeting domestic success.
Since being appointed Arsenal's manager, Arsene Wenger has succeeded in every conceivable way. That he is now under greater pressure than he has been at any stage of his time at the club is a total travesty.
It seems that Premier League titles, FA Cup wins, European finals, a highly successful transfer policy and the most entertaining brand of football in the country aren't enough to justify patience in a man who is revered around the world as one of the best in the business.
That Wenger has overseen the development of a sensational new stadium, exceptional training facilities, one of the world's best youth systems and is an outstanding nurturer of talent is seemingly irrelevant. That he has rejected the advances of Real Madrid on several occasions, displaying an all too rare loyalty in the modern game and a dedication to his work beyond the norm is being taken for granted.
The cliché is as inevitable as it is appropriate: if ever there was an instance of someone being a victim of their own success, this was it.
Arsenal have just secured qualification for the Champions League again. It’s an achievement that means they’ve now spent over a decade in football’s elite competition, something not even Barcelona can claim to have done. If Roman Abramovich's decision to sack Carlo Ancelotti was callous and unfair, Wenger's current lack of support compares to a life sentence in prison for breaking the speed limit.
Of course, he has flaws - there's not a manager in the game who doesn't. He has yet to develop a side with an impressive disciplinary record and appears to have a blind spot for the central defensive-goalkeeping triumvirate. But even with those weaknesses, Wenger still instinctively knew when to dispense of David Seaman's services and was able to discover two quality central defenders in Thomas Vermaelen and Kolo Toure before making an incredible profit (over £20m) on the latter, a recurring theme under his management.
Cesc Fabregas yielded a profit of over £30 million, Samir Nasri will bring a further £15m. Add that to the fact that Arsenal made over £10m on each of Emmanuel Adebayor, Patrick Vieira and Ashley Cole, while Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka both brought in an extra £20m each, and the occasional underwhelming defensive acquisition suddenly seems excusable.
When Wenger first joined, John Hartson was a typical Arsenal signing. He now couldn't be further away from the type of player expected to sign for a club whose strikers have since included Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Robin Van Persie, Jose Antonio Reyes and Eduardo. A reputation for dour football had stayed with Arsenal since the 1980s and Wenger has since succeeded in consigning that reputation to the past.
Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to Wenger is that whenever the time comes for Sir Alex Ferguson to retire, he’ll be remembered as Ferguson’s greatest rival. The antipathy between the two may have lessened over recent years, but the mutual respect is as strong as ever.
Ferguson’s never been someone to shy away from an argument or to publicly take someone on. Even when he’s lost in the short-term, he’s found a way to eventually come out on top. Since the introduction of the Premier League, Ferguson has seen off Kevin Keegan, Jose Mourinho and Rafa Benitez – all men regarded, at the time, as serious threats to Ferguson’s hopes of success – Wenger, however, remains.
In fact, the last time a manager was unfairly under a similar amount of pressure was Ferguson back in 2005. By this stage, he’d already won that historic treble and a multitude of other titles and trophies. But due to the strength of Mourinho’s Chelsea side another league title looked highly unlikely and, with United having just been knocked out at the Champions League group stages by Benfica, there was a growing school of thought that Ferguson’s best days were behind him.
Indeed, the general consensus seemed to be that at the end of the 2005/06 season Ferguson should either resign or get the sack as a result of his shortcomings. He was yesterday’s man, had lost his touch and there was little point in clinging onto past glories.
Yet Ferguson remained. And the following season he led United to another league title, beating Mourinho’s expensively assembled Chelsea into second place. That wouldn’t have happened if Ferguson had left the previous summer. Nor would the 2008 league and Champions League double, two more Champions League finals or winning a record breaking 19th league.
In hindsight, the very suggestion that Ferguson wasn’t fit to remain in the job seems like utter lunacy, the ramblings of a mad man. But that then - as is now the case for Wenger - was a shocking reality.
Football never ceases to surprise, but if one thing is predictable it is that those Arsenal fans who currently want Wenger out will eventually regret doing so if it comes to pass.
There is no finer example than that of Charlton Athletic. Their fans had become restless with Alan Curbishley’s management and wanted him to be replaced. It took less than a year for them to suffer relegation from the Premier League following his departure, and they’re now in League One, dreaming of a return to the Championship. Unsurprisingly, the return of Curbishley appeals greatly to the club’s fans, but the damage is done.
It’s difficult to shake the sense of injustice surrounding Wenger’s plight. This is a man who publicly supported both Steve McClaren, when at England, and Benitez at Liverpool when both were under similar strain.
While his magnum opus, the 2003/04 season - when Arsenal went the entire campaign without a solitary league defeat – is now like a distant memory, this alone should justify continued faith in Wenger. One of the world’s best managers doesn’t just lose his touch over night.
If Wenger’s biggest sins are to persevere with a beautiful brand of football, to selflessly manage the club’s budget and to look at the bigger picture instead of mindlessly spending for short-term gain, then a sense of perspective is needed by all.
Wenger can and will deliver – defeating Udinese with an injury-hit squad and the stakes so high proves this. He deserves greater respect for the job he has done and is entitled to even more patience.
Football’s fans and club’s boards are proving increasingly impatient when it comes to demanding results. Let’s hope Arsenal’s know better.
Follow Declan Warrington on Twitter @decwarrington
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