Arsenal was once English football’s great innovator. Now it’s a club defined by fear. There’s no better way to explain why Arsène Wenger was handed a two-year contract extension on Wednesday.
It’s been 13 years since Arsenal won the Premier League. The club has failed to get to the Champions League quarterfinals for seven consecutive seasons, something which smaller clubs like Tottenham Hotspur and Leicester City have accomplished during that time span. This season’s fifth-place finish in the Premier League, which leaves them outside of Champions League for the first time in two decades, is part of a pattern of slow and steady decline.
During the first decade of Wenger’s tenure at the club, the Gunners won fans all around the world through their ambitious signings and style of play. Wenger helped to revolutionize the Premier League with his ideas about training, nutrition, scouting of foreign players, and attacking tactics. But Arsenal is no longer the club that had the guts to hire him in the first place. It no longer participates in an up-and-coming league, but in a globalized behemoth that Wenger helped to create. And it’s not owned by Peter Hill-Wood and other local investors, but by American billionaire Stan Kroenke.
If you’re not familiar with the Kroenke family’s other sports properties, mediocrity and fear are par for the course. The NFL’s Rams haven’t had a winning season since Kroenke took full control in 2010, while the NHL’s Avalanche and NBA’s Nuggets — run by Kroenke’s family members to get around NFL ownership rules — are also uncompetitive. Both the Avalanche and Nuggets have made the semifinals of their respective leagues just one time in 17 years under Kroenke family ownership. Neither has made the finals, and neither has made the playoffs since 2014.
Kroenke retained Rams head coach Jeff Fisher for five seasons despite him never achieving a winning record. Fisher has the most losses of any coach in NFL history and has not won more than eight games in a season since 2008. The Nuggets also kept George Karl as head coach for eight and a half seasons, during which time he won two playoff series and lost nine.
It’s clear that Kroenke is satisfied with his teams being just good enough that fans and sponsors don’t get angry. When his teams are performing adequately, he’s hesitant to make changes for fear that new management might perform less than adequately.
But it’s fair to ask what Arsenal is so afraid of. The Gunners have a huge, new stadium located in London. It’s a massive revenue-driver — their matchday income trails only Manchester United. The club has sponsors locked in for several years to go along with a globally recognized brand. Arsenal has a great youth academy. And being a London club with good facilities will always allow them to compete to sign good players.
Imagine Wenger was let go and his replacement — or likely replacements, since Wenger has control over so many aspects of Arsenal’s operations — did a terrible job. What’s the worst-case scenario?
Arsenal could end up like Liverpool. After Rafa Benítez failed to make Champions League for the first time in the 2009-10 season, the Reds cycled through Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, and Brendan Rodgers, none of whom was up to managing a top Premier League club. Liverpool fell all the way down to eighth in 2011-12. The team experienced a brief resurgence with a second-place finish in the 2013-14 campaign, but fell back down to earth after selling Luis Suárez, finishing outside the top four over the next two seasons.
But Liverpool, despite all its struggles, still convinced Jürgen Klopp to take over as manager. It still signed players like Roberto Firmino, Philippe Coutinho, Emre Can, and Sadio Mané. It returned to the top four at Arsenal’s expense this season, and its supporters are optimistic about the club’s future.
Arsenal’s floor is not likely to be as low as Liverpool’s, even if ownership makes some very poor decisions. The Gunners’ matchday and sponsorship revenue is higher than Liverpool’s, players want to be in London, and Arsenal has a lot of money in the bank. Manchester United is the only other club arguably better equipped to weather a massive downturn in sporting fortunes — which it did just fine.
With that in mind, the only reason to persist with Wenger is if you really like the comfort that comes with knowing things can only get so bad with him in charge. Arsenal will not compete for the Premier League title next season, but it’s tough to see them finishing worse than sixth as long as the club’s management structure is stable.
The Gunners should probably attempt to win one of the two big trophies on offer at some point though, and that’s something Kroenke is presumably interested in. It seems unlikely that he only sees Arsenal as a vehicle for generating profits since he’s already worth $7.5 billion and insisted that his “Arsenal shares are not, and never have been, for sale” when he was offered £1 billion for them.
Kroenke has every incentive to take chances with Arsenal. There’s no reason he shouldn’t hire a young, exciting manager and a director of football with fresh ideas. There’s no downside. Arsenal will not lose their status or their income streams.
The apocalypse is already here — Arsenal has missed out on top four and will almost certainly be forced into selling Alexis Sánchez. If it doesn’t feel like the end of the world for the Gunners, that’s because it isn’t. Arsenal is the sixth-most attractive transfer destination in England this summer, and it will remain the sixth-best transfer destination in England, at worst, even if the team is horrible for several years. Sticking with Wenger doesn’t allow Arsenal to avoid any problems.
But Arsène Wenger is all Arsenal has known for 20 years, and the unknown is scary, so Wenger it is.
That attitude is indefensible. Arsenal’s ceiling with Wenger is low, and the floor with someone else is where they’re already sitting. Unfortunately, everyone at Arsenal is too afraid to take an objective look at their situation and figure out that it’s time to take some risks.