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Arsenal has been failing the same way for 10 years under Arsene Wenger: A timeline

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Go through a decade of articles on Arsenal’s struggles and the patterns of Wenger’s mismanagement become very clear.

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Arsenal are a club with problems that go far beyond some bad results on the pitch, but it’s the most disastrous losses that tend to get people to take notice. The Gunners didn't make it three games into their 2017-2018 season without suffering a humiliating defeat: Arsenal lost 4-0 to Liverpool on Sunday without registering a single shot on target.

Following the match, former Arsenal defender Lee Dixon called the defeat the club’s most embarrassing loss under Arsene Wenger. That’s saying a lot given the number of embarrassments Wenger has presided over during the last decade, but to Dixon's point, the Gunners conceded a goal while Aaron Ramsey and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain were speaking to coaches with backs turned to the ball.

Wenger started his career with the Gunners by not only revolutionizing the club’s operations, but English football as a whole through his knowledge of tactics, foreign scouting, fitness, nutrition, and the economics of the global transfer market. He won the Premier League three times — once undefeated — and made a Champions League final during that initial 10-year stretch.

The years following have featured not only a prolonged lack of success, but a myriad of systemic problems that are rooted in Wenger’s stubbornness and flawed ideology. The second, flailing phase of the Wenger era has been marked by mismanagement of contracts, the departure of key players to rivals, failure to address holes in the squad, and a consistently naive approach to big fixtures. Neutral pundits and Arsenal fans alike are in agreement — Wenger is no longer the right man for the job at Arsenal, and the club has little hope of getting back into the top four this season.

Wenger signed a fresh two-year contract over the summer when Arsenal had the opportunity to let him go, suggesting that owner Stan Kroenke is resistant to change. But it’s never too late to make things right, even if doing it three months too late costs a lot of money and makes you look like an idiot. The path forward for Arsenal is clear: Kroenke needs to fire Arsene Wenger, fire anyone who is more loyal to him than the club, sell players with expiring contracts, replace them with loan signings, and give new management a war chest to rebuild with. He needs to do this immediately, before the transfer window closes, even if he has no idea how the club will operate going forward. This will undoubtedly lead to Arsenal dropping out of the top six this season, but gives them a better chance at success next season and beyond than the status quo.

Does this sound extreme? It’s not, because there’s no reason to believe that Wenger will ever have the solutions to Arsenal’s problems. The same issues have persisted constantly over a 10-year period with no sign of change.


Arsenal’s decline: A timeline

Here’s how it all went wrong, chronologically. Throughout the years, The Short Fuse and Arseblog have done a brilliant job chronicling the roller coaster that is supporting Arsenal, and continue to do so.

2006-07 season

The second in a long string of trophyless seasons causes the beginning of discontent with Wenger’s management. A huge majority of the fan base is still behind him after this campaign, criticism is strong enough that Andrew Mangan is inspired to write a defense of Wenger at Arseblog, a popular fan site founded in 2002. “Although you might say his transfer dealings in previous summers don’t necessarily auger well for this one,” Mangan writes, “I think the underlying fact that Arsene is an intelligent man and is as aware of his team’s failings as anyone will see him do something about the make up of the squad.”

League finish: 4th; 68 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? None

2007-08 season

“The manager has set the expectation levels,” Mangan writes at the start of the season. “He thinks we can win the league, therefore so should we.”

Arsenal improves and finishes on a respectable 83 points while making the Champions League quarterfinals following a memorable Round of 16 smashing of AC Milan. Still, Arsenal finishes third without looking like real title challengers, falling out of the race after a 2-1 defeat to Manchester United late in the season.

Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini leave. They are never replaced.

Arsenal v AC Milan - UEFA Champions League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

League finish: 3rd; 83 points
Champions League finish: Quarterfinals
Trophies?: None

2008-09 season

A nice Champions League run papers over the cracks — Arsenal finishes fourth, a whopping 18 points behind the champions.

“We have a team with an average age of 23 or 24 that went to the Champions League Semi-Finals and is going to get better,” says CEO Ivan Gazidis after the season ends. He continues, “the idea that Arsene Wenger is some stubborn guy who is not open to having his ideas challenged and there is nobody there who can say ‘listen we need someone with experience in the middle of the park or at the back’ just isn’t true.”

League finish: 4th; 72 points
Champions League finish: Semifinals
Trophies? None

2009-10 season

Despite Gazidis’ words, Wenger does not buy a central midfielder in the next transfer window. He also sells Emmanuel Adebayor and does not buy another striker. The Gunners finish third, 11 points behind the champions.

The Wenger Out movement grows, but Arsenal bloggers still defend their legendary boss. Understandably so — things haven’t gotten that bad yet. “While doubts I have about the manager grow as another season ends without a trophy I’m not joining in the chorus of those who want him to go,” Mangan says after a particularly bad loss to Wigan.

Ted Harwood of SB Nation blog The Short Fuse thought better times were coming. “There were no trophies. Nobody is happy about this, just as nobody is happy that Arsenal failed to dent Man United or Chelsea. However, saying this does not obviate the fact that Arsenal are better-positioned for success in the next few years than any other English club.” Based on the youth in Arsenal’s squad and the success of their youth teams, Harwood had good reason to believe this.

League finish: 3rd; 75 points
Champions League finish: Quarterfinals
Trophies? None

2010-11 season

Despite poor goalkeeper play the previous season, Arsenal does not sign a goalkeeper. Jens Lehmann comes out of retirement in March 2011 due to an injury crisis and actually plays.

This season featured a famous 4-4 draw against Newcastle in which Abou Diaby was sent off and the Magpies came from four goals down. That, a League Cup final defeat to Birmingham City, and an FA Cup exit at the hands of a weakened Manchester United side get dedicated Wenger supporters to seriously turn on him for the first time.

Mangan writes about Arsenal’s bad defense, Tim Stillman says the team is terrible at the basics, and Aidan Gibson speculates that Wenger might be one more bad season away from being asked to leave.

This is the first year that Arsenal gets knocked out in the Champions League Round of 16, starting a streak that continued until this season, when Arsenal will not be participating in the competition.

League finish: 4th; 68 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? None

2011-12 season

After years of speculation, Cesc Fàbregas departs for Barcelona. “What does it say about us at the moment that on the eve of the new season we lose him?” asks Mangan. “What does it say about the way we’ve managed the situation that it’s happening now when we should be focusing on getting off to a good start ahead of a very difficult month?”

They did not get off to a good start, and Wenger’s naive tactics were the focus after a famous 8-2 defeat to Manchester United. “The tactics deployed today were awful,” said Mangan after the game. He added, “how many times do we have to see the same thing? Wenger may be a good finder of talent, but tactician he's not.”

Manchester United v Arsenal - FA Cup 6th Round Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

In response, Arsenal signs Yossi Benayoun, Mikel Arteta, and Per Mertesacker, who are decent signings, but do not solve the team’s problems. They also sign Andre Santos, who is hardly a professional footballer, and Park Chu-Young, who never makes an impact.

A 4-0 loss to AC Milan in Champions League shows that Arsenal now truly have a problem in Europe. Gibson wonders, for the second spring in a row, if football has passed Wenger by.

This is the point at which many people stop having expectations for Arsenal to succeed. Ryan Rosenblatt writes at SB Nation that Arsenal are no longer a top club. At the Guardian, Michael Cox says that Arsenal are not good at anything.

League finish: 3rd; 70 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? None

2012-13 season

Following a meeting with Gazidis and Wenger, Robin van Persie concludes that Arsenal will not compete for trophies in the near future, informs them he will not sign a new contract, and releases this open letter to fans. He’s sold to Manchester United, where he wins the league title and golden boot. Arsenal also sells Alex Song to Barcelona.

But for the first time since 2009, Wenger makes signings that could potentially be considered both good and ambitious by picking up Lukas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, and Nacho Monreal. Unfortunately, none of these players is a proper like-for-like replacement for van Persie or Song.

Despite their lack of success in this season, Arsenal finishes their last 10 Premier League games unbeaten and some young players put in good performances, sparking optimism. “This year, the group showed that they have the mental fortitude to finish strongly when they need to,” Mangan writes. “Now they need another sprinkle of quality to extrapolate and sustain that form over a period of ten months. Arsene, it’s over to you.”

League finish: 4th; 73 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? None

2013-14 season

Mesut Özil arrives, and he’s such a good signing that fans forget about all the other problems. The team signs no defender, no striker, and the only central midfielder that arrives is an aging, injury prone version of Flamini who is no longer the player he was in 2008.

This is the season where Wenger’s tactical naivety and failure to sign defensive players really kills him and shows up in some truly appalling results. It starts with Manchester City’s 6-3 win over the Gunners and gets worse from there.

Here’s Liverpool scoring four goals in 20 minutes. They miss numerous chances and probably should have had eight. The Reds take pity on Arsenal and stop trying hard to score. It is undoubtedly the most appalling half of football during Wenger’s reign.

Yet, the season ends with reason for optimism thanks to a high points total, some great performances by Özil, and an FA Cup victory to end the trophy drought. Aaron Ramsey appears to be developing into a world-class midfielder, while Jack Wilshere looks like he’s finally all the way back from injury. The team looks like they’re one good transfer window away from competing. Unfortunately, neither Ramsey or Wilshere would ever perform up to this level on a consistent basis again.

League finish: 4th; 79 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? FA Cup

2014-15 season

Wenger threatens to put together his first competent transfer window in over a decade by inking Alexis Sánchez, David Ospina, and then-top prospect Calum Chambers. Bacary Sagna leaves, but Mathieu Debuchy is a reasonable replacement. However, the team does not improve in areas of serious need, and Danny Welbeck feels like a panic signing.

Despite high hopes, Arsenal are out of the title race quickly, with nine wins, six draws and five losses in their first 20 games. Once again, they win the FA Cup to save their season.

“I think Arsene will have wanted his team to be more defensively solid and he certainly would have wanted a better showing against direct rivals in the league,” says Stillman, who goes on to promote optimism. “The feeling that we have made progress is informed by the fact that it feels as though Arsenal are in an even better position to push on than they were this time last year.”

League finish: 3rd; 75 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? FA Cup

2015-16 season

Wenger decides that Arsenal are merely a top goalkeeper away from a title chase and signs Petr Cech, who he says is worth an extra 10 points. Had Arsenal improved by 10 points over the previous season, they would have been champions. Mohamed Elneny arrives as midfield depth too and proves a solid value signing, but defense, defensive midfield, and striker are not addressed.

Leicester wins the title on just 81 points. Arsenal finishes second, but feels they threw the title away in a season that was set up for them to win it. Two losses to Chelsea, two draws against Tottenham, and a loss to Man United all hurt, but they’re not what costs Arsenal the title. The losses to West Ham, West Brom, Southampton, and Swansea were much worse. There were also less-than-savory draws against Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace, and Sunderland.

Mangan wonders if this is the year Wenger finally goes after the particularly deflating Swansea lost, topping his match recap with a “stop it, he’s already dead” meme. He says that Arsenal have “good players, but a manager unable to get the best out of them, and that “it feels like a rot has set in.”

Aston Villa v Arsenal - Premier League Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images

Arsene Wenger would not be fired.

League finish: 2nd; 81 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies?: None.

2016-17 season

A silly season debate rages: Should Arsenal try to sign Granit Xhaka or N’Golo Kante? Arsenal signs Xhaka, who is only a “defensive” midfielder in that he sits deep and kicks people very hard. Kante wins the league title with Chelsea and sweeps the individual awards, being named PFA, FWA, and Premier League Player of the Year.

Much like theoretical defensive midfielder Granit Xhaka, fellow new arrival Shkrodan Mustafi is a theoretical World Cup-winning central defender and Lucas Perez is a theoretical talented striker. Predictably, every other big club improved while all of the Gunners’ new arrivals performed poorly as Wenger finished outside of the top four for the first time. An FA Cup win over Chelsea seemingly saves Wenger’s job.

League finish: 5th; 75 points
Champions League finish: Round of 16
Trophies? FA Cup


The same issues persist over and over

Nothing ever changes at Arsenal. Here are the problems that pop up over and over again.

Replacing Patrick Vieira

Following his first recovery from a serious ankle injury that he would never truly recover from, Wenger compared Abou Diaby to Vieira, despite Diaby being a dribbling machine who wasn’t great defensively.

Gilberto Silva and Mathieu Flamini actually replaced Vieira quite well, but both departed in 2008 and were never replaced. Everyone knew that this would be a problem.

Wenger spent months seriously depending on Emmanuel Frimpong. He used Alex Song, a talented box-to-box playmaker who couldn’t stop a counter-attack to save his life, in a DM role. He brought back a hampered Flamini on a free transfer and has tried Mikel Arteta, Mohamed Elneny, Granit Xhaka, Aaron Ramsey, Jack Wilshere, and even Santi Cazorla — all box-to-box midfielders or advanced playmakers — as his deepest midfielder.

Nine years after Silva and Flamini’s departures, Jonathan Wilson is still writing about Arsenal’s hole in midfield.

Complacency with his squad

2007: “I read a quote from the manager earlier in the week saying he’d be happy going into next season with the same squad. Sadly it didn’t come on April fool’s day.

2008: “The team looks tired and I think we’re beginning to pay the price for having such a small squad ... there’s no real competition for positions.”

2009: Wenger says “I don’t think the squad needs major investment.”

2011: “The frustration that we haven’t yet been ‘very active’ in the transfer market, as Arsene said we would be, is growing. The frustration is borne out of a familiar fear.”

2012: “The only reason I can think of that we didn’t sign any more players is because Arsene feels this squad is good enough to win the title, good enough to compete with the best clubs in Europe in the Champions League”

Signings like Özil, Sánchez, Cech, and Xhaka placate the fans despite lingering issues. But we’ve returned to the old refrain this season.

2017: Wenger does not want to make signings because his squad is “already too big.”

Arsenal v Leicester City - Premier League Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images

Starting slow

2008-09: Loss to Fulham in Week 2, five losses by Nov. 22.

2009-10: Losses to United and City in Weeks 3 and 4.

2010-11: Draw Week 5, loss Week 6, loss Week 7. Five total losses by Christmas, including to Chelsea, United, and Tottenham.

2011-12: The first three results of the season are 0-0 vs. Newcastle, 0-2 vs. Liverpool and 2-8 vs. United to start the season. They also lost in Week 5 to Blackburn and Week 7 to Spurs.

2012-13: Week 6 loss to Chelsea, Week 8 loss to Norwich, Week 10 loss to United. This was followed by three draws over the next four games before a 2-0 loss to Swansea on Dec. 1.

2013-14: Loss to Aston Villa on the opening day. The start to this season goes well, comparatively speaking, with eight wins, one draw and one loss over the first 10 games.

2014-15: Draws in Weeks 2, 3 and 4. Draw Spurs at home Week 6. Lose to Chelsea in Week 7, draw Hull in Week 8, then three more losses before Christmas.

2015-16: Loss to West Ham in Week 1 and Chelsea in Week 6. Close November with a draw against Spurs, loss to WBA and draw against Norwich.

2016-17: Loss to Liverpool Week 1 and a draw against Leicester in Week 2. Actually did OK after that until December, but then they crumbled in the second half.

2017-18: After a comeback 4-3 win over Leicester to open the season, Arsenal have lost to Stoke and Liverpool.

Naive tactics against top opponents

We’ve already touched on the 8-2 loss to United, the Milan embarrassment, 6-3 against Manchester City, 5-1 against Liverpool, 6-0 against Chelsea, and of course, the most recent 4-0 defeat to Liverpool.

Since the start of the 2012-13 season, Arsenal’s away results against fellow top-six teams are very bad.

Adding in this week’s loss, the Gunners have now gone nine consecutive away games against fellow top-six teams without winning.

Letting players run down their contracts

A common defense of Wenger is that he has to operate within the club’s means and does not have nearly as much money to spend as his rivals in the Premier League. But that just makes his mismanagement of contracts all the more problematic. If Arsenal doesn’t have the revenue to compete in the transfer market, they need to sell high on talent to recoup the most money possible. Instead, Wenger’s mismanagement has allowed numerous top players to leave for free or well below market value.

  • Three months after stopping Kaká in his tracks, Flamini joined forces with Milan for free.
  • Cesc Fàbregas had been linked to a move to Barcelona for several years before actually making the jump. When he did, Arsenal received a paltry €35 million.
  • Because Robin van Persie had only one year left on his contract, Arsenal lost the then-best player in the Premier League for only £24 million, seven months after Fernando Torres was sold for more than double that fee.
  • With his contract running down, Manchester City was able to sign Gael Clichy for only £7 million. They later signed Bacary Sagna from the Gunners on a free transfer.
  • The one situation that runs counter to this one is Theo Walcott’s. Wenger risked him walking on a free transfer in 2011, but Walcott eventually signed a contract extension. This may have led to Wenger’s arrogance about getting Alexis Sánchez, Mesut Özil, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to sign new deals, and almost certainly contributed to him losing Sagna on a free instead of selling him prior to that.

This is the comprehensive case for Arsene Wenger performing poorly as manager of Arsenal. But there’s a prevailing school of thought that even an incompetent Wenger is better than anyone else, because he performs so many different jobs at the club, and Arsenal are not yet prepared to function without him because of the hands-off, unambitious ownership style of Stan Kroenke. This is entirely fair.

Does Stan Kroenke care about Arsenal’s success?

Debatable!

In 2016, Mangan made some very good points about Kroenke’s terrible ownership of Arsenal. “We have a majority shareholder who does not give a single shit whether this club wins things or not,” he said. “Not once since he took over has Stan Kroenke demonstrated or elucidated the slightest hint of football ambition. Not once.”

This is an entirely fair assessment. Arsenal have become a club defined by fear of being something other than safe and mediocre, in the same vein as all of the American sports teams owned by Kroenke. The man himself has admitted that he bought Arsenal to make money, not to win championships.

But on the same Sloane conference panel where Kroenke admitted he doesn’t care about trophies, he talks about the strength of Arsenal’s brand and what it means. That brand will deteriorate with perpetual failure. Arsene Wenger was once a great extension of Arsenal’s brand, but he’s becoming a toxic PR disaster.

The Arsenal brand is slowly becoming more associated with screwing up than anything good. Both young British people and new fans in emerging markets outside of the U.K. will not take up Arsenal support like they used to if the club’s brand goes to hell. Fans who started supporting the Gunners 15 years ago fell in love with their style of play as much as the results, but those people would be much more likely to pick Liverpool or Manchester City if they started watching today.

Arsenal v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

There’s only one thing for Kroenke to do, for both his business and Arsenal Football Club.

Arsenal should fire Arsene Wenger and gut the club immediately

Do not fall for the sunk cost fallacy. Wenger’s new contract does not mean changes should not be made right away. Arsenal can set themselves on the path to becoming a top club again now by cleaning house. As Ted Knutson put it on Twitter, change cannot happen at Arsenal without Wenger leaving, whether or not Kroenke has ambition or good ideas.

Fire and sell everyone who is not loyal to the club, and do it right now. Get all of the money you can for Sánchez, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Özil, and anyone else who has a contract running down and who doesn’t want to sign a favorable one. Replace them with the cheapest, shortest-term signings possible that will keep the club semi-competitive so that new management isn’t saddled with any albatross contracts.

Now you have a year to get everything else right. Former Mainz and Dortmund boss Thomas Tuchel is unemployed and might be the right manager for the job, but if he isn’t? No problem. Hire a short-term substitute teacher à la Rafa Benitez or Guus Hiddink. Any decent professional manager who is bored or wants to rebuild their reputation will do. That will give you time to find the perfect fit. You only need to avoid relegation.

Then, find your perfect sporting director. Work with them to build your scouting structure and get everything ready for your next real manager. If things are looking really grim, let them spend some money in January.

Write this season off to plan for the future. Go into next summer with a sporting director, a scouting structure, a manager, a blank slate, a war chest, and a plan.

It is impossible to do any of this while Arsene Wenger is at the club. There is no hybrid option. There is no compromise. It’s time for a new Arsenal. The last 10 years of failures makes that crystal clear.