Erik Ian Larsen: Arsene Wenger’s contract extension
Written by Erik Ian Larsen on November 24, 2010 19:00
Let me begin this by saying I truly respect and admire Arsene Wenger. He’s the winningest manager in Arsenal history, has kept our club competitive and relevant despite constructing a new stadium, and continues to unearth top notch talent from all over the globe to wear the red and white. I am not a member of either extremist fan group that both lauds and lambasts our manager. I do not blindly support. It’s not in my blood. And I don’t blindly hate either. “In Arsene We Trust” and “In Arsene We Rust” are not factors in my fandom, they are zealous slogans for anxious fans. So it is with great reluctance and respect in mind that I write this article.
It’s not easy to bring up Arsene Wenger as a writer. One word about the esteemed manager and you have both sides of the extreme piling on with their own versions of scripture. Piss off, he’s the best thing to happen to football since cleats. Piss off, he’s the devil incarnate trying to run the club into the ground. Et cetera, et cetera. I understand the fans on both sides, I really do, I understand how the believers resort to context, to historical fact, to calm their fears and their fellow fans. I also understand the cynics who see the club going into on-field ruins under the stubborn, penny-pinching manager and his unwavering philosophies. I understand everyone’s concerns (or non-concerns), but I think the extremists on both sides are missing the point.
Arsene Wenger will, eventually, cease to be our manager at Arsenal. It’s going to happen. He will retire. And when that day comes, we’re going to hear all about the synchronized death and rebirth of the club from both sides of the “Wenger” argument. But I don’t think we ever should’ve reached that point. I don’t think we ever should’ve, as a club, rested our laurels on fail-safe successes. Finishing in the top four is definitely an achievement, qualifying for the Champions League brings in tremendous revenues, and for a club concerned only about money, that top-four finish may be good enough to crown the season a success. Some clubs have banked their entire fortunes on qualifying for Europe, and we do it almost flippantly. But it’s not guaranteed, especially with the parity in the Premier League these last few years, and I still feel lucky to have qualified for the last decade. I applaud Arsene Wenger for his commitment to the club and our top four successes each year.
But isn’t there more than that? Isn’t there more to football that merely qualifying? Isn’t there more to Arsenal than mere sustainability? I want our team to win championships, I want our team to taste glory again, to lift a trophy for the first time in five years, and with Arsene Wenger’s contract expiring at the end of this year, for the first time in a while, I felt like both Wenger and our players had something serious to play for. For all the players Arsene has coddled and suckled over the years, this was their last year to prove themselves, to prove that they were more than benchwarmers. For the starters, it was a chance to prove that they should remain at the club, that they can overcome all the stereotypes that have been rightfully handed to them and win. We will never win with fragile players. We will never win with mentally instable winners. We will never win with players who are convinced there’s only one way play. We will never win with inflexible tactics. And this was our chance, this was our club’s chance, to really see what our manager and our players are made of. Put a snowman in a sauna.
In August of 2010, Wenger, in the final year of his contract as the manager of Arsenal, signed a long-term contract extension with the club until 2014. I remember being frustrated by Ivan Gazidis’ and the Arsenal front office’s decision. Not because Arsene Wenger doesn’t deserve an extension, no, he’s given so much to this club, both on and off the pitch, that it’s hard to argue with the board’s decision to award the face of Arsenal with a contract extension. I think Arsene Wenger, of nearly any manager in the league, deserves the benefit of the doubt that he can pull his team and his club together. I don’t fault anyone for the decision, but I can’t help but shaking the feeling that this was an opportunity. This was a chance to put Wenger under pressure, to put the players that he’s gambled so much of our team’s success on under that same heavy weight, to show that they’re all worthy of the Arsenal badge. To draw a line in the sand for Wenger and his “type” of players that they either have to put up or face the scrutiny of another vision.
For the last five years, many of those players haven’t been worthy of the red and white. Arsene Wenger himself has called them out for it. And yet, match after match, we see a group of players and a singular manager that struggle to adapt. Is that the future of our club? Is that what we’re going to see until 2014? Are we so content to be fiscally profitable and sustainable on the pitch that we don’t need to taste silverware anymore? I don’t really know the answer to that question, but I think rewarding Wenger before the season even started undermined the message to the players that this is a club with tradition, history, and precedence. That we aren’t content finishing third and fourth every year. We are Arsenal FC, we are a proud, bold club that knows what it takes to win. I don’t think the current crop of players Arsene has assembled really knows that anymore, and I’m ashamed that they may never have to face the pressure of higher expectations until our manager decides to leave on his own terms.
This isn’t about one loss, or 10 losses, or five trophy-less years, this is about culture and philosophy. There’s a thing that happens to the human body when faced with fear and stress, it’s called “fight or flight.” It’s a psychological reaction, brought about by anxiety and stress, that forces people to make split-second decisions to run away to survive or to fight for it This year could’ve been a fight or flight season, our players would’ve had to choose which side they belonged on, whether or not they were here because they were Arsenal players or if they were simply “Arsene players.” But instead, we continue on the same path of pain-free patriarchy.