Arsene Wenger: Deluded Fool or Perfect Manager?

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Arsene Wenger: Deluded Fool or Perfect Manager?
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I know that this topic has been discussed to death, but it seems that no matter what he does, Arsene Wenger can't win. Even though he is working with limited funding, creating his team largely through the youth academy, and even bringing along new players for the English league, he is still being criticized. 

Most of the Arsenal fanbase can be simply, clumsily, and often incorrectly categorized into "Wengerites" and "Anti-Wengerites." Wengerites believe that "Arsene knows" and blindly follow him no matter what he does.  Anti-Wengerites find every excuse to blame him for Arsenal's problems.  The issue is much more complex, and requires a more nuanced perspective.  

Most Arsenal supporters want the team to win trophies, not plaudits about their play or prizes for being financially sound.  So no matter how beautiful the football the team plays, or how well-run the club, fans will not be appeased until the team wins a trophy.  Trophies seem to be the be-all and end-all.  And as true sports fans, that's really all anyone should care about.  Why should all non-Arsenal employees care about the club's finances anyway? 

Now there is definitely a valid reason for Arsenal fans' discontent.  After enduring five trophyless seasons, the departure of many club legends and top players, and the seemingly irrational unwillingness to spend, these diehard supporters have had enough.  Winning laurels and praise for pretty play can only take them so far.  After all, Arsenal is one of the biggest clubs in Europe.

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But what fans seem to forget is that he is still the most successful manager in Arsenal's history, one of the most successful managers in premier league history, and arguably a top-five or top-10 manager today. 

He has won the Premier League three times, with two league and FA cup doubles, and the FA Cup and Community Shield four times each.  He also led a team to 49 unbeaten league games, and an unbeaten season, an unprecedented feat in modern football.   


So what are his deficiencies?
 

One issue that the English media often criticize him for is the fact that he does not have many English players on his team, if at all.  During his early years with the club, in addition to Ian Wright and Ray Parlour, he inherited the old English rearguard of Seaman, Adams, Bould/Keown, Dixon, and Winterburn, and later added Sol Campbell. 

But the presence of English players in his teams of recent years has been scant at best.  He bought speedster Theo Walcott as a 16-year-old from Southampton, but even his games have been few and far between.

Tactically, his teams are probably inferior to well-drilled Manchester United and Chelsea teams of recent years.  He allows his team free reign, which often results in dazzling displays of football, but also leaves the team prone to quick counterattacks. 

The only other team with a similar offensive approach and mindset is Barcelona, and unfortunately, Arsenal are either too inexperienced, unfamiliar, or just lack the personnel to mirror the Catalans' defensive approach.  For whatever reason, the team seems entirely incapable of applying pressure high up the pitch to win the ball. 

His contemporaries, Alex Ferguson, Carlos Ancelotti, and Jose Mourinho before him, all emphasize the importance of a watertight defense, and perfect execution.  But he prefers to push creativity and forward thinking, much to his defense's dismay.

Like Johan Cruyff and other similarly-minded individuals, Wenger believes in "Total Football" and a truly beautiful game.  Unfortunately, this often results in his teams lacking defensive soundness and solidity.

But the topic that draws the most ire among fans is his lack of spending.  Arsenal has been operating on a net gain from its transfer activities in recent years despite glaring holes in the team, and available and affordable targets readily available.  Both Wenger and the board have declared that he has money to spend.  So to the average fan, his frugality is both baffling and unfounded.

With both Manuel Almunia and Lukasz Fabianski suffering lack of form and horribly inexcusable gaffes, he is still taking his time to buy a new No. 1.  Both Schwarzer and Given are available, yet he continues to draw the issue out.  Even worse, there is a severe lack of depth in the Centre Back and Defensive Midfielder positions, and he has not addressed the issue.

Gooners the world over are questioning him.  After all, why wouldn't he spend if he has the money?


Then why is he still the best manager to run the club? 

Although his teams have often been derided for being anti-English, there are many quality English players arriving from Arsenal's youth setup.  Ashley Cole, David Bentley, Steve Sidwell, and Fabrice Muamba were all products of the youth academy.

But future England stars Jack Wilshere and Kieren Gibbs are beginning to light up the international scene, with Jay-Emmanuel Thomas, Henri Lansbury, Emmanuel Frimpong (if he chooses to play for England), and further down the line Chuks Aneke, Benik Afobe, and Thomas Cruise all chomping at the bit for their turn.  

Needless to say, this talented generation of English Arsenal youngsters will usher in an era of change into the England national team.  They are all technically gifted and robust players who can give England the proper boost of technical quality the national team needs. 

But this perfectly demonstrates why Arsene Wenger was the right manager to guide the club through its early stages of transitioning into a new stadium, and is still the perfect man today. 

As the club continues to repay its huge stadium debt, the resources to buy established names and stars will be limited at best.  Especially in a world where Manchester City spends £120m-plus and Real Madrid can spend £215m in one summer, most teams can't compete.  Some clubs operate seemingly without needing to balance their budget, instead running on an unsustainable deficit.

As someone who graduated from two quantitative disciplines—an Electrical Engineering Degree and a Master's Degree in Economics—Wenger believes in sound financial and economic principles.

One of the things I love about Arsenal is the fact that the club won't spend beyond its means, buy overpriced players, and offer astronomical wages.  These actions belie sound economic principles, and in any other business anywhere in the world, would be considered madness.  Wenger, on the other hand, acts rationally.

So no, he will not overspend on players.  He takes a very logical and quantitative approach to transfers, preferring to sign players for their true market value and largely relying on the youth academy to produce world beaters, or at least generate transfer income to buy those world beaters.  With the club still largely in (albeit shrinking) debt, he really cannot afford to overspend.

But that is exactly why the Board of Directors and Chief Executive Ivan Gazidis, who are privy to the club's finances, trust him to run the club.  He is financially astute and arguably the best talent evaluator in the world.  He has done an amazing job running the club amidst an expensive move to the new Ashburton Grove/Emirates Stadium, and with an ever-maturing team with potential stars biding their time, the future looks bright.


Conclusion

So do I think that Arsenal will win the league this year?  Probably not.  The team is a few players short, especially in the back, and some youngsters need a few more years to mature. 

But I do believe that the team will finish Top four again this year and many subsequent years thereafter.  And in the ultra-competitive English Premier League, that's quite an achievement.

Success should not be judged on the short-term, because it is not necessarily winning and winning now that is important.  Get rich quick schemes, and massive investments don't always mean success, both in the present or the future.  Rather, it is establishing a strong base and creating a system that can lead to victories and trophies for many years far into the future that should be the measure of his, especially after "Le Prof" Arsene Wenger retires.     

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