What a wild five months for Arsenal football club, and its tireless leader—Arsene Wenger. This past July, Gooners everywhere watched a disjointed and unsettled Arsenal side struggle against weaker competition in the Emirates Cup. Nasri was unhappy. Wilshere limped off injured. We still needed centerbacks. And memories of Fabregas faded painfully into the distance.
Soon to follow was the 8-2 drubbing by United and transfer madness on deadline day (read: Yossi). Journalists and Gunner fans alike were calling for Wenger’s head, especially following the devastating loss to Blackburn. It seemed the Professor’s time was done as Arsenal waded around the relegation zone.
Oh, how a few months can change everything. With progress (and a top of the group finish) in the Champions League, a strong Premier League run of form, and a taste of the top 6—Arsenal’s current fortunes are suddenly very different. Arsenal still has a lot of work to do as the season rolls on. However, it is fair to assume that in October most Gooners would have been overjoyed with the current position given the season’s nightmare start.
So, where does this turnaround leave us? Were the fans too quick to criticize Wenger following the slow start? Was Wenger’s handling of the summer transfers detrimental to the team’s mentality?
First off, I think the early season criticism of Wenger was harsh and disproportionate. The team’s confidence was crushed following the Carling Cup debacle and never recovered. This led to a fourth place finish in the league, FA and Champions League exits, and provided more reasons for wantaways (cough, Nasri) to leave. Sure, Wenger is not entirely innocent of the abrupt fall. However, at the end of the day, these are professionals who should be able to pick themselves up after a tough loss.
On the other hand, some of the blame for the drawn out Nasri and Cesc sagas – and lack of adequate replacements – falls squarely at his feet. I think he hesitated too long and, if summer stories are correct, left big money bids for Hazard and M’Vila too late for those teams to find replacements. What the club was calling for during the summer were any signs of stability; leaving transfer moves until deadline day did not bolster confidence.
Wenger is a shrewd operator in the transfer market; that much we know. However, allowing the uncertainty to fester throughout the summer created problems—both with club personnel and among supporters. The boss recently mentioned that “half the team” wanted to leave during the offseason. This was likely an exaggeration; still, it paints a picture of how dire the mood was within Arsenal’s camp.
Therefore, when evaluating the early parts of this campaign, we need to keep these factors in mind. The summer mood was toxic throughout the club, some of it beyond Wenger’s control. Moreover, we have little insight into the board’s directives. Did they force Wenger’s hand in the sales of Cesc and Samir? Did they hesitate to bring in reinforcements given financial concerns? What we do know is that this summer was one of Wenger’s most testing and transitional since his reign began. And, overall, he demonstrated his mettle once more.
Things are looking better now in September. Still, there remains a long season ahead. Plenty of time for pundits and fans alike to oscillate between admiration and disdain for Wenger before the year is up. For the moment, however, Wenger deserves credit for righting the ship.
The greatest lesson from this summer is that patience—however difficult—must be encouraged. Though many clubs don’t have the luxury of waiting, especially the relegation contenders (Steve Kean), Wenger has shown us time and again that he understands long-term strategy.
Moreover, he has the pedigree and respect of his players necessary to foster improvement. The 125th anniversary was a stark reminder of Wenger’s value to the club. As former players were rolled out by the boatload, one theme was consistent: former players universally believe Wenger should stay at the club as long as possible. He is consistently cited as the reason players want to move to Arsenal—and the importance of this cannot be understated. Even Nasri lauded Wenger following his departure (though take from that what you want).
What we do know is that things have been worse. And Arsenal has seen better days (that is no great insight). However, it is important to keep in mind as the ups and downs persist this season. As frustrating as Arsenal’s problems can seem, let’s remember to withhold final judgment. Against a rising tide of criticism throughout the summer, the Professor demonstrated his trademark, often frustrating, patience. It was a lesson that he deserves the same from us. The team is improving, solidity is returning. Arsenal, Forward.
Now, let’s just find a fullback to face Aston Villa.