Arsene Wenger is one manager who will lose no sleep fretting over a call from the office. Wenger, sacked? Unthinkable. So why are there Arsenal fans thinking about just that?
Even at the best of times, there's no scientific means to establish just how many are seriously hankering for a change of manager. In the wake of an impotent display against Manchester United on Monday, Arsenal's fifth defeat in the pair's last six meetings, Wenger's critics will be shouting longer and louder than usual. But the notion that the club's most successful manager may have reached his "best before" date is being discussed by fans across a wide demographic -- not just the loonies and trolls.
It's easily dismissed as a huge overreaction to a single result -- a 1-0 defeat, at Old Trafford (where United has lost only four times in the last three years). Defeat to a goal (by Park Ji-Sung) that still divides opinion between "freak" and "genius." No doubt Arsenal was poor, but it's just one game. Arsenal is still second in the table, just off its points pace from last season, when it maintained a title challenge (in a far less open race) until late March.
For those questioning the manager's wisdom, however, this match represents in microcosm every weakness in Arsenal's game -- in its philosophy under Wenger.
United sacrificed the Wayne Rooney-Dimitar Berbatov partnership to a five-man midfield that stifled Arsenal's creative players and quickly turned play around. "We know Arsenal," antagonist-in-chief, Patrice Evra, said afterward. "We know that if you don't let them breathe, then it becomes hard for them." Sir Alex Ferguson tailored his team to the occasion, packing a combative center with Anderson, Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. It wasn't especially pretty but it earned United three points and first place.
By contrast, Wenger kept the same outfield lineup he used in a 2-1 home victory against Fulham on Dec. 4. His options are somewhat limited by injury concerns: After abortive comebacks, Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie need cautious reintroduction. Samir Nasri has made Fabregas' absences more than bearable, but keeping him on the right, with Tomas Rosicky overrun in the middle, left Nasri isolated. Against Fulham, he was up against Clint Dempsey, who allowed him more time and space than Park is ever likely to give anyone. Theo Walcott's pace might have tested the Korean, but by the time he appeared, after 77 minutes, Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand were well into their rhythm.
Whether Wenger is inattentive to the idiosyncrasies of his opponents or simply believes in his team's abilities against all comers (and he wouldn't be alone), he was rewarded with a lackluster display that disappointed fans and neutrals alike. We expect Barcelona-Lite from Arsenal, but we got a flat can of lemonade. By halftime you could count on the fingers of one hand the number of forward passes it had completed in the final third.
But Wenger waited another 20 minutes before changing things -- and has made 51 of his 74 substitutions after 65 minutes -- a numerical feast for critics who say pretty soccer is all well and good, but you need a plan B. Such figures lay a blanket over the nuances of particular games, making them more than a little suspect, but the argument gained currency when two of the three subs got less than 10 minutes on the pitch during a 2-0 defeat to Chelsea in October.
After a 2-0 loss to Braga last month, Wenger criticized the Portuguese for playing on the counterattack and using "every single trick in the book to slow the game down." The same critics wonder why the Arsenal manager didn't anticipate such (legitimate) tactics and set his personnel accordingly, or why he waited until the final 20 minutes to make any changes.
He had cause enough to mention the poor condition of the pitch at Old Trafford and, though it's been widely reported that he "blamed" this for Arsenal's defeat, Wenger also spoke at length about United's defensive fortitude. But he can undermine his own good sense by routinely absolving his players of responsibility. Asked if last month's 3-2 loss to Spurs resulted from complacency, he blamed fatigue from midweek internationals, despite the fact that his side was not significantly worse off in that regard than Tottenham.
So there you have the charges against: a mollycoddled team that lacks backbone, unable to make plan A work against well-organized opponents and without a plan B. Wenger has four years left on what he says is his last contract, and is determined that when Arsenal eventually fills its trophy cabinets anew, it will be through the marriage of performance and results. The fans calling for his head fear he has been enslaved by his own noble ideals.
Those fears are not without justification. Fans who previously bought into the project -- who doesn't want to "win pretty"? -- have already spent five years waiting for tomorrow. A manager's worst foibles creep into the team over time: insecurity, myopia, a tendency toward righteousness. Every year "will be better," but the same weaknesses undermine Arsenal's campaign, no matter the names on the shirts. Wenger -- thinker, aesthete, perfectionist -- has his hand caught in the monkey trap.
In his first 11 seasons, Wenger had a 36 percent winning rate in the EPL against United and a 48 percent mark against Chelsea. In the last three-and-a-half seasons, those numbers have dropped to 14 and 29, respectively. Arsenal started Monday ahead of United in the standings yet never looked like winning. Barca, which has lost only four of its last 80 matches in all competitions, is next for Arsenal in the Champions League. All the time his rivals refuse to fade from view, there are serious doubts as to whether Wenger can win the heavy-duty silverware he and the club crave.
But if the fears can be justified, the calls are dangerously impatient. Arsenal hasn't been outside the top four in 14 years (and had only been inside it twice in the 14 years before that). It's qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League every season since 2003-04. Yet Wenger is the league's smallest spender by some distance -- since Arsenal moved to the Emirates in 2006, he's made transfer profits of around £30 million ($47 million). Even without Manchester City's splurge on Kolo Toure and Emmanuel Adebayor, his net spend for that period would be under £10 million ($15.5 million).
Wenger has achieved Champions League soccer on Stoke City's budget. There are plenty of fans for whom fiscal stability -- Arsenal's debts are well-managed and reduced every year -- plus a world-class stadium is worth a cup here and there. Arsenal has a host of extremely promising youngsters -- Jack Wilshere and Aaron Ramsey are already capable Premier League performers, Johan Djourou is doing the same and Emmanuel Frimpong, Jay Emmanuel-Thomas, Henri Lansbury, Benik Afobe and Chukwuemeka Aneke, among others, are queuing up behind.
Of course not all of them will make it, but Ferguson again provides a telling comparison. In 1990, Man United went on a terrible run. When the crowd wasn't booing, it was chanting "Fergie out." A banner appeared that read: "Three years of excuses and it's still crap. Ta ra, Fergie." You don't need reminding that Ferguson went on to bring through the league's best-ever crop of young players, or that United lifted 15 trophies in the subsequent decade.
Even if Wenger's project never wins Arsenal's post-2005 "Mach II" more than admiration, the moral of the story remains: Mind what you wish for. It's not a given that another manager would match Wenger's achievements, let alone better them. They have only become mundane, "the minimum requirement," because he has maintained them for so long.