Wenger's "art" was never likely to be questioned when Arsenal were winning the league, but probably his greatest achievement is that he managed to sustain support amongst the vast majority of Arsenal fans when things were going poorly, partly because of the style of play. To justify poor results because of the way the poor results were achieved is, in simple terms, extraordinarily cheeky. It is roughly equivalent to a used car salesman maintaining the full support of his boss, despite never selling any cars, because he turned up for work every day dressed immaculately.
-Michael Cox in So Paddy Got Up: An Arsenal Anthology
posted this quote on Facebook, and it prompted me to break my long hiatus from blogging. Michael Cox is a very smart writer, but he grossly oversimplifies the situation at Arsenal and his used-car-salesman analogy isn't particularly apt in this context. I don’t mean to sound too harsh, as I do not totally reject his thesis: I think Wenger has fared relatively well in terms of maintaining the support of the fans, despite a long spell of somewhat disappointing results. That said, Cox overstates Arsenal’s failings as well as the fans’ unwavering support for Wenger. He also ignores other important factors that have contributed to fans’ support for Wenger besides the club's style of play.
- Things have never gone that poorly for Arsenal under Wenger. While Arsenal certainly are in the midst of a lengthy period without trophies, they have always finished in the top four under Wenger. Wenger has received a lot of criticism for claiming that finishing in the top four is like winning a trophy, but most Liverpool and Tottenham fans would surely trade Champions League qualification every year for their recent League Cup trophies. Qualifying for the Champions League brings tangible benefits to a club in terms of revenue and attracting/keeping top players.
- When Arsenal moved from Highbury to the Emirates, Wenger made the case to fans that the club would need to be prudent financially for several years while the club serviced the huge amount of debt incurred to build the new stadium. Wenger’s plan was to develop a core group of young players into a squad that would contend for trophies rather than purchase expensive already-developed players. Fans trusted that Wenger's plan was in the long-term interest of the club given his early success at Arsenal. As his plan unraveled with the exits of the top core players that Wenger helped to develop (i.e., Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie), Arsenal fans increasingly expressed their dissent. Wenger has, in fact, faced plenty of criticism, especially over the past 2-3 seasons. A very vocal and relatively large contingent of Arsenal supporters has at various times called for the club to sack him.
- Many Arsenal fans have assigned blame (correctly or incorrectly) to the board rather than Wenger. These fans think that the board do not provide Wenger with sufficient resources to compete for trophies, and, given the financial constraints imposed by the board, Wenger has performed quite well.
- The used-car-salesman metaphor doesn’t make much sense. In the metaphor, the fans are apparently the boss of the salesman, but Arsenal fans aren’t Wenger’s boss and couldn’t fire him even if they wanted to. Moreover, the business of selling cars is not much like the business of a spectator sport. The sartorial proficiency of a salesperson is not of primary importance to the boss, while fans (for good reason) care about being entertained. Equating Wenger’s relatively successful Arsenal in recent years (though not successful in terms of trophies) and their pleasing style of play to a well-dressed car salesman who never makes a sale seems entirely unfair.