During the summer of 2012, Arsenal captain Robin van Persie called a meeting with his manager and mentor, Arsene Wenger. He reportedly told the Frenchman how he was unhappy about the club stagnating, about how the Gunners needed spend big on new signings, and about how club legend Steve Bould shouldn’t have got the job as Assistant Manager (van Persie apparently believed Bould to be nothing more than a “yes man”).
As meetings go, Robin might as well have set fire to his Arsenal contract and slapped Wenger around the face there and then, before breaking into Taylor Swift’s ‘We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together’.
Arsene Wenger is the most stubborn man in the Premier League, and has been since Sir Alex Ferguson resigned from that post, and his Manchester United job, just a year after van Persie was stubbornly flogged to United. Wenger’s teams are stubborn in their approach on the pitch, Wenger stubbornly sticks with the same coaching staff for decades on end, and he is undoubtedly the most stubborn man left in the transfer market. Arsenal fans can testify especially to that last one, as Arsene is still desperately scouring the world for a striker to replace van Persie, four years after his departure.
But as Wenger enters the last year of his contract, his refusal to change his ways is only half of his biggest weakness. The other half is a much more positive trait; you know, one of those that you’d drop in an interview, that you just work too hard, or you’re just too tidy. Wenger puts so much faith in his team, he makes Ty from ArsenalFanTV look casually interested in the sport.
Because while Wenger would’ve rubbed his hands with glee at the prospect of snatching Vardy for £20m, and while he probably dreams of sweet-talking Lyon into cutting the Lacazette asking price, half of the reason for the lack of panic for a new frontman is the trust he puts in Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott. The man seldom gives up on a player; it’s the reason Walcott’s been at the club a staggering decade, and why Oxlade-Chamberlain could rack up the same regardless of how injuries hamper him. It’s why Jack Wilshere is rewarded with contract extensions, why Yaya Sanogo hasn’t been tossed, why Petr Cech was only the second goalkeeper that Wenger has ever signed with the intention of making first choice immediately (the other being Jens Lehmann), and why Abou Diaby was given chance, after chance, after chance, despite his own body parts showing less enthusiasm for the cause.
It’s the source of so many Arsenal fans’ frustrations. It’s partly why the club is still feeling the effect of the Emirates austerity, and Mathieu Flamini’s recent departure means that the “banter years” are only just over; while Louis van Gaal and David Moyes took just three seasons between them to almost completely rennovate the Manchester United squad with new faces, the Arsenal wheel turns a lot slower. An awful lot slower, in the case of Per Mertesacker; Arsenal’s captain for most of last campaign isn’t as good as he used to be and doesn’t have a deputy ready to take his place at the back, but Wenger will more than likely trust him for an another year. Unless, if reports are to be believed, former captain Thomas Vermaelen could return to North London from his handful of Barcelona appearances. Case in point.
But while you can trace nearly every Gooner’s frustrations down to Wenger’s inpenetrable faith in his players, perhaps they should remember: the cornerstone of Wenger’s footballing philosophy relies on it.
Wenger buys the players, but the emphasis on organising the team comes from the team itself. What seems like a lack of any tactical strategy at all is in fact Wenger giving his players the faith to express themselves, confident in the belief that his side can beat any other side on their day. Legend has it that it was Arsenal’s famous back four that told Vieira and Petit when to hold back and defend, for example. It all started from that.
Appropriate for a Catholic, faith is key to all of Wenger’s footballing successes. Thierry Henry went his first nine Arsenal games without a goal after being converted as a winger. Laurent Koscielny, Nacho Monreal, Hector Bellerin, Kolo Toure, Francis Coquelin and van Persie himself all suffered similar faltering starts to their Arsenal careers, but were rewarded with time to adjust. The last two FA Cup victories have come with cup keepers. Players like Aaron Ramsey have chosen to sign for Arsenal because they knew that Wenger would give them a go. Even the big, big signings at Arsenal – Ozil, Sanchez, Cech, even Danny Welbeck – are players who were deemed surplus to requirements elsewhere. Every player Wenger has ever signed has had something to prove, whether they’ve moved from a big club or a small one; perhaps that’s partly why Arsenal have consistently been in the top few teams in the country under Wenger.
And anyway, what’s wrong with a little faith? It’s hope that drives football fans to keep going every week, and in a world in which Manchester United are willing to pay £100m for a player they sold for £800,000 four years ago, trusting what you have and investing in personalities over names is surely a good thing. Wenger’s been vindicated for his faith in the past on a number of occasions. Surely, the biggest of all testaments to his unwavering beliefs would be to lift the Premier League title in the last season of his current contract (and last, as some hope). Should he do it, the faith will have paid off; if not, he’ll be seen as a stubborn old fool. It depends on your point of view.