Arsene Wenger has led the Gunners for decades now, transforming the club from “boring, boring Arsenal” to the sparkling commercial success it is today. Profits are booming, the new stadium is beautiful, and the club’s future in business terms is assured for years to come. But that’s not good enough for a club that assures its fans it wants to be amongst the world’s best.
Arsenal used to be as good as anyone around. They consistently challenged for the Premier League title each year, winning it three times under Wenger. They were also a force on the continental front, coming within touching distance of the Champions League trophy when they made the final in 2006. Wenger built a fanatical fanbase at Arsenal because of the beautiful football he inspired throughout the years, and the fantastic success he had early in the late 90s and early 21st century, culminating in the famous “Invincibles” season of 2003-04.
But even since that historic team 12 years ago, Arsenal have suffered through an unprecedented title drought. For years following the success of that period, Wenger preached patience to the Arsenal fanbase. He carefully managed the club’s money, leading them into a new era of stadium ownership and soaring profit margins. But no trophies came. Arsenal have finished in the top four every season since 1996, but the trophy case has only welcomed three FA Cups since their last league triumph.
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All the while, Chelsea and their new ownership arrived on the scene a little more than a decade ago, spending extravagantly, and seeing that outlay net them four league titles. Manchester City also found new foreign investment, flashed the cash, and won a couple Premier League titles of their own. This while Manchester United thrived under Sir Alex Ferguson. The entire paradigm shifted right in front of Arsenal’s eyes, but still, Wenger preached patience.
Arsenal did splash some cash, bringing in the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez. But they failed to continue to strengthen the team in (what seemed) obvious areas, and Arsenal repeated the same cycle. They started strong, looked brilliant at times throughout the year, but ultimately faded out of the title race when it really mattered, settling for the now-customary Champions League qualification. But still, Wenger preached patience. Arsenal’s time would come.
Then last season happened. Everyone fell apart and the strongest team was Leicester City. It was Arsenal's opening, but instead Claudio Ranieri and his Foxes barged through the door, operating on a shoestring budget and winning the Premier League title. Suddenly, the Gunners had no more excuses.
So far this summer, Arsenal have only made one major buy, prising Granit Xhaka away from Borussia Monchengladbach. As strong of a signing as he looks to be, this Gunners side doesn’t look capable of challenging for the title as-is, plus they’re facing a mounting injury crisis at the back. While Wenger remains coy as always in press conferences, there’s a palpable growing desperation amongst Arsenal fans that this will be yet another season without hope of a Premier League trophy residing in North London. The transfer window is far from over, but Arsenal surely need at least one international quality center back, and one or two top class attacking players to truly make a legitimate title run. They need to do what their rivals are doing — aggressively going after great players like Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante, Eric Bailly or Leroy Sane who fit their needs.
With one year left on his contract, even Wenger himself doesn’t know what the future holds.
“My contract runs until the end of the season,” Wenger told the BBC. “What I will do after will depend a little bit on how the season goes.”
Whether it's his decision to move on or the club tells him they are moving on, Wenger is on the hot seat. If he's going to stick to his formula, it needs to work. And it needs to work now.
In the last decade, Arsenal fans have seen Manchester United, City, Chelsea, and now tiny Leicester lift the Premier League trophy ahead of them. Even rivals Tottenham Hotspur have closed the gap on them and Liverpool are ready to mount a challenge at the top under Jurgen Klopp. Each year, Wenger has asked for patience from the Gooners fanbase, but the time for patience is over. It’s now or never for Arsenal. Things aren’t going to get any easier. Foreign investment is at an all-time high, TV money is flowing freely throughout the league, and top quality players are increasingly willing to sign for whomever has the project to attract them and the cash they desire. If Wenger isn’t willing to — or can’t — adapt to this new reality and do what it takes to lift the English Premier League trophy, it may be time to reassess what type of club they are, and if the Wenger model is the one they’ll continue to operate under moving forward.