Olivier Giroud wants Arsene Wenger to stay, and it appears most of his players do. He’s also been offered a two year contract extension by Arsenal, according to various reports. Wenger has hinted that he is looking forward to staying, too. Tony Pulis, who played Wenger at the weekend in a 3-1 victory, also believes that Wenger will be there next season. It appears only some of the fans want the specialist in failure to be given the boot. Wenger has done nothing to suggest he should be given even one more season, but it might be the least worst option to let him stay for now, and leave according to an agreed timetable.
It must be tempting to want to see Wenger go as soon as possible. When things look bleak, in the middle of a grim month and on the receiving end of the same Champions League as ever, change appears to be paramount as soon as possible. When Louis van Gaal was serving up football which was almost impossible to watch, and when Jose Mourinho was overseeing barely concealed player insurrection, two clubs took a different path. Chelsea brought in a competent interim figure to steady the ship, United waited to dispose of him in the summer when there was less disruption.
Arsenal must decide whether, with a top four place at risk, whether there is someone who could take over as a caretaker and make European qualification more likely than Wenger. There doesn’t appear to be. The decision, then, is to work out who would be an improvement. Massimiliano Allegri is popular at Juventus, and has impressed. Thomas Tuchel has done well enough at Dortmund to suggest he’s competent, but not a great deal more than that. Both of these managers have done as well as their budgets suggest they would. There is no obvious overachiever to approach. Nevertheless, either of them seem like reasonable punts if a change is necessary.
Looking at Manchester United, it is easy to see why planning for his replacement needs to be robust. If Wenger leaves this summer, it gives only a few months to search for a replacement. The management of the side is only part of it. Like Alex Ferguson, he is more than just a manager of the club. He has influence at board level, on wider club finances, on scouting and youth development. Large parts of this will have to be maintained or replaced. People will leave when Wenger does, especially if he goes on to work as a manager elsewhere. If he goes this season or next, you can expect that players will leave and need to be replaced.
There is a problem is Wenger stays, though. In fact, there is more than just one problem. As Giroud says, the players want him to stay. No wonder, they are allowed to miss the expectations of the fans every single year and there are rarely any consequences. Giroud can miss vital chances and know that his place in the side is his for as long as he wants it. Danny Welbeck is free to never improve from his time at Manchester United under Ferguson. Central defenders will never have to learn to defend. Only if you get sick of Wenger, not the other way around, do you get to leave Arsenal. Only if you actually want to win things do you get the chance to go, holding the club to ransom by refusing a new contract.
If Wenger stays, there is two more years of this, to condition the club into accepting mediocrity. The obvious retort is, just how much worse could it get? The answer to that is, remember Liverpool, a club who did little outside of one remarkable year under Rafael Benitez. Liverpool are yet to truly recover from appointing Graeme Souness, and from the belief that being special is something that will carry you through in the end.
The other problem is the notion of opportunity cost. Retaining Wenger might not hurt just because of the damage he can continue to do, but because of the pain and trouble of not finding someone who can start to repair the problems. That used to be less of a problem, because the top four were always the top four; that is just how the Premier League used to work, but as Mourinho pointed out this week, the days of dominance are over. There’s just too much money about, and as the Premier League pays everyone handsomely, even for being relegated, the competition is now much more fierce.
Liverpool with Jurgen Klopp, Manchester City with Pep Guardiola and Spurs with Mauricio Pochettino, are all intimidating sides, all with the prospect of serious improvement over the summer, and all with the money to compete for the best talent around. United will do the same, and if Wenger stays they will almost certainly elect not to. As United have started to find out as they plan for their transfers this summer, not being able to guarantee regular Champions League football is troublesome for any player who wants to be well regarded – and that, not the money, is what drives the very best.
Arsenal are paying for their choice of inertia. The top four was fine for the owners when it was guaranteed. But with increased competition and a decline in performances, an attitude of constant improvement is essential just to stand still in relative terms. They can let Wenger leave in the summer – and invite chaos. Or they can let Wenger sit and spread his rot further. There is talk that he could perform an overhaul in the summer, to make one last tilt at the title, or to leave a platform for his successor. Looking at players like Santi Cazorla and Nacho Monreal, it is hard to work out why you’d risk something like that. Chaos has never looked so good.