The fight over Arsene Wenger’s employment stopped being about results a long time ago. It’s about what fans want Arsenal to be.
Dueling banners from Arsenal fans were the talk of the soccer world on Saturday morning. One group of Gooners spent money to fly a banner over The Hawthorns requesting Arsene Wenger’s exit, while another group of fans flew one showing support for the longtime Arsenal boss:
30 minutes gone at The Hawthorns
— BBC 5 live Sport (@5liveSport) March 18, 2017
Amid that, there was an actual game to play, and Arsenal played it poorly. They went behind early against West Bromwich Albion and never led. The Baggies scored two of their three goals on set pieces, and their final goal was all about effort. Craig Dawson just fought harder to win the ball than the Arsenal players did, and West Bromwich Albion defeated Arsenal, 3-1.
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) March 18, 2017
This is Arsenal’s fourth loss in five Premier League games, and that run coincides with a 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in the Champions League. Those results — along with the banners — illustrate how the “Wenger Out” debate has changed.
Since a large number of Arsenal fans started calling for a change at manager around seven years ago, the reasoning of the anti-Wenger side hasn’t shifted. From then to now, they’ve believed that Wenger was not the best man to help Arsenal win and that the club would be best served with another manager in charge.
The only things that have changed are the number of Arsenal fans who are aligned with this belief and acceptance from media and neutrals. They were mocked, then sympathized with and are now seen by most people as holding the correct position.
The pro-Wenger argument is different because it’s changed fundamentally. Support for Wenger used to be about soccer; Arsenal fans who backed him believed he was the best manager to lead the club to long-term success.
Given that Arsenal hasn’t managed anything resembling a Champions League or Premier League title challenge since this fight started around the turn of the decade, that position has become an impossible one to defend. Instead, support for Wenger is now about respect, and what one segment of the fan base thinks Arsenal FC should be, philosophically.
Should Arsenal’s ultimate goal be to win as many trophies as possible, at all costs? Or should Arsenal stand for something more? Should it be a family that does what it can for people who are loyal to it and work hard for it? Should Arsene Wenger be allowed to leave the club on his terms, not anyone else’s, because of what he’s done for the club?
The argument for supporting Wenger is an argument that loyalty is dead in soccer and that Arsenal should maintain moral high ground over Tottenham, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Manchester City. But the problem with taking that position is that before you make your argument, you’ve already lost.
Arsenal, the neighborhood club with dozens of minority stakeholders with an equal vote, is dead. Wenger is the last link to that past. It makes sense that Arsenal fans want to cling to that. But keeping Wenger won’t bring the old Arsenal back.
The new Arsenal is majority owned by Stan Kroenke, owner of a half-dozen other sports properties that regularly prioritize profit over community. If Champions League revenue disappears and Arsenal’s global brand becomes a little bit less prestigious with each year, that’s a problem for him.
And he, like the money pouring into the Premier League from all corners of the globe, is not going anywhere. He’s at Arsenal to stay and to play the game that’s in front of him to be played, not the one Gooners wish their team was playing.
Arsene Wenger isn’t a good enough manager for a team of Arsenal’s aspirations and financial clout. His glory days will not return. Arsenal will not be the last shining beacon of morality in corporate soccer. The Premier League will not return to what it was 15 years ago.
It’s time for Arsenal to change.