Replacing Arsene Wenger is a tough call for Arsenal but it might be smart
In retrospect, Arsenal's dramatic come-from-behind victory over league-leading Leicester City on Feb. 14 seems like the cruelest of jokes. Since winning that match and however briefly threatening to become the favorites in the race for the Premier League, everything has gone wrong. They've taken one point from three Premier League matches, including a devastating home loss to Swansea, been eliminated from the Champions League by Barcelona (as expected) and the FA Cup by Watford (as very much not expected).
In light of all that, rescuing a point at White Hart Lane on March 5 while down a man seems cold comfort. Once again, Arsenal have reached the point in the season where it's time to decide whether they'd be better off without Arsene Wenger.
The past month has distilled the latter-day Wenger experience down to its core: It's the team equivalent of Lucy yanking the football away from Charlie Brown. Arsenal are consistently just good enough to convince their supporters that this season is finally the season; they're also consistently not good enough to fulfill those hopes and dreams. Supporting Arsenal is forever living life on the cusp of achievement while never (or occasionally, depending on how you view the FA Cup) reaching the summit.
It's an incredibly mean trick. Arsenal has been a club of the utmost consistency over the past decade: always finishing a distant third or fourth, always qualifying for the Champions League and always disappointing.
But then the past month happened. Arsenal fell apart and neither Tottenham nor Leicester City struggled to get results. And all that's left is same old Wenger and same old Arsenal.
The question of Wenger's future at Arsenal is a particularly contentious one because it always arises when supporters are at at their lowest emotional point. After the past month, they are collectively as stable as a Piers Morgan tweet. It is certainly understandable that they feel like it simply can't get worse than this, but if that is true, how in the world can there possibly be any justification for keeping Wenger?
The problem is that objectively, it certainly can get worse than this for Arsenal. A quick glance at all of Arsenal's major rivals over the past decade shows them currently doing decidedly worse than the Gunners. Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool all sit below Arsenal in the table. That's not to say that firing Wenger will cause Arsenal to slide down the table, but it highlights just how precarious league success can be even for a team buttressed by massive investment. Wenger has kept Arsenal performing at a very high level for a very long time; there's no guarantee that will remain true in his wake.
That's not necessarily an argument for keeping Wenger, of course. It's simply an argument against rage-firing him to satisfy a collective fan base's rightly aggrieved id. If it's time to fire Wenger, it should be because there's a plan in place for how to do better after he leaves. Exploring that possibility involves dealing with a couple of inconvenient truths.
The first is that right now, Arsenal's underlying numbers are very good. They lead the league in expected goals per game, the only team more than 2 with 2.04. Manchester City are second at 1.87. They are third-best in the league defensively, giving up 1.09 expected goals per game. But there has been a huge disconnect between their actual goals scored and the amount of goals you'd expect them to score given the shots they've been taking.
Arsenal's 46 goals are a whopping 13 below their expected tally of 59. Fluctuations across a stretch of games or a season happen all the time, and in general they're the kinds of things you'd expect to eventually even out. But that might happen well after the title has slipped from their grasp.
But is that disparity Wenger's fault? Is he particularly to blame for the fact that Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott and Alexis Sanchez are all in the top 10 in the league for goals below their expected total and that Santi Cazorla is 17th? It's tempting to say yes; after all. he's the one putting them on the field. But the reality is that even for players like Ramsey and Walcott, who might leave you with the impression of being members of the gang who can't shoot great, scoring goals is a streaky affair. And most players and teams -- even the ones that seemingly misfire all the time -- eventually end up around where expected goals predict them to be. This year Arsenal have not, thanks in large part to those four players.
It's easy to construct the case that this year, Wenger has largely put his players in the positions they need to be to succeed and those players have let him down. But it's also impossible to ignore that things that don't seem to be Arsene Wenger's fault happen every season. This year, it's a poorly-timed shooting slump that makes them seem worse than they are. Other years, it's injuries or quirks of the schedule cramming Arsenal's toughest games into the second half of the season; the list goes on. There is always something that explains away Arsenal's bridesmaid status and it's not Arsene Wenger's fault.
The specific Arsene Wenger defense this season is that he can't control his players' boots. The general Arsene Wenger defense over the past decade is that as the fourth-richest team in England, coming in fourth is basically meeting expectations. And if stuff seems to keep happening to Arsenal, it's because Arsenal didn't have the resources to endure stuff happening and go on and win anyway, like richer teams did.
That defense might even be true, but it's a hard one to swallow this season when the two teams they trail are Leicester City and Tottenham Hotspur, both of which have decidedly less money than Arsenal do. It rings especially hollow in light of the fact that this summer Arsenal's lone meaningful acquisition was a new goalkeeper, Petr Cech, despite the glaring need for depth throughout the squad.
So yeah, it's not Wenger's fault that his players ended up not hitting the net for depressingly long stretches of the season. But it is at least partially his fault that they didn't build a squad that might have won the title this season.
Getting rid of Wenger isn't going to automatically make Arsenal better. After this season, though, it might be time to do it anyway.
Mike L. Goodman is a Washington, D.C.-based soccer writer and analyst covering European soccer, the U.S. Men's National Team and more. Follow him on Twitter @TheM_L_G.