17 May 2013

Mancini and Benitez: do they foreshadow Wenger's demise?

In the aftermath of Mancini's dismissal from Man City and that of Benitez from Chelsea, there are no doubt some who wish that Arsenal's board might be a little more ruthless in dealing with Arsène. After all, Mancini won the Prem last year and the FA Cup the year before that. In his first year, he led City to its highest-ever league finish and has finished in the top-four every year since. He's won nearly 60% of his games. Benitez, hired as an interim, is in a bit of a different situation. However, he did just help Chelsea win the Europa League championship, and he replaced a guy who helped Chelsea win the Champions League last year before getting sacked in November (a move that may have actually complicated Chelsea's attempt to advance from the Group Stage this year). He's won 57.5% of his matches with Chelsea and might finally be resurrecting Fernando Torres's form. Arsène, by contrast, has won only 56.9% of his games, and we all know about the trophy drought. Why, then, is he allowed to stay on when other managers have had such recent successes?

Has loyalty blinded us? Has Arsène hoodwinked us with an early flurry of glory that lulled us into a complacent torpor? After all, with the Ferguson's retirement, Moyes's move, and Mancini and Benitez's dismissals, Arsène is now the only manager of a top five-club to have served for more than a year. There's something to be said for stability, continuity, tradition, loyalty, among other values, but each of these runs the risk of fossilizing or metastasizing into something altogether different. The definition of sanity, they say, is doing the same thing and expecting something to change. Arsène runs the risk of falling into this rut. Year after year, we lose some of our best players in their prime and try to replace them with budget-signings or rushing young players into first-team action before they're fully ready. As the summer transfer window approaches, will we see more of the same? The rumored first-signing has us linked to Yaya Sanogo, a 20-year old from Ligue 2's Auxerre. I'm sure that most of us could have completed that sentence with some minor variations: 19-20 years old, French, small club... We've seen this script many, many times before. Sometimes, it's worked out quite well. Others, not so much. It's enough to drive a good Gooner (redundant, I know...) mad. However, it's a formula that Arsène used to revolutionize English football, finding and molding young players in a system of daring, attractive football. Sure, one element in that formula has been price.

The risk to the approach is two-fold (well, there are others, but these are the two primary ones as I see them). One, the player may never develop as we hope he will. We've seen this happen many, many times. We end up rending garments, gnashing teeth, and burning effigies. Some of us do, at least. Most of us shrug and remember that the player in question came in for pocket-change and will be loaned out or otherwise fade from memory with little harm done. The second risk is the more-serious, more-damaging one: the player does develop as we hope he will. The risk here is that he then gets an offer he can't refuse from some other club, reducing us in the process to a feeder-club for other teams. Among other teams, Man City has us to thank for Nasri, Clichy, and Touré, and Chelsea can thank us for Cole ("thank" might be a strong word to use with the likes of Nasri or Cole, but I digress). Along the way, Chelsea can thank us for not pursuing Juan Mata or Eden Hazard more aggressively, as they apparently wanted just a bit more than we were willing to offer. Can you imagine us with Clichy, Cole, and Touré, and Hazard, Mata, and Fabregas, not to mention van Persie? I know it's not that simple, but wow.

That second risk, that of young players simply up and leaving for more money, seems to be forcing  Arsène to reconsider this formula. No longer can we build a squad through young players. There's just too much money out there. Speaking of which, Arsenal is positively flush with money and ready to spend for the first time in years. Now, instead of rumors linking us to the latest starlet or ingénue from some second-tier club in some unknown backwater, there's been talk of signing marquee players. Rooney, for example. The kind of players for whom bids will start at around £25m. It seems that, if Arsène is serious about contending in the Prem--not just settling for a 4th place spot but serious about actual contention--he will have to make some high-profile signings like Rooney or Falcao or Higuain.

However, the risks here are also great. At one level, Arsène may feel like he has to make a big signing to answer his critics, and therefore throw too much money at a player just to show that he's willing to spend to win, to undo years of penny-pinching. Thankfully, I think he's wise enough and shrewd enough to avoid that pitfall. It's the second risk that has me worried. If we go the way of Man City and Chelsea or Man U, spending bucketload after bucketload of money on anyone who's available, we become like them. I don't want to become like them to beat them. I know that many clubs would love to trade their budgets for ours, but I don't want us to trade our budget for that of Man City, Chelsea, or Man U. If we do go out and sign three or four or five players, each for £25-30m, we've entered a rat-race. The problem with entering a rat-race is the winner is still a rat. Yes, a trophy would be nice. I'm more concerned with entering this rat-race and not winning, though. If we sign these players and still finish behind one or more these clubs, we'll have sold our souls and tarnished a great manager's reputation--for nothing.

And that brings me back to Mancini and Benitez. To varying extents, they have been successful managers at their current clubs as well as with other clubs in the past. However, they work for clubs whose ambitions and appetites are so rapacious that nothing less than real silverware each and every year is cause for heads to roll. What, exactly, is Mancini's crime? He couldn't keep up with Man U, who added the Prem's leading scorer from last year to a team that had already outscored its opponents by 64 goals last year. Yes, he lost to Wigan in the FA Cup final, but the whispers had already grown to a dull roar that even a win would not be enough to save his skin. Benitez's situation, as previously mentioned, is different as he was hired on an interim basis. His predecessor was at the helm when Chelsea at long-last won the Champions League. Di Matteo may not have guided them through the UCL, but he was there when they, defeating Bayern and Barcelona, in the process. In short, each man works in such a ruthless, voracious setting that their supervisors (overlords?) will never be sated. They devour whoever is in front of them and start leering hungrily at their next victim even while swallowing down the last bites at the previous sorry soul.

Arsène deserves far better than this. Not because of what he accomplished in those glorious early years, not out of loyalty for his years of service and hard work, but for continuing to be one of the best managers in the Prem, if not the world, despite facing such mindless, empty power-lust. He's a veritable knight in shining armor, a paladin standing up against the orcish horde. If this were to be his last season in charge, that might be a more-fitting end to his tenure than to see him try to follow in the footsteps of Mancini or Benitez. We've seen where that path leads. Silverware, yes, but at too high a cost.

This is not to say that we should go into the summer feeling smug and superior in our high-minded morality. Our squad does need some dressing up, that's for sure. Amid the talk that Mourinho might have a war-chest at his disposal, we do have to make changes. However, the gap between us and Chelsea, and even that between us and Man City, is razor-thin. A few well-made signings, even if they don't satisfy the loudest critics who are calling to bring only the biggest names, damn the price, could just be enough to see us climbing a few spots higher without changing the character of the club or jeopardizing the legacy of the man who's led it so well for so long.