The Arsene Wenger saga is a farce on many levels, but it is sadly not an uncommon one. While the debate is open as to whether or how much Arsenal is underachieving, there is no debate that the status of Arsene Wenger is hampering the club. Players will come and go regardless of who the manager is in the next transfer window, but fans, revenue, and other aspects of managing a club are impacted by the perception of whether a club is in crisis or being well run. It is a first-world football problem Arsenal has that they have to battle for a Champions League place rather than avoid relegation, but for the club it is a major problem. Yet, when you look at both football and life, the problems they are facing are not that uncommon. Therefore all football clubs should fire their manager after ten years.
The saddest thing about the decline of Arsene Wenger’s status is that his end will diminish how simply brilliant of a manager he was when he arrived in England. It’s hard to pin down when the decline began but as the sport and league had changed, the need for Wenger’s skillset and personality has decreased. What makes a manager successful for a five-to-ten year run logically would allow them to be successful for longer, but the reality is comfort in one place and the lack of a challenge erodes their edge and often leaves a manager unresponsive. When you achieve success, especially early on, you tend to default to what made you successful.
The reason for this is simple. We human beings default to what we know. Managers manage a certain way and if it works, they default to that system. For Wenger, that meant finding undervalued talent or players right before their peak, implementing them into a club system that immerses them into an on-and-off-the field style of behaviour, and watching players grow together until they reach a peak and start a decline. At the beginning of his tenure, this strategy worked beautifully. The skills he sought in certain players were undervalued by the market and he looked for these players in places under scouted by English clubs. He brought players into a system that enforced discipline with the ball and discipline in habits off-the-field.
What changed was the world, and Wenger seemingly is having a hard time keeping up. Scouting, player salaries, and the modern game assimilated some of the lessons Wenger taught and recycled them. It is easy to pick on the Frenchman as he is the coach in crisis now but this happens in every aspect of life. Tech companies rise and fall because the same visionary founders who caught the first tech wave to success have a hard time seeing the second one rising. It is no coincidence that celebrities and performers have “15 minutes of fame” because that is metaphorically how long their style works as unique.
Football is a results game, and keeping a manager past their expiration date is a crime to the process. Managers rarely last ten years (five seems eternal in some cases) but for those who do, most see a decline set in at some point. The outliers are those like Alex Ferguson, who find a style that transcends the changing sport. These managers cloud our perception of the sport and help us forget that there are few men like Alex Ferguson managing today or ever. Managers and their ideas grow stale quickly, and if you want to keep winning you can’t keep them past their shelf life.
This idea is great in theory but hard in practice. A truly successful manager who wins year after year is tough to fire simply because a board doesn’t want that manager to go to another club and replicate their success. And yes, this is a real concern. But the greater concern is getting sucked into a whirlpool of “when”: when should we fire a successful manager, when is winning not enough, when has their time come. An automatic clock of ten years makes the decision easy – the policy dictates the result.
The idea of an expiration date for a manager seems counterintuitive – firing someone as they are achieving great success. Yet it is better to leave on a high than struggle to reclaim that glory on the decline.