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Eye On EPL

Wenger has always been 1 step short of greatness

Arsene Wenger celebrated his 20th anniversary as Arsenal manager with a 3-0 win over rivals Chelsea last weekend, but the result should not gloss over several shortcomings that have plagued his tenure.

Supporters of the 66-year-old Frenchman will point to how he has never finished outside the top four in the English Premier League, and how his Arsenal teams have always qualified for the Champions League group stages as proof of his mettle.

Wenger also won three league titles and six FA Cups in his stint. He did so playing a style of football that is pleasing on the eye, winning over many neutrals.

While that is commendable, as an Arsenal supporter since 1992 and knowing how big the club is, I must say he can do better, especially in the second half of his spell.

He is lucky that, unlike several rival clubs, Arsenal's owners past and present are patient and share the same vision as him.

The brain drain meant the formula for success was not properly handed down to the next generation of players, and that played a part in the nine-year trophy drought from 2005.

For sure, he did well guiding the Gunners through a difficult period, when their purse strings were tied after financing the construction of the £390 million (S$689 million) Emirates Stadium.

The club was heavily in debt and it tempted Wenger to sell some of his best players like Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira.

It also forced him to rely on youth and prevented him from being competitive in the transfer market.

But, unlike what Alex Ferguson did expertly at Manchester United, one problem with Wenger is how he cannot ensure the longevity of the teams he built.

Most of the 2003-2004 Invincibles squad left the club within three years and were not properly replaced. The brain drain meant the formula for success was not properly handed down to the next generation of players, and that played a part in the nine-year trophy drought from 2005.

I also find Wenger less of a risk taker, which is ironic because when he first joined, he modernised the club's set-up, using data analytics and innovative sports science techniques like yoga for recovery.

This is clear when you look at the players he signs. He prefers to buy players he can control, and stays clear of big personalities. But sometimes these guys with big egos, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic, are the ones who win you titles.

He also persists with average players for too long. Players like Denilson, Nicklas Bendtner and the injury-prone Abou Diaby stayed at the club far too long even though they were clearly not cut out for top-level football.

Since 2011, the club has also spent more than £40 million in all but one season, so it is not as if the club's coffers are empty.

Last season it felt like the stage was set for Arsenal to end their league title drought, only for injuries and loss of form to derail their hopes of silverware - again.

Sadly, it feels like his time has passed. Younger managers like Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp are taking the league by storm with their personalities and bold approaches.

I still think he is a good coach. My friend Dragan Stojkovic played for him at Nagoya Grampus in Japan and was always saying how good a coach Wenger is.

Which is why you feel he could have delivered that much more.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 27, 2016, with the headline 'Wenger has always been 1 step short of greatness'. Print Edition | Subscribe