Commentary

Football: Wenger bearing stagnation out of stability

Stability has long been the holy grail of top-flight football. The reigns of managers such as Vittorio Pozzo, who won two World Cups with Italy in the 1930s, Valeriy Lobanovskyi, who won 12 league titles in 20 years at Dynamo Kiev, Bill Shankly, who won 11 trophies in 15 seasons at Liverpool, and Alex Ferguson, who won nearly 40 trophies in 27 years at Manchester United, seem conclusive. Longevity, it would seem, breeds success.

But this argument, long a staple of punditry, has always suffered from a statistical fallacy. Lobanovskyi won the league in his first season, and kept winning. Pozzo triumphed in his first and second World Cups. Ferguson started a little slower, winning the top flight in his sixth full season, but then dominated. It may be that the success of these teams did not emerge from managerial stability, but the other way around. Managerial stability emerged from success.

After all it is only successful managers who survive long enough for the club to be described as stable in the first place. If an underperforming manager was given the latitude to keep on going, we may see that stability is not the panacea it sometimes seems. They might just keep on losing.

This brings me to the curious reign of Arsene Wenger. His early days at Arsenal were stellar, but the club have failed to win the league title for 14 years, and may finish out of the top four for a second straight season. This means that Wenger is one of the few managers given time to turn around sustained struggles - and who has failed.

On Sunday, Arsenal were comprehensively outplayed by Manchester City in the League Cup final, a match that showcased all of the defects that have plagued them for years. This is why Wenger, perhaps more than any other manager, reveals the dangers in the fetishisation of stability.

Football, you see, evolves. But innovation and disruption occur, not least with regard to tactics. Nereo Rocco introduced the Italian Catenaccio system in the 1950s. Rinus Michels brought in Total Football in the Seventies. Arrigo Sacchi's AC Milan innovated in multiple ways in the eighties. We saw modernisers in the nineties and noughties too.

Wenger himself was a disruptor, introducing reforms in nutrition, training and sports science. Pep Guardiola is another disruptor, but has the audacity to think differently about tactics, albeit riffing on a theme that can be traced back to Michels. The playing out from the back, the high press, the emphasis on possession, the overloading of midfield, the creative freedom in the final third: all have created fresh challenges for opponents, and thrilled spectators.

Arsene Wenger cuts a despondent figure during the League Cup final.
Arsene Wenger cuts a despondent figure during the League Cup final. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Wenger's early innovations represented his great contribution, but also his enduring curse... As in any evolving system, Wenger has been outflanked. If you stick to ideas that have worked in the past, you are betraying the future.

And this brings us back to stability. When you realise that disruption is central to the game, as to life, stability seems altogether less attractive. Wenger's early innovations represented his great contribution, but also his enduring curse. As with most disruptions, they percolated through the game. Other clubs mimicked his ideas, some built on them and innovations came into play. As in any evolving system, Wenger has been outflanked. If you stick to ideas that have worked in the past, you are betraying the future.

Does that mean that stability is inherently bad? Should clubs constantly hire new managers to generate a steady flow of new ideas? There is clearly a balance to be struck. The point is not that disruption is preferable to stability or vice-versa, but that success is about managing the dynamic tension between the two.

This can be seen by rewinding to Ferguson, who constantly disrupted himself, rebuilding his team multiple times and altering his tactics. He was stubborn but only in the sense that he never budged in his commitment to rational change.

The contrast between Wenger and Guardiola is, in this context, highly instructive. They will each leave the game as great managers, but the difference today is that Guardiola is on the bow wave of innovation while Wenger is clinging to the stern. The Frenchman was a disruptor who has been disrupted. The question for Guardiola is whether he will have the courage to adapt to the next great innovations. Chances are he will.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 27, 2018, with the headline 'Wenger bearing stagnation out of stability'. Print Edition | Subscribe