Arsène Wenger’s time in charge of Arsenal will finally be over at the end of this season.
With the club currently sixth in the Premier League, just two points, albeit with a game in hand, ahead of Burnley, the announcement of his departure was that paradoxical of things – an inevitable surprise.
Arsenal have been treading water for some time, and so Wenger’s legacy is split neatly into decade-long periods. The move from Highbury to the Emirates makes for a neat half-way mark.
His first decade at the club was at the old ground, where the Gunners spent eight years in the top two of the Premier League and lifted the trophy three times.
It’s worth remembering what an impact Wenger made. Taking charge of Arsenal in October 1996, he finished the 1996/97 season in third after Bruce Rioch was sacked a week before the start of the campaign.
In his first full season he won the league and FA Cup double. That title win in 1997/98 came from a haul of 78 points, just three more than the total which got Arsenal a fifth-place finish in 2016/17, and that’s part of the club’s recent story.
75 points doesn’t go as far as it used to
In the past two seasons the Premier League has been tighter than ever and it’s little surprise Arsenal have been left behind.
Since leaving Highbury the Gunners’ hierarchy have seemed content with Champions League qualification – a financial choice, supposedly, to help with the cost of the Emirates Stadium.
From 2006/07 to last season, Wenger’s side never finished with fewer than 68 points. With remarkable consistency, the majority of their finishes fell between the 68 and 75 point mark.
In fact, this latter figure is an interesting one. Arsenal hit 75 points three times in the past decade; enough to achieve third in 2009/10 and 2014/15 but just fifth last season.
In Wenger’s first decade though, this total would have been enough to finish second on two occasions and even win the title in 1996/97, assuming the side could beat Manchester United on goal difference.
Quite simply, at the top, clubs need more points than they used to in order to achieved success.
Talk about net spend
“Don’t talk about spend, talk about net spend” used to hold up as a justified cry of Arsenal fans. However, in the past five years a different pattern has emerged in the club’s transfer dealing.
According to transfermarkt data, Arsenal have spent the least of the top six on players in the last five years. Both Manchester clubs have spent around or more than double.
On the much-famed net spend though, the picture is different. Arsenal have the third-largest for the period, due to the lowest amount of money coming in from player sales.
This suggests that the Gunners’ frugality since moving to the Emirates is having an effect which is only now coming to roost.
For Spurs Gareth Bale (85million) and Kyle Walker (£45million) were the big departures, although the club recouped nearly £80million in 2015/16 through sales of mid-tier players, some of whom had initially been brought in with Bale money.
Liverpool’s post-Luis Suárez spending might have been criticised at the time, but it ensured a line of talent that could either fit into the first-team or be sold on for decent sums of money.
Transfermarkt’s data shows that 2013/14 to 2016/17 saw them bring in just £47.53million.
The ‘net spend’ period was frustrating for Arsenal fans, but it at least saw the club bring in money.
From 2006/07 to 2012/13 Arsenal came out with a profit of close to £50million on their transfers, according to transfermarkt. It was a restrictive model but one which seemed to be working as intended for over half a decade.
However, the Gunners were never going to be able to compete with big sides who were actually spending money, and were fortunate that competition for Champions League places wasn’t as competitive.
Spurs and Manchester City were not the forces they are now and, more recently, Liverpool and Manchester United dropped out of contention after managerial upheaval.
With all four of those sides becoming organised and competitive, and Arsenal’s frugality causing a diminishing stock of mid-tier players to sell on, the treading water approach reached its limit.
Wenger may have struggled to move with the tactical times but it seems like he was hamstrung by factors outside his control.