Most Arsenal fans will know where they were the moment Arsene Wenger’s departure from the club – where he’d spent almost a quarter of a century – was announced. I remember it vividly, sitting in the living room of my flat in shock as the breaking news came through on my phone. Whilst it wasn’t totally unwelcome news, it was hard to believe that it was actually true.
Wenger definitely stayed in the Arsenal job too long. Since that whirlwind Champions League final against Barcelona on a sweltering French evening in 2006, the Gunners have entered a gracefully Icarian tailspin, losing the edge that made them successful and often coming up well short in the big games. I don’t need to recount the painful defeats against Bayern and Real, let alone those games against United and Chelsea.
The softly spoken Strasbourg native struggled to adapt with the times, being overshadowed by the Contes, Guardiolas and Klopps of the modern footballing world. For too long Wenger was set in his ways, everyone else caught up and when it came to the games that counted, both domestically and in Europe, his side were often found wanting.
Yet, to malign his final years at the club, disappointing as they were, would be to do an injustice to one of the most significant figures in British footballing history. One need look no further than the tributes paid by former players, colleagues, and coaching adversaries alike to see the sort of man he was and the significance he has had on the beautiful game.
Arriving from Japan in 1996, this Frenchman was an unknown. Derided by other managers in the league for being an unknown and an outsider, he was soon to wax lyrical about the merits of attacking football and in those first eight years he brought a consistent level of success to Arsenal only matched by Herbert Chapman, whose statue proudly stands outside the Emirates.
You’ve got to think someday Wenger will stand alongside him, perhaps bedecked in a troublesome long coat.
Wenger’s innovative methods were unique and unusual, but they worked wonders. No chocolate? No problem. No ketchup? John Hartson would cope. Increased plyometric exercises?
His players became fitter and played some of the most energetic and elegant football the league has ever witnessed. That innovation was intrinsically connected to Wenger’s vision for how football should be played and the role everyone should have in his team. For Arsene, the most exciting signings were those who entered the gates of Highbury or the Emirates far removed from the final product. They were Wenger’s muse, for him to shape and craft. Yes, there were missteps (look no further than one Pascal Cygan), and some missed opportunities, but by and large Wenger’s finger was on the pulse and early on he proved himself to be a master craftsman. Thierry Henry was lovingly moulded from a winger lacking direction or much final product to a talismanic striker; one of the best the Premier League has ever seen. Nicolas Anelka was thrust into the limelight for a career that has taken him across the globe, whilst Dennis Bergkamp continued to develop under Wenger and remains the most elegant man I’ve ever seen don an Arsenal shirt.
But perhaps the best success story for Wenger was a man already well established in Arsenal folklore. Tony Adams, one of Romford’s own, had been with Arsenal since he was 14 and had already won seven trophies before the Frenchman’s arrival. Adams’ form had declined considerably under Bruce Rioch however, as his well-publicised alcoholism began to take a greater toll on his playing abilities. From the moment Wenger arrived, Adams began to turn things around. The Frenchman, as he did so often in his tenure as manager, was a father figure, supporting Adams every step of the way as he battled his addiction, helping carve out special dietary plans for the centre-back and encouraging him to write his autobiography. If you haven’t read it, I encourage you to. It’s hard at times, but it’s incredibly powerful stuff. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Adams played the best football of his career under Wenger and in captaining the side to two doubles, he was one of the Frenchman’s most loyal stewards.
Arsene’s career at Arsenal was also one defined by feuds with his other managers. In the first half of his career his constant adversary was Sir Alex Ferguson, a rivalry between the two best sides in the league that was heated on and off the field. A clash between the two sides in 2002 resulted in one of Wenger’s most famous lines, when he quipped “every man thinks he has the prettiest wife at home” in response to Ferguson’s boast that United had played the better football.
As the Ferguson rivalry turned to a mutual sense of friendship and camaraderie, along came the bogeyman Jose Mourinho. The two men’s principles clashed and the press comments, mostly from Mourinho, were often unsavoury but I’d say Wenger shoving him at Stamford Bridge wins it.
Wenger’s scraps with Martin Jol and Alan Pardew were also highlights in a career dominated by a shocking level of honesty and good-natured behaviour.
In the final years of his tenure, Wenger’s Midas touch deserted him. Three FA Cups in four years took his trophy count to 17 in just under 22 years, a level of success that is incomparable in the club’s history.
The Invincibles season of 2003-4 featured some of the most exquisite footballing performances the league has ever seen, perhaps the greatest realisation of Wenger’s vision, but two consecutive finishes outside the top four in this footballing climate was never going to go down well. Still, that’s no excuse for the behaviour exhibited by many Arsenal fans in recent years.
Regardless of where you sat on the Wenger out debate, hounding the man outside train stations and the consistent barrage of abuse on social media has been unacceptable. You’d hope that the fans are able to unite now a decision has been made and work together to support the club in Wenger’s final league games and the Europa League semi-final with Atletico Madrid, the first leg of which takes place tonight.
For Arsenal the next step is key. The difficulties of replacing a man at a club that long was made clear by the struggles endured by Manchester United since Fergie’s retirement. Luis Enrique is the current favourite, but the Spaniard has also been linked with every major European hot seat this season. My personal preference would be for Patrick Vieira to step in, coming back to the club where he was such a legend during his playing days, but that seems too much of a gamble for Gazidis and the other Arsenal directors to make.
Max Allegri and Carlo Ancelotti are also solid options, but if Arsenal want to look closer to home, they should look no further than Sean Dyche. The Burnley coach has worked wonders with minimal resources and would instil the steel that the club has been missing for several years. Whoever the appointment is, it needs to be a thoughtful one and with the proviso that work needs to be done to the team and that Wenger’s successor will need time.
As for the mild-mannered Frenchman, his future is unclear. I suspect he’ll get another job in management before retirement and in many ways I want him to. I’d love to see him get one last crack at the top level and prove he’s still got it and end his career in the right way.
The most likely options are replacing Unai Emery at PSG, a club who’ve long courted the Frenchman, or taking over the French national job. It’s highly likely Didier Deschamps steps down after the World Cup and as the best French coach of the last two decades, Wenger taking the job would be a rather poetic ending to a lengthy managerial career.
Wherever Arsene Wenger goes next, I hope he is successful and happy because he deserves it. There aren’t many good guys left in football but he was one of them.
Merci Arsene, thank you for everything.