Football had waited a long time for this moment, but when Arsene Wenger’s departure from Arsenal was finally confirmed Friday morning, it still came as a shock. There will be something very strange about turning up at the Emirates next season and seeing somebody else in the dugout. And yet, along with the inevitable sadness and the memories, there is also a sense of relief.
The time had come for him to go. In fact, the time probably came a few years ago. The sense of drift at the club was palpable. This season, Arsenal will probably finish sixth, which would be its worst finish under Wenger. It hasn’t picked up so much as a point away from home since the turn of the new year.
When Wenger signed a two-year contract last summer, the suspicion always was that the club would look to ease him out this summer–even if there were major doubts as to whether it would actually go through with it. By announcing now, with a month of the season still to go, Arsenal has ensured that the anger and frustration, the apathy even, that has characterized recent home games, will be transformed into nostalgia and support. For what he has done for the club, and indeed English football, Wenger deserves to leave with fans cheering his name rather than to a backdrop of boos and jeers.
And there may even be a glorious finale if Wenger can, at last, win a European trophy by seeing off Atletico Madrid in the Europa League semifinals and then winning the final against either Salzburg or Marseille. Football is not prone to dispensing sentimental favors, but there is something appropriate about the fact that the final is being played in his native France.
Contrary to popular belief, there never was an “Arsene Who?” headline on the back of the London Evening Standard when Wenger was appointed in 1996, but that was the general attitude. Appointing a manager who had been successful in France and then gone to Japan was an extraordinarily bold move by Arsenal, but its wisdom was instantly apparent.
Wenger replaced the booze culture that had dominated the club, promoted what at the time seemed an outrageous diet based around steaming fish, chicken and broccoli, and used his knowledge of the French leagues to strengthen his squad with signings who in retrospect looked like unfathomable bargains: Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry…
He won the double in 1998, and for the six years that followed played a full part in an entertainingly acrimonious rivalry with Manchester United and Alex Ferguson. His sides were capable of beautiful, rapid football, but also had a toughness, mental and physical, at their core.
It was only hindsight that would invest it with enormous significance, but the moment when the trajectory took a downward turn came in the Champions League quarterfinal in 2004 when Wayne Bridge scored the winner for Chelsea. Arsenal went on to win the league as the first unbeaten champion since Preston in 1887-88, but the environment had changed.
Arsenal had realized that to keep up with United, it needed to increase its revenue, and so had set in motion plans that would result in the club leaving Highbury for the Emirates Stadium in 2006. The problem was that by the time they moved into the larger stadium, Chelsea, funded by the seemingly limitless wealth of Roman Abramovich, had changed the financial rules. Making a profit and generating income suddenly mattered far less than just having a wealthy owner. Chelsea’s victory over Arsenal in the Champions League in 2004 was the moment when it replaced Arsenal as London’s leading team.
Arsenal kept battling, of course, and the decline was not precipitous. It won the FA Cup in 2005 and reached the Champions League final in 2006, but the trend was downward. Wenger at times became self-parodic, insisting on packing his teams with diminutive creative players, focusing always on aesthetics and neglecting the muscle that had underlain his best sides.
Keeping Arsenal in the top four for as long as he did while keeping the spending under control was an achievement in itself, if not one that ultimately was enough for Arsenal fans. Last season, Arsenal finished fifth, and nothing much has changed. The appointment of a new head of scouting, Sven Mislintat, against Wenger’s wishes, signaled a change of tone. Preparations were being made for his departure. The suggestion is that he was told that if he did not walk he would be pushed.
The question remains of what he will do next. He has little or no hinterland. Football is his life. Asked on his 60th birthday what he intended to do to celebrate, he said he would be watching that evening’s mid-table Bundesliga game. Faced with incredulity from the media, he eventually agreed to place a candle on the television to make it feel special. It’s hard to believe that he will not seek another role in the game, and it may be that the France job will become available after the World Cup.
There have been FA Cups, a record seven of them in Wenger’s reign, but the last decade has been tinged with disappointment and the last couple of seasons have reeked of stagnation. But Wenger is one of the greats, not just of Arsenal but of the Premier League as a whole. He was the first really successful foreign manager, and he revolutionized thought about nutrition. English football owes him an enormous debt.