Quiting Arsemal is one decision nobody is saying Arsène Wenger has got wrong
His spellbinding peak is too long ago for anyone to still be in denial but as the Frenchman heads to the Arsenal exit it is time to cherish his best years.
The saddest thing, perhaps, is that of all the thousands upon thousands of words that have been devoted to Arsène Wenger over the last couple of days, it is difficult to recall a single sentence arguing that this is all threatening to be one big mistake and that, contrary to what you might have heard, it isn’t the right time for him to go.
It was difficult, however, not to appreciate the cartoon in Saturday’s edition of L’Equipe showing two Arsenal supporters debating the issue and the impression it left about how strangely unsettling it is to imagine somebody new in Wenger’s touchline seat next season. One of the supporters has a can of spray paint in his hand and has scrawled the words “Wenger Come back!” in red capital letters on a brick wall. “Was it not you who was screaming: ‘Wenger Out’?” his companion asks. “Yes,” says the fan responsible for the graffiti, “but, like Brexit, I’m afraid I will regret it.”
Touché! And, yes, it is perfectly feasible that the Wenger Out fraternity might end up looking slightly foolish if the handover doesn’t go smoothly, as they often don’t, and Arsenal find the process of change far more challenging than the people who have campaigned for this moment might have anticipated.
At the same time, let’s not labour that point too much when Arsenal, 14 years since their last championship, are 33 points off the top of the Premier League and – if you need any more evidence of their loss of nerve and touch – the only team in English football’s four professional divisions not to register a single point from their away fixtures since the turn of the year. Managers, like players, can have spells of good, bad and indifferent form, but it would be generous, to say the least, to depict Wenger’s decline as a blip when it has gone on longer than he would probably wish to remember.
These are not the moments, perhaps, to be going back over Wenger’s flaws but it probably says everything that Sir Alex Ferguson, formerly the Arsenal manager’s bete noire, now describes himself as pleased to hear the news, on the basis his “friend” can get a proper send‑off.
Pleased? Even ignoring, for one moment, the rivalry that once existed between the two men, Ferguson holds a senior position in the League Managers Association and that is not usually the word that would be applied when a member of the profession, with more than half his contract still to run, has decided to cut himself free on a go‑before‑you’re-pushed basis. What Ferguson means is that it spares Wenger avoid any more unpleasantness from the supporters who have been lobbying for the Frenchman’s removal. Except, of course, Ferguson started warming to Wenger only when he stopped having to worry about him, as the manager of Manchester United, a decade or so ago. Ferguson called a ceasefire, on his own terms, when Wenger stopped winning leagues and settled for FA Cups. On reflection, Arsenal’s crowd could be forgiven for preferring the days when the two men were bonded by mutual antipathy.
Instead, Arsenal have finished, on average, 13 points off the top over the previous 10 seasons and whoever replaces Wenger will quickly come to realise there is no point having an obsession with attacking perfection if it is with a core of players who do not deserve to see their names on the back of Arsenal shirts. The new manager will inherit a squad that has become weak and vulnerable and, however it is dressed up, it is difficult to shake the feeling that Wenger’s resignation speech was written in the knowledge that the people at the top had made up their minds. Much better to announce it this way, you might think, than for Arsenal’s highest-ranking executives to prove they were not in a state of denial, after all.
The important detail is that this is the one decision where nobody, it appears, can say Wenger has got it wrong. That, in turn, should dramatically lift the mood when Arsenal play West Ham inside the Emirates, hitherto a cauldron of doom, on Sunday. It is time, undoubtedly, for a rapprochement. It is time for the vast expanses of empty seats to start filling again and for the people who have drifted away – through staleness, anger, apathy, call it what you will – to make their way back. And perhaps it is time, as that cartoon in L’Equipeindicates, for some of Wenger’s more vehement critics to take stock of the last 22 years and remind themselves that the good far outweighs the bad.
When Wenger was introduced as Arsenal’s manager on 22 September 1996 it was a rubbish-processing plant, rather than a gleaming 60,000-seat stadium, off Hornsey Road. It was the year Take That split and the Spice Girls formed. Diana and Charles divorced, Major League Soccer was in its first season, Peter Andre was No 1 in the charts and something called eBay had just been launched if you could understand how to get the screech of dial-up internet. The London Evening Standard will probably never be allowed to forget its “Arsene Who?” billboards but, in fairness, there were a lot of people asking that question. “I’ve got to play for a Frenchman? You have to be joking,” was Tony Adams’s first reaction, give or take a few missing expletives.
Nick Hornby, the author and Arsenal fan, recalls the moment in Jasper Rees’s book Wenger: The Making of a Legend. “When Bruce Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names,” Hornby remembers. “It was Venables, Cruyff and then, at the end, Arsène Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan: ‘I bet it’s fucking Arsène Wenger … trust Arsenal to appoint the one you haven’t heard of.”
The most prescient words came from Gabriel Vistotsky, a French subscriber to The Gooner, in a letter published by the fanzine a few weeks later. “Arsène Wenger is among the best coaches in the business, high above either George Graham or Bruce Rioch,” he wrote. “It is a risky appointment but if he succeeds Arsenal (and English football in general) will be better off because of him.” Yet the press were sceptical. The Sunday Mirror chided David Dein, Arsenal’s vice-chairman, for “persuading us that the lanky M’sieur Wenger, despite sounding like Rory Bremner auditioning for ’Allo ’Allo, is ‘ow you say fantastique!”, and not everyone writing in the temporarily renamed Le Gooner was getting carried away, either. The editorial noted: “No matter how many videos he has watched, or telephone conversations he has had with Stewart Houston, nothing will have prepared him for the combined talents of David Hillier, Eddie McGoldrick and Steve Morrow.”
Well, he didn’t do too badly. Two decades on, Wenger’s legacy will be as solid as the stadium he helped to design. He won the Double in his first full season and repeated the trick a few years later. His seven FA Cups alone are as many as Chelsea and Liverpool have won in their entire histories. Walk up the stairs at Arsenal’s training ground and the framed collection of letters in one long row – “WWWWDDWWWDWWWDDWDWWDWWWWWWWWWDWDWDDDWW” – is a reminder of the 2003-04 Invincibles season. Thirty-eight games: 26 “Ws”, 12 “Ds” and not a single “L” in sight.
Arsenal’s unbeaten run eventually stretched to 49 games and it could be an awfully long time before another team threatens that record. The previous best, set by Nottingham Forest at the 42-game mark, lasted a quarter of a century. “Arsenal are nothing short of incredible,” Brian Clough said. “They could have been nearly as good as us.” Yet that was just Cloughie having a bit of fun when, deep down, he will have known that managerial greatness is not exclusively reserved for those who win European Cups. “Arsenal,” he added, “caress a football the way I dreamed of caressing Marilyn Monroe.”
That, in a nutshell, is how history will remember Wenger’s teams, rather than the fact that he never sustained that thrilling early momentum or the many occasions when we saw his less attractive traits – the man who hated to lose, the man whose insistence on old‑fashioned Arsenal values quickly disintegrated if things did not go his way.
Wenger’s transformational work changed the team that attracted routine cries of “Boring, boring Arsenal” into the most watchable side in the country. More than that, he managed to assemble a group of players who did not just play with artistic merit but were also tough as teak. His team were filled with so many six-footers that Sam Allardyce, then the manager of Bolton Wanderers, said his own players found it intimidating when the two sides lined up in the tunnel.
At some unspecified point, Wenger lost some of the underlying philosophies that had made his teams so special. But in his peak years he knew the value of a parsimonious defence. He understood his team could not pass the ball, cherish it, treat it like a friend, unless they had combative players such as Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit who could win it first and he knew that the best forwards, such as Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp, had to mix their prodigious skills with competitive courage. Arsenal, at their best, were spellbinding.
The game I always remember – and it isn’t easy, over 22 years, to pick out one – came at Elland Road in September 2002, at a time when Leeds were regarded as one of the top teams in the country. Leeds had finished fourth and fifth in the previous two seasons, as well as reaching a Champions League semi-final, but they took an almighty chasing that day. Arsenal won 4-1 and their performance was so thrillingly superior it did not feel outlandish afterwards to find Wenger making comparisons with the great Real Madrid, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Ajax and Liverpool sides that had shaped his thinking. His own team, he said, had a bit of everything. “Danger everywhere, tremendous spirit, a privilege to watch,” he said. “Total football.” On that form, he was asked, would Arsenal beat Brazil, the five-times World Cup winners? “It is difficult to say,” Wenger said. “If you can organise it I can guarantee it will be a sellout.”
As it turned out, we never got around to arranging that game and, judging by Arsenal’s deterioration in the following years, let’s just say it is probably not an idea he might want to entertain with the current side. Back then, however, the thought did occur that it might have been the most beautifully constructed club side I could remember in English football. I hesitate to say that when I have watched in awe some of the more formidable Liverpool sides. I grew up with Clough’s precious magic and I had a ringside seat during Ferguson’s years of trophy-collecting for Manchester United – football, bloody hell, and all that. But Arsenal, playing at the point of maximum expression, would have held their own against anyone and, aesthetically, Wenger was right. It was our privilege.