Last Friday was a day that all Arsenal fans knew would come, some amongst us had been calling for it for years while others simply hoped that Arsène’s departure would be merciful and allow the honouring of the legacy and achievements of a man who not only transformed Arsenal Football Club but also had a significant and major influence on the English game. The vast majority agreed though that if the club is going to halt the downward spiral of momentum in which they currently find themselves then change was desperately needed.
To fully appreciate Arsène Wenger’s impact on our football club, you have to understand where the club was two decades and nearly two years ago, the day that a bespectacled French man walked through the marble halls of Highbury as the newly appointed manager. Arsenal had the previous season finished fifth in the table level on points with Aston Villa and nineteen behind champions Manchester United.
That season the club had been under the management of strict disciplinarian Bruce Rioch and were trying to introduce a more attractive playing style after the grey days of the end of the George Graham era; where a significant part of the playing squad were as (in)famous for their social habits as for what they did on the field. Continentally experienced players like Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt had been added to the squad in an attempt to add some flair, but there was little belief that Arsenal would be challenging for the title again any time soon.
The transformation that Arsène sparked based on adding unknown and/or untrusted players from the European leagues to George Graham’s bedrock back five in tandem with his revolutionary ideas on nutrition, stretching and physical preparation catapulted the team to becoming the only one realistically capable of challenging Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United at the very top of the domestic game. Two double-winning seasons, a whole season unbeaten and a total of four FA Cup wins were delivered in Arsène’s first decade in charge, with a style that oozed swagger, panache and a free-flowing brand of football that was like nothing we had ever seen before.
Such was the growth of the team and the club that its spiritual home of Highbury was no longer suitable and we were sold the dream of an even brighter future, one in which we would take our deserved place amongst the European elite at our new state-of-the-art home over the road. However Arsène and the Arsenal board were blindsided by the arrival of Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich and his purchase of Chelsea who, as described by former vice-chairman and trusted Wenger ally, David Dein, “parked his tanks on our lawn and is firing £50 notes at us.”
Hamstrung by the debt incurred to build the new stadium, Arsenal could no longer compete at the very top level and had to watch as Chelsea battled Manchester United for the League title.
Through the lean years Arsène relied on his proven ability to unearth and develop young talent to build teams that qualified for the Champions League on a perennial basis, even if they inevitably fell short and failed to win a trophy for nearly a decade. Retrospective understanding is now given to Arsène for maintaining Arsenal’s position in the top four despite constantly losing his best players to the nouveau riche Manchester City, as well as Barcelona and what must have been the most wounding of all, Manchester United.
The acquisition of the mercurial playmaker Mesut Özil in the summer of 2013 was supposed to signal the arrival of Arsenal’s and Arsène’s bright new dawn. With the stadium debt reduced to a comfortably manageable level, the purse strings were to be loosened and the club were free to compete at the very top once again, but the game had moved on and left Arsène behind.
On the face of it, keeping his team in the top four year after year and winning three FA Cups in four seasons could, and perhaps should, be seen as success, but for Arsenal fans used to eating caviar each day it was difficult to return to sausages, to paraphrase a quote made by Arsène himself back in the earlier days of his tenure. There was a stark realisation that not only were Arsenal a level below the Manchester clubs and Chelsea, the squad had a soft underbelly, lacked real leaders and the manager’s avowed intention to simply let the players express themselves wasn’t going to see the gap closed in the foreseeable future.
Many Arsenal fans felt that Arsène should have called it a day after the trophy drought was finally ended in 2014. Certainly if the rumours are to be believed if the Gunners hadn’t come back from 2-0 down against lowly Hull City in the FA Cup Final that year then Arsène wouldn’t have secured a new contract and indeed would have probably called time on himself. However Arsène’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness: his stubbornness and an unshakeable self-belief that he could get his charges to challenge again if only he gave it everything he had.
If May 2014 wasn’t the time to walk off into the sunset then failure to win the title two years later when the other big clubs were in transition and off the pace surely was. Instead Arsenal finished ten points behind surprise champions Leicester City. Since then performances have deteriorated, the gap to the top of the table has grown and last season the habitual saving grace of Champions League qualification proved beyond Wenger and his team. The attitude of the fanbase has gone from reluctant acceptance through protest to resigned apathy that has seen significant numbers of fans not use their already paid for tickets and actually bother to turn up to matches. Surely there could have been no greater condemnation of the manager’s failed delivery than that?
Since last week, Arsène’s comments in press conferences and interviews have alluded to the suggestion that the decision for him not to continue as manager wasn’t his, that he was pushed and told to resign. The additions of Sven Mislintat as Head of Scouting and Raul Sanllehi as Director of Football in all but title have placed the club in a much better position to plan for a future without the autocratic manager. As such the management structure has been modernised and brought into line with the way that the other big clubs across the continent run, although how bright the future is to be will be dependent on the recruitment of the new man in the dugout.
Finally it seems that the much-maligned and often conspicuous by their absence owner, board and chief executive have found the gumption to make the change that has been needed for years. Bums on seats, or rather cash in the coffers being the only real interest they have in the club.
As for Arsène, from what he has been saying so far it would seem that he intends to take another job somewhere else, perhaps if Didier Deschamps steps down as the France manager after the World Cup that would provide the perfect solution for him. As much as this feels like the long overdue right move for Arsenal, despite the frustrations of the second half of his tenure, no Gooner will ever forget what Arsène did for our club.
It is often said that the hardest part of leaving is saying goodbye and Sunday the 6th of May promises to be an incredibly emotional day for Arsène’s last game at the Emirates, the stadium that he built; for now though all we can say is: Merci Arsène pour les bons moments, les souvenirs et tout ce que tu as fait pour notre club et bon courage pour le future.