Fasten your seatbelts Arsenal fans, this could get bumpy. We have arrived at the “careful-what-you-wish-for” moment. The smoke signals that told of Arsene Wenger’s leaving might also warn an uncertain future.
Wenger has met with increasing resistance over the closing years of his reign, planes flying across the London skyline imploring him to leave, protests at the gates of the Emirates. Well, those exhausted by his prolonged stay have their wish. We are about to discover if the genius in Wenger was rooted in the first decade of title successes and his magnus opus, the Invincibles, or in keeping Arsenal relevant in the age of sovereign wealth funds.
Let’s just see how his successor(s) cope competing in the age of the £50m full-back. Wenger won the last of his three championships in the same year Roman Abramovich acquired Chelsea. The hyper-investment that followed, courtesy of the spoils engineered from the deconstruction of the Soviet state economy, changed the rules of engagement forever. Chelsea’s rouble rush, coupled with the husbandry required to finance the new-build up the road, saw equivalence go out the Arsenal window.
The subsequent emergence of Manchester City backed by an oil-rich Emirate seeking a new brand identity through sport squeezed the pips of Abramovich never mind the grand, old dame of North London. But even in the latter years when Arsenal hit the financial wall, Wenger delivered an FA Cup or two and the de facto bauble of Champions League qualification. He always argued in the age of financial doping – the phrase another of his pin-sharp contributions – that the latter was a fair measure of success. Again, we will be better able to judge the merit of that argument when we see how much fruit is produced by those that follow.
Wenger got to go at a moment of his choosing. Just about. He had earned that privilege at least. Wenger transformed the institution from a club that wore with pride it’s “boring, boring Arsenal” label, woven into the fabric of the shirt by Gorgeous George Graham, into one that reflected the highest values of the game. And the global perspective he brought, the methods, innovations and ideas he introduced forced Arsenal’s rivals to respond. You could argue that Wenger was the most significant agent in the internationalisation of the English game. The conditions for change were there, for sure. The arrival of foreign players was well under way but that was a piecemeal, anecdotal deal; an Eric Cantona here, a Georgi Kinkladze there. With Wenger, change became systematic.
And not only on the pitch. The discourse around the game went up a notch or three. The folkish ramblings, the mashed up lexicon, the cliched evocations, the games of two halves, the boys done good, the educated left feet, the back stick, the stalls set out, them situations, all began to fade from football’s traditional register. Wenger educated us all in every aspect of his work. He wasn’t perfect, of course. His eyesight was selective. He never saw the penalty the opposition should have had, but never missed the one Arsenal might have been given. He never saw the incident that led to his player being sent off, yet never missed the red card that wasn’t given to the other lot.
He was stubborn, unyielding, and, perhaps in later years, not responsive enough to the need to adapt.
Indeed, the anomalous expansion of Leicester under Claudio Ranieri, a glorious one-off though that championship success might have been, ultimately changed the mood around Wenger. That he refused to recognise the scale of the shift in sentiment was typical of his obdurate nature. That was the time to go. He just couldn’t see it.
Now that the decision is made, expect any hostility towards him to subside. With anger assuaged, his contribution can be given its due. Even to the end, Wenger’s heart was in the right place, investing in flair and invention. He might have expected a greater yield from Alexis Sanchez and Mezut Ozil, arguably his last punt at moulding Arsenal into a team capable of sustaining a championship challenge.
He was clutching at straws with the January capture of Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the ignoble dash through the doors of Old Trafford by Sanchez passing its own judgment on the Arsenal regime. Though Sanchez might have been justified in leaving, there is some irony in the struggles he has encountered at Manchester United, a club managed by the coach whose cruel “expert in failure” slight gained such traction.
Jose Mourinho’s leaden labours in the lee of City mirror Wenger’s own in the wake of Chelsea. Absurd as it would be to label Mourinho an expert in coming second, so it was to pin that badge to Wenger, a coach who, in the fullness of time, might be seen as the greater figure in terms of his impact on English football.