Monday, January 24, 2022

The time is right to say goodbye, but Wenger’s legacy will endure

Twenty-two years ago I had no idea who Arsene Wenger was. When it came to choosing a new manager, it seemed inconceivable that Arsenal would do anything other than appoint Johan Cruyff. The celebrated Dutchman had been a brilliant player, and the amazing job he’d done at Barcelona was surely enough to get him the job in London.

The Ajax upbringing, imprinting a new style of attacking football on the Catalan giants, and the fact everyone knew Cruyff and nobody knew very much about a man who was currently managing in Japan for goodness sake … it seemed cut and dried. So, when we appointed this man with his name like Arsenal, despite the fact he couldn’t take over straight away because he wanted to see his contract out with Nagoya Grampus Eight, there was, understandably, some trepidation.

Twenty-two years ago English football was very, very different to the way it is now. There were a smattering of foreign players, but nothing like today. As far as I can remember there had only been one foreign manager, Dr Josef Venglos at Aston Villa – and that his term there ended so poorly (almost with relegation) merely added to the suspicion that many felt about men from outside of Britain and Ireland.

Twenty-two years ago the football culture was based around lager and poor diet. And that was the players, not the fans. By definition they were professional, but true professionalism was something Wenger would introduce at Arsenal, extending the careers of some club legends through methods like not drinking, eating better food, and stretching. It seems so basic now, but back then it was groundbreaking.

Twenty-two years ago, Wenger’s first contribution was in a UEFA Cup game against Borussia Monchengladbach. Arsenal were away, Pat Rice was caretaker, but at half-time, the soon to be new boss came into the dressing room and changed formation from 3-5-2 to a back four, and we lost the game 3-2. In his biography Addicted, Tony Adams recalls his reaction was far from positive.

“What does this Frenchman know about football?”, he said. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. Does he even speak English properly.”

Not only was this new man foreign, but he also wore glasses. Nobody who wears glasses can be a good football manager. This was the level of suspicion Wenger had to deal with from his own captain, and nobody ought to underestimate the esteem in which Adams was held at that time within the squad. If those were his thoughts, you can be sure they were concerns he expressed to others in the dressing room too.

Twenty years ago, more or less, Adams surged forward from the back in a league game against Everton. Steve Bould chipped the ball into his path, the captain took it on, and buried a left footed shot into the Everton net to make it 4-0 and to ensure that the Premier League title came to Highbury. A few weeks later we won the FA Cup to win the double in Wenger’s first full season in charge, and when you consider what he had to contend with on his arrival, that is nothing short of remarkable.

The suspicion of this glasses wearing, slightly funny sounding Frenchman wasn’t simply consigned to Arsenal players, but his contemporaries too. Despite winning the league and cup in France, his reputation did not precede him. Alex Ferguson, crotchety that there was now someone to make his and Manchester United’s life more difficult than it might have been – as well as Wenger’s willingness to be open and honest in interviews – said, “He has no experience of English football. He’s come from Japan. And now he’s into English football and he is now telling everybody in England how to organise their football. I think he should keep his mouth shut. Firmly shut.”

We don’t want his sort, coming over here with his ideas and principles and footballing philosophy. He should get back to Japan. Or France. One of those places. Over there. Not here. This is our land.

The rivalry with Ferguson and United was, unquestionably, the greatest of the Premier League era. Nothing even comes close to it, and it was pure box office. Arsenal fans had been won over by Wenger, enthralled by talent like Patrick Vieira, boosted with players like Marc Overmars, and an ability to get the best out of Dennis Bergkamp.

The players who remained from the previous era had stepped up, providing this core of Arsenal around which the manager cleverly built, and when we played United it was almost always an event. The antipathy between Wenger and Ferguson, the animus between the two sets of players which transmitted itself to the fans by extension, and the sheer quality and physicality of it made it a spectacle which even now as I’m writing about can elicit goosebumps.

They probably had the better of it overall, but not by too much, and winning the title at Old Trafford when Wiltoooooooooooooorrrrrrd scored that goal meant so much. Another FA Cup on top of it, another double, an FA Cup the following year, then the Invincibles. Not simply Wenger’s crowning achievement, but perhaps the greatest domestic achievement of any manager in English football history.

The new stadium, and the emergence of the super-rich owners at Chelsea and other clubs, made us less competitive, no question, yet throughout you could see a philosophy and what we were trying to. In time, I think Wenger keeping us in the top four with some of the squads he assembled will be considered a real achievement, but without the talent that made us champions so often, the flaws in his work became more apparent.

If you look back, there are signs of it early on. Four years without a title between 98 and 2002 when we should have done better; the chance of a European trophy blown against a fairly ordinary Galatasaray side; a double that should have been won in 2003, but we fell away as United surged to the title; and 2007-08 when we ought to have won the league but the trauma of Eduardo and Birmingham was impossible to overcome.

Other managers didn’t so much figure Wenger out as feel emboldened and enabled to stop Arsenal through sheer physicality. To this day no other side has suffered as many horrendous injuries as we have, Eduardo, Diaby, Ramsey, and it’s not to make excuses but to state a fact. Sometimes we could cope, sometimes we couldn’t, and as others got stronger we worked harder and harder to stay where we were.

I think the people who run the club have to play a part in this story, and an unwillingness to invest – perhaps in tandem with Wenger’s natural indecision and desire to get value for money – saw our best players leave. We didn’t do enough to keep them, nor did we do anywhere near enough to replace them, and 8-2 at Old Trafford was a consequence of that, a kind of footballing rock bottom.

From there, there’s only one way to go. Mikel Arteta and Per Mertesacker are two professionals who steadied a sinking ship to a large extent, and when the purse strings were opened Mesut Ozil had people dancing in the street on deadline day, and Alexis Sanchez’s arrival the following year had people excited that we were going in the right direction.

Adding two world class players, breaking the trophy drought in 2014 with the FA Cup win against Hull and following it with the cup the next year against Villa spoke to a team that was being built to do more. I suspect, however, that if Arsene Wenger could correct one thing from his recent past, it would be the summer of 2015. Instead of building on what he’d achieved, he failed to sign a single outfield player.

Petr Cech came in from Chelsea, but a squad that had finished 12 points off the title that season needed more and it wasn’t forthcoming. Even so, it looked as if fate was smiling on the manager the following season when it became clear that our traditional competitors were falling away. One by one, Chelsea, Liverpool, Man United, and Man City drifted further from the top of the table, and it was there for Arsenal and it was there for Wenger, but we blew it and Leicester City won the title.

The lack of investment in the squad the previous summer played a significant part in that, and if there was a breaking point for me it was at Old Trafford where we needed to win to keep the pressure on having just beaten Leicester at the Emirates with that last ditch Danny Welbeck goal, but we contrived to kickstart the career of a then fledgling Marcus Rashford, and we choked on the big stage. Home defeat to Swansea in our next game, having gone ahead, put paid to our best chance in years of a title, and for me that was when it was time.

It was a point of view I expressed on this blog and in the podcast, but one which I always did with respect. I could never abide the abuse levelled at him from some fans. This dismissal of him as a ‘fraud’ couldn’t be further from the truth, it’s so achingly stupid it offends me on every possible level.

But qualities in him which were a positive, like his deep-seated belief in his own methods, his stubbornness and intransigence, became things which frustrated me. It was never about knowing more than the manager, or thinking you have some greater knowledge of the game, his squad, or his methods, but just because we’re fans doesn’t mean we don’t know things. We watch our team, we see the problems and the failings manifest themselves time and time again, and we see a failure to correct them.

I would have loved Wenger to go after the FA Cup final in 2017. I have a suspicion that he would have liked to go then too, but because of the club’s complete refusal to even countenance a life without Arsene, he was persuaded to stay because we weren’t ready for change. We needed new structures, we’ve needed the Sven and Raul type people for a long time now, and whatever you think of the boss, I don’t think anyone can deny he has always felt a sense of responsibility to the club.

The flip-side of that is his autocratic nature made it difficult to make appointments which would diminish his power, but the responsibility for doing that still lay with the club itself – the board and the owner. I also feel that during the most difficult times, both last season when our form was in the toilet and the speculation over his future was the only story in town, and this season, he’s been left to fend for himself and that has reflected poorly on those above him.

Wenger was always there. Pre and post-match press conferences, TV interviews, he fronted up, he answered the difficult questions as best as he could, and he did so in full view of the media and the world as ‘Wenger Out’ became a meme. Planes with banners, people holding up signs at other sporting events, marches, wherever. From board level, not a word, but Wenger never shirked it even when there were times nobody would have blamed him if he did.

It was in stark contrast to any kind of executive communication, and it’s why yesterday’s self-serving press conference from Ivan Gazidis grated on me. The Arsenal chief-executive has been football’s invisible man for two years, and his refusal to answer questions properly yesterday – instead throwing the ball back into the manager’s court – made it a pointless exercise beyond some grandstanding from a man who is now keen to show everyone who’s in charge.

Well, I wish him the best of luck because the Arsene Wenger shaped shield he’s hidden behind for so long is gone now. The onus and responsibility is on him to make the right appointment, to make this team more competitive again, and the finger of judgement will be pointed directly at him from here on in. There’s no hiding place.

What remains now is for the players to repay the manager for all he’s done for them. The chance to go out on a high with the Europa League trophy is one they should give everything to achieve, because after such a long time in the job, it would be amazing to see him walk off into the metaphorical sunset with a trophy and knowing we’ll be in next season’s Champions League.

Yesterday was an emotional day. I don’t think this is the wrong decision in any way, but after such a long time together, this feels like the end of a relationship. It is. Twenty-two years ago I had no idea who Arsene Wenger was. Twenty-two years on, I don’t think I’ve written as many words about one man as I have about him.

For all that he frustrated me, and for all that I think Arsenal need to go in a new direction, he’s somebody I’ll always have great respect for. I believe he’s represented this football club with dignity, integrity and real decency; he has given me some of the greatest moments and enjoyment of my football supporting life – even this website has been built during the Wenger era; and for that I will always be grateful.

I loved his willingness to address things beyond football, to talk about societal or political issues with a sense of fairness without ever coming across as preachy or one-sided was remarkable. He was a man of great wit, more erudite in his second language than many are in their first, and when the time was right his sense of humour shone through in an wonderfully infectious way.

In time the white-hot frustration of our current travails will diminish, things will calm down, and the imprint he’s made on this football club will be seen as hugely positive. The affection that has been lost for some will return, I’m sure, as the ubiquity of his presence fades.

Twenty-two years ago Arsene Wenger became manager, and while the rest his history, the story isn’t quite finished yet. The possibility of a truly happy ending remains. All we need is a little bit mental strength, a little bit less handbrake, and if he can leave with a European trophy, it would be a fitting finale to everything that has come before.

Thanks, Arsene.

For more discussion on yesterday’s news, we recorded another Arsecast yesterday. Check it out below, subscribe, share it, and all the rest. Back tomorrow with a West Ham preview.


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