Monday, July 22, 2024

Legacy

Last week, Arsenal unveiled a statue in honour of Arsene Wenger. It is the culmination of Wenger’s gradual reintegration into the fabric of the club since his emotional departure as manager in 2018. The conclusion of his tenure, for me and many others, felt drawn out and painful.

After 22 years at the helm, clearly healing time was required for both parties and some distance was needed. And let’s face it, Wenger did not exactly leave the tank full of petrol for his successor(s). The squad he left was ageing, messily assembled and required a lot of unpicking.

I suspect that untidy squad management was not entirely Wenger’s fault. As Arsenal slipped out of the Champions League, the demands of the modern game became clearer and Wenger’s power base weakened, I suspect there was a sort of silent power struggle with the executive branch of the club and some of those poor transfer and contract decisions had other paw prints on them, as well as his own.

What was clear, in my eyes, was that the Wenger era was over at least two seasons before that parting was made official. (I realise many others felt that way well before I did). I think Arsene, at that stage, was just addicted to the job and couldn’t let go, even though he should have and his status made it difficult for those in the boardroom to gently prize his hand away from the wheel.

Personally, I found his last two seasons incredibly draining and wrote this scathing piece in August 2017 in which I described what turned out to be the final throes of his reign as, “locked in a loveless marriage driven by nothing more than a mutual fear of loneliness.” It didn’t feel good to write that but I thought, and still think, it was accurate at that time.

Personally, I felt the end of Wenger’s reign was a relief and I felt ‘Wengered Out’ for a long time afterwards too. It wasn’t that I didn’t feel thankful or reverent to the man for all that he had done for the club. I just needed time and space. The club did too and Wenger was smart enough to realise that.

I think, initially, the realisation that Arsenal needed time and space to move on meant a mutual distance was observed. As time drew on, however, I think his own pain and regret at how it all ended extended that separation. That is entirely understandable too. I am certain the separation hurt him personally, as well as professionally.

During the 2021-22 season, as covid restrictions lifted and Arteta’s Arsenal really began to take shape, Mikel Arteta made it very clear that he wanted that separation to end. In September 2022, he said, “He has every window, every door, in this football club open whenever he is ready. Whenever he feels it is the right moment to do it. He knows that from my side, he knows that from many other people at the football club. Hopefully that will happen soon because it will inspire and a lot of people would be so happy to see him back.”

These were not just empty words, Arteta arranged for a giant picture of Wenger to be installed at the player entrance to London Colney with one of his quotes, “Here you have the opportunity to get out the greatness that is in each of you,” emblazoned in giant letters alongside his image.

“For me it’s something that we lost and we have to recover,” Arteta explained. “I wanted that picture and a phrase that is very inspirational at the entrance because it was a big part of what he did at Colney and how everything started at the Emirates. He had to be there.”

Of course, Wenger’s legacy is now felt more strongly than ever at the club. I imagine Ivan Gazidis would not be top of Arsene’s Christmas card list but he is no longer there. Neither is his immediate successor, Unai Emery, nor are Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi. However, members of his alumni, Mikel Arteta, Per Mertesacker (both players Wenger appointed as captain) and Edu hold significant positions at the club.

Jack Wilshere coaches the under 18s. Not only are his immediate successors no longer present, many of their successors are people he groomed for leadership. On Boxing Day last year, Wenger was finally tempted back to Emirates Stadium for the victory over West Ham. Amazingly, the club managed to keep the visit under wraps, even the players were not told.

As the supporters celebrated Eddie Nketiah’s result clinching goal, a smiling Wenger appeared on the big screen. It was the perfect unveiling, at a high point in the game and, crucially, at a high point of the season. Because this is the key to the recent healing of relations between Wenger and Arsenal- Arsenal look good again.

Wenger gave the goal scorer, Eddie Nketiah, his debut as a teenager. He brought the coach, the Technical Director and the Head of the Academy to the club and now a young team playing swashbuckling football topped the league table. It was the perfect tribute and the perfect evening to reintroduce Wenger to the Emirates crowd, who were feeling at their most generous.

Also crucial to this healing of relations is the fact that Wenger did not take another coaching job. I am certain he would have had offers but I imagine, in Arsene’s eyes, taking on another coaching job would have left him feeling a little like Maxim de Winter in Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

In Gabriel Clark’s excellent documentary about Wenger, Arsene spoke about his discomfort over his last home game against Burnley. He said he had the feeling of witnessing his own funeral, a feeling doubtless exacerbated by the still sour taste of his exit. In some respects, a statue feels like something you should probably do posthumously.

However, the statues of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry and Tony Adams are (hopefully still) very far from posthumous. There is also something to be said for showing someone you appreciate them while they are still alive and they can absorb that appreciation.

Enough water has trickled under the bridge to render the last couple of seasons of his reign a mere footnote to his undoubted legacy. The team and the club have moved on sufficiently, albeit stewarded by people Wenger himself identified and brought to the club as players.

Wenger’s reintegration, as a club legend, has been perfectly handled and certainly looks to have healed any lingering resentment. As well as having enough distance, I think Arteta realised he had enough security to proactively seek that reconnection and, I have to say, I think the whole thing has been deftly handled and has moved to smooth out some of those rough edges and allow Arsene’s undoubted legacy to shine.

Follow me on Twitter @Stillmanator

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