By Guy Wilson
Just two months have passed since Gary Neville’s poignant verbal attack on Arsenal during a demoralising defeat in the Carabao Cup final at the hands of Manchester City, and the moment that many had anticipated though never truly believed would happen, has.
Arsene Wenger has stepped down as Arsenal manager, after a staggering 22-year tenure — though not without the influence of the club’s directors, it should be noted. It is heavily surmised that the board had informed Wenger about the prospect of being imminently removed from his managerial position at the end of the season (that vehement word which almost invariably carries with it a sense of failure and underachievement: ‘sacked’).
It should please all those who can appreciate the extent of the Frenchman’s success that he has been given the opportunity to announce his own resignation, while fans and players can commemorate his contributions to the football club with several games of the season left and with hopes of one last ‘hurrah’ in the Europa League.
The dreamy send-off of one more Premier League trophy will be sadly unfulfilled and a severely lacklustre season plagued by disappointing performances sits in the way of the kind of perfect goodbye that Sir Alex Ferguson so festively enjoyed in his retirement. What’s more, Neville’s critique of a “spineless” and “disgraceful” Arsenal side makes up only a sliver of the cynical criticism that the club and, particularly, manager have endured over the last few years.
Arsenal’s shocking away form in 2018 has been the final nail in the coffin. Five away defeats in as many attempts and a display of the kind of defensive weaknesses that are characteristic of a low-end Premier League outfit culminated in an irreparable situation of dissatisfaction.
Wenger seems to have lost an ability to get the best out of his players, above all those who make up the fundamental spine of his side. At 35, (five years younger than Gianluigi Buffon who is only now retiring) Petr Cech has made more individual errors leading to goals than any defender or goalkeeper in the league this season and has had arguably his worst season to date.
Shkodran Mustafi, a German international and World Cup winner signed from Valencia for £35 million, has been nothing short of abysmal since he came to North London. He has found it near impossible to settle alongside Wenger’s trusted though often vulnerable and insecure defensive choices, including Lauren Koscielny and Hector Bellerin.
Wenger, however, should and will be remembered for his extensive glory in the English league and cup competitions, with a mesmerising total of 17 trophies (potentially 18, if Arsenal can win the Europa League this season) – three Premier Leagues, seven FA Cups and seven Community Shields. He also governed the infamous ‘Invincibles’ of the 2003-2004 season, a team which attained a feat only once before achieved (by Preston North End in 1880) in going a whole Premier League season undefeated.
Alongside an undisputed capacity for triumph came a revolutionary style of football met with the kind of admiration and respect now bestowed on the most recent managerial masterclass of Man City’s Pep Guardiola and one which was awarded the unique label ‘Wengerball’. High-speed, intricate and aesthetic football — the sort which would exhilarate neutrals, myself among them. I can still hear the resounding words of praise from the former Sky commentator Andy Gray in the midst of the North London derby of 2004 which saw Arsenal crowned champions for the third time: “This is football from another planet”. In the same way as we routinely hear today’s TV pundits “running out of superlatives” for Manchester City (or indeed Mohamed Salah), Wenger’s Arsenal were the equally sensational force which defied description in a previous decade.
It is Wenger’s first decade as manager that Arsenal fans and football fanatics will never forget. Arriving from Monaco in 1996, Wenger had only a Ligue 1 title to his name and a limited knowledge of England, and more importantly, of the club that he would make his own. Inspirational names such as Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Marc Overmars, Nicolas Anelka, Sol Campbell, Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie (to name just a few) owe so much to the Frenchman for providing them with the appropriate platform to flourish, whether having the opportunity to express themselves or the belief which their raw capabilities required.
English football has been truly blessed to witness Wenger’s creative and tactical genius for just under a quarter of a century. And yet, it feels right that this time has finally come to an end. Let us enjoy Arsenal’s final endeavours under his direction and celebrate him as one of the greatest football managers who ever lived.
Photograph: Ronnie Macdonald via Flickr