At this point, with Arsenal wrapping up what is (a looming FA Cup Final not withstanding) the worst season in his tenure, even his most ardent defenders, myself and some of the more established writers here included, are all in agreement that Wenger’s time at Arsenal should come to an end. And if this is indeed the end, it will be a bitter, but, not too surprising one.
Wenger’s track record with Arsenal here doesn’t need any defense from me, but what the heck. He is responsible for the most successful period in the club’s history, and he practically built Arsenal as we know it (including almost-but-not-quite literally building the new stadium).
Perhaps more importantly, he gave the club a sense of identity. A sense of classiness, to be sure, but also a sense of idealism, and last but not least the sensibility of an artist.
Wenger, has of course, been pilloried for putting too much emphasis on playing beautifully at the expense of winning, but this isn’t really about tactics or strategy or of winning so much as it is a world view.
In an interview Wenger gave not too long ago with a French publication he says, “My perpetual struggle in this business is to get out what is beautiful in man . . . There is magic when men unite their energies to express a common idea.”
That seems like an absurd quote, self-aggrandizing and overly serious while talking about a sport, doesn’t it?
But isn’t this why we watch? For the perfectly weighted Özil pass, for the perfectly placed Alexis chip over the goalkeeper, for seeing several of our players in red shirts string together a series of passes to create something majestic. For those moments when soccer becomes The Beautiful Game.
This is the artistic soul of Wenger, that he can watch, to paraphrase Gary Lineker, a simple game of 22 men chasing a ball around, and see in it the capacity for art. That he can look at such flawed figures as Tony Adams and Jack Wilshere and see a capability for beauty.
But this same sense of idealism is also, I think, what drives so many of Wenger’s more frustrating qualities. He never spent heavily on the transfer market because he could so easily see the potential in his current players. He never cared for strict tactical instruction because such constrictions would get in the way of his players being able to conjure up moments of creative inspiration, the flashpoints of great art.
And it’s why he will likely end his Arsenal tenure without a league title since 2004.
The great irony of soccer is that while it is the sport most closely conflated with art, it is also the one must subjected to the ruthless whims of capitalism, of spending and consuming, and, ultimately, defined by the zero sum game of winning and losing hardware.
In the end, I don’t think Wenger’s tenure could have ended in anything other than disappointment. Despite what Wenger’s early success might have led some to believe, commerce and art can never truly coexist, and the world is never really the domain of the artists. A world defined by spending and consuming will always belong cold-hearted pragmatists like Ferguson’s United or the deep pockets of Abramovich’s Chelsea.
Still, and maybe it’s just because I’ve never really grown out of being a 20-year-old creative writing student, to me there is something inspiring about Wenger’s pursuit of artistry in his teams.
As Corley Miller put it in this masterful essay, “In the end, maybe football is a little thing . . . But if people care so much, then somehow it must extend. Something in football must walk out past the doors of pubs and stadiums, out into London and New York, and give us something that matters in our lives.”
What extends, to me, about soccer is those moments of beauty. That in the chaos of a ninety-minute soccer match, every so often, with good teamwork and a little bit of luck, if a pass lands just right, a moment of beauty can occur. Soccer is so much like life, often times messy and dispiriting, but every so often can give way to moments that transcend. And there is something noble in Wenger’s pursuit of those moments, even if so often came up wanting.
Others will, if this is indeed the end of his tenure, hope that the next manager will be more pragmatic. That’s fine, the losses of this season would wear on even the most idealistic artist. But whatever happens, I am proud to say that for years I rooted for a manager who seemed to genuinely believe in searching soccer for something greater than winning and losing a game.