It still hasn’t quite sunk in. It has been weeks since Arsene Wenger announced his resignation from Arsenal as their longest serving manager. Twenty-two seasons, three League Titles, seven FA Cups, a bag full of those pre-season plates they keep giving out; without a doubt one of the most successful managers in Premier League history. Thinking about life without Wenger still leaves a sense of bewilderment that doesn’t quite have a place to land.
Arsenal without Wenger just doesn’t feel like Arsenal.
I joined the Gooner faithful officially in the summer of 1999. With Premier League finally hitting the TV schedule regularly, I followed it a bit over 1998-99 season and Arsenal, being fresh off a domestic double and boasting the likes of Bergkamp, Vieira, Anelka, Adams, Seaman, etc, were a very enticing choice. Their new “ew foreign” manager was rounding them into a formidable side, though not yet clear how formidable it would be. That summer, I purchased by first Arsenal jersey, to the chagrin of my Spurs supporting father, the joy of my Gooner uncle and absolute horror of my Manchester United boosting Aunt.
(We’re a complicated family, as my Chelsea Blue grandfather would have told you had he been alive.)
Being a fan of less than successful teams didn’t have me prepared for the revolution Arsene Wenger would wrought on English football. The big shorts, big shirt, long ball game (that somehow still gets Sam Allardyce employed) was about to be assaulted by a fast, defense carving pass attack. Wengerball at its finest. Suddenly there was a rival to Man Utd’s financial dominance and it was beautiful and not-English. It hooked a hockey-mad Canadian onto the Beautiful Game full time, becoming one of those early converts who annoyed people by wanting to endlessly talk about it.
It’s not surprising that following few years, Wenger would add some of my favourite players to the team that I still feel typified my soccer fandom:
Nwankwo Kanu - a man so large, awkward and unique you wouldn’t believe he was capable of dominant play until you heard someone screaming “KANU BELIEVE IT” from thousands of kilometers away.
Freddie Ljungberg - who was a pretty on the ball as he was in... his other career. (cough)
Robert Pires - a goalscoring winger I’m not sure Arsenal have ever seen or will see again play for their team.
And of course, The King. Never had I been blessed with a talent to cheer for quite like Thierry Henry. I was spoiled rotten.
So were all Arsenal fans at the time. Over the next 8 seasons from that first double, Arsenal added another double, a remarkable Invincible season, an extra FA Cup and that eventual Champions League final, which while not the result anyone wanted, is still one of my most important matches as a fan of any sport. I remember where I was, who I was with, what I drank (answer: a lot); it is a moment etched in my memory so vividly like so many a Mad Jens reckless tackle. Wenger gave us that. Wenger gave the Highbury Faithful the farewell to the old grounds deserved.
Then he gave us the future. Through acrimonious transfers and shrewed financial budgeting, Wenger helped Arsenal finance and float their massive build and move to The Emirates. They remade Arsenal’s image into the world class team they were. But it came at a cost and it was not one that fans of the feel-good years were quite prepared for.
The Banter Era was a new lesson. Of rooting for imperfect teams and last minute additions. Arsenal still tried to reclaim its glory but the talent was never as massive as the early 2000s and it led to a string of trophyless seasons. It was a harsher turn for Arsenal fans seeing their ambitions hamstrung, doubly so with the rise of the money game. Dealing with the sudden drop in form, star power and victories became a numbing thing to cheer for after the brilliance of Wenger’s former teams.
It was in these seasons Arsene lost the stadium he helped build. The game moved on, the fans expected more and Wenger kept bumping along keeping the team afloat. The usually eloquent man began seeing his answers become repetitive and trite, taken out of context and made into punchlines. “Fourth Place Trophy” entered into Gooner lexicons as a negative, despite the utterly astounded record of Champions League qualification that any team in England would trade their fans for. The years were that of decline, not so much in standing, but in belief that an Arsenal team would ever truly challenge for silverware. Rounds of 16 became a curse, February came with the usual collapse in form and few domestic cups failed to include a rather embarrassing loss. The in fighting became common and it didn’t take much to focus it at Wenger.
Many clubs would have dumped their manager short into such a period but Wenger persisted. His philosophy and development of the team may have been suspect but he kept them at the barest level relevant to keep the finances rolling. Arsene brought us through and finally gave us the marquee player the team hadn’t seen bought in years. Mesut Ozil arrived, thanks amusing to a Spurs sell off of Gareth Bale, and suddenly the new dawn was here!
Ozil and other big names came and they provided some very good play but despite it, the titles did not immediately come. The League Title remained seemingly as far as it ever did. This taught fans a new lesson: it wasn’t the same League. The big money teams could all add an Ozil or two a season and any competitor had TV money to drive prices up across the board. Despite Arsenal’s new found wealth, the game had already passed them “buy” and no amount of Wenger patience seemed to recover the ground they had loss. The British Core didn’t pan out, new signings seem to have a half season shelf life, Europe competitions remained the same old story and “Wenger Out” was born.
There were chances for glory. 2012 should have been a closer affair for the title should Mikel Arteta’s ankle had been tougher. Arsenal further failed to turn a Danny Welbeck late header into a solid push to not letting Leicester City benefit from all teams falling apart by falling apart. A trio of League Cups ended in different forms of heartbreaking. Only the FA Cup gave joy, with a remarkable three in four seasons, bringing the Professor’s total up to seven. A mark not likely to be matched.
Yet it wasn’t enough. The team was expected to progress and it felt like they were falling apart. They eventually did fall out of the top four and that clearly can be placed on Wenger’s shoulders. It was the final straw and has finally culminated in Wenger stepping away. He says it was to protect the image of the club and unite fans; feels more like a man who knows he was no longer untouchable, and choose to walk out when given the chance not to be pushed out.
Oddly, if you had reversed the chronology of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure, he’d probably leave regarded as one of the top managers ever (which he still is) instead as the “tarnished” career that is so often brought up. But for the fan who has followed him through his entire 22 years (or nearly), Wenger was a true teacher of everything this sport can bring to you. He did it all with a near unflappable grace, no matter how loud the calls came for his head, too.
We aren’t like to ever see anyone like him in charge again. Let alone the extreme length of his tenure not to be replicated, most coaches not seeing the fourth season, the big names in Europe seem to be on schedules to win now, win a lot and move on from both players and managers. The new system doesn’t look for true innovators rather than immediate flashes. The perseverance, re-invention and make-do tactics style to fight against the decline with changing rosters is a style of management that is dead in today’s world.
Wenger’s steadfast allegiance to his style of play and of player management proved a weakness in adaptability. Not all of Wenger’s teams could “walk it into the net” but damn how they all tried. It was fitting, though, that as the Emirates said goodbye to its only manager, the team responded with a five goal flurry. A fitting tribute to a man that saw the team hit those heights regularly as an attacking side.
As a fan of the game, I couldn’t be more grateful to Wenger. Even I have mentioned it was time to move on in the past couple of seasons (FA Cup aside). But I am more prepared for success, failure and banter for having lived these 20 years under the Wenger banner. He’s shown us all there is to enjoy and hate about the sport, aside from relegation. Inargubly, he’s left the club in it’s best state financially it’s ever been in. Recent purchases have all been in the bigger money range and the club has new resources to push forward. He’s also left them with the most questions in the top six on how to become a challenger again. Top of the table is more volatile than ever; Arsenal will have a hard road regardless of the next one, or the one after.
But more than anything, he’s left a big pair of shoes to fill. I will support Arsenal until the day my mind doesn’t recognize this sport anymore, but all the best to the team’s future managers. You might be great, but you’ll never define this club the way Arsene Wenger did. For all our gripes, there could be no higher honour than that.