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Longing for Arsenal’s past is only damaging its future

It’s OK to move forward.

Arsene Wenger
Not the manager any more
Photo by Jun Sato/Getty Images

I am not a person who is inclined towards nostalgia. I find nostalgia largely a waste of time - I certainly have fond memories of good things that happened in the past, but I don’t spend a lot of time bathing in how great those things were at the expense of moving forward and creating/seeing/experiencing new great things that stand on their own merits. Life moves forward, so I feel like I can’t constantly be looking backward.

It’s with that in mind that I give you probably the most nuclear-hot Arsenal take you’ll read today: Nostalgia for Arsene Wenger is, in no small way, ruining (or at least permanently reshaping) Arsenal fandom.

And look, I get it. Arsene Wenger is the only manager that a great many Arsenal fans ever knew. For probably two-thirds of his tenure, he was revolutionary, the best manager in the English game other than Sir Alex Ferguson. I loved him unapologetically and defended him for a lot longer than I, who prides myself on being a rational sports fan, probably should have.

But then, suddenly, he wasn’t the best anymore, and his last several years played out in painfully familiar ways. Now, with Arsenal struggling as much as they are, it’s easy to retreat into the warm blanket of “Wenger was so amazing”. and view everything that happens now through the lens of everything good that happened in the early 2000’s. And yes, for a long time, he really was that amazing! But it’s worth remembering that his last several years in charge were, well, they were basically what we’re seeing now under the new guy.

With every passing day, and every badly dropped point, and every struggle, the amount of lionization (at least online) of a manager and an era that a great many of those great many Arsenal fans wanted gone, for at least three seasons prior to his actual departure, is actively interfering with an honest assessment of the club and its manager going forward.

Put another way: every time Emery’s Arsenal does something bad, Wenger’s Arsenal starts looking better and better through the rose-colored lens of hindsight, regardless of whether that view is justified or not.

Don’t misunderstand - I’m not suggesting that Unai Emery is getting a bad rap solely because he’s not Arsene Wenger. Emery, as we’ve all seen, has his own set of (increasingly large) problems. My point is, any Arsenal manager now, be it Emery or whoever follows him, should be judged on who he is, not who he isn’t. I see a lot of people (not necessarily here, but across the fan base) leaning really heavily into canonizing Arsene Wenger as a jumping-off point for criticizing Emery, conveniently ignoring all of Wenger’s shortcomings in his last few seasons.

Unai Emery has been in charge of Arsenal for, what, 60-odd games now? That is more than enough time to build criticism of Emery based on Emery’s work alone, not on Emery’s work as refracted through the decade-plus removed glory years of Arsene Wenger. To be fair, I know a certain amount of that is inevitable, since that’s the only point of managerial comparison that modern Arsenal have, but here we are, a year and a half after Wenger’s departure, and Emery has at least earned the right to be criticized in a vacuum. We’ve already all litigated Wenger’s tenure, and he’s deservedly come out extremely well; why keep doing it? Those days are gone, they’re not coming back, and Arsenal are moving forward.

Things are not moving forward in a satisfying way right now, for sure, but no amount of elevation of Arsene Wenger to living sainthood is going to change that. Wenger nostalgia will make it impossible for literally any manager who comes after Emery to succeed with a large swath of Arsenal fans, because as we’re seeing with some of the criticism of Emery, any new manager will perpetually be held to a standard that is impossible to reach.

Arsene Wenger’s time and success at Arsenal should absolutely be celebrated. But try not to use it as a stick with which to beat any successive new manager.