After 22 years in charge of Arsenal Football Club, Arsene Wenger announced on Friday that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. The news came as a shock to all in the world of football, as not even a single journalist had caught wind of the news before it broke.
Although the atmosphere around the club had grown toxic in recent seasons and the feeling of apathy had certainly reached its climax this season as thousands stayed away from the Emirates in a form of silent protest against the perceived lack of ambition and desire for change amongst the decision makers at club; it was difficult not to be hit with a tinge of sadness at Wenger’s departure.
After all in over 130 years of the club’s existence, Arsene Wenger is without doubt the greatest manager in the club’s history. You have to go back to the 1930s and Herbert Chapman to find the next man on that list and so in truth it has been a privilege to have witnessed Wenger’s era with the Gunners. The Frenchman has singlehandedly won more trophies than most clubs have in their entire history. He won three league titles (more than Spurs), went an entire season unbeaten, holds the record for most FA Cup wins by a single manager and revolutionised the English game with sports science and some of the most breath-taking attacking football this country has ever seen. Despite what some so called fans will have you believe, this man is an Arsenal legend.
It was therefore difficult to understand how any true Arsenal supporter could genuinely rejoice at the news that Wenger would not be in charge for a 23rd season. The view that change was needed and the time had come for him to step aside had been widely accepted amongst the Gunners faithful but you cannot forget just what an incredible job Wenger has done. He transformed the entire image of the club from “boring Arsenal” to one that every football pundit freely admitted they would happily pay to watch. It was this World-wide growth in popularity that led to the move from Highbury to the Emirates and led to Wenger having to work on a restricted budget and failing to win a trophy for nine years.
It was during that barren spell that the media began to sharpen their knives and mocked the club time and time again for their barren trophy cabinet at the Emirates. Finishing in the top four was the priority during that time, a target that was also derided but has now become an acceptable degree of achievement given that more fashionable managers at Tottenham and Liverpool are achieving this. Not even three FA Cup victories in the last four years were enough to appease the fans or the media as they continued to measure Wenger against the exceptionally high standards he had set throughout the first half of his reign.
Since that time however, the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City have significantly moved the goalposts in terms of spending money on new signings time and time again and therefore in effect Arsenal are now fighting in another league. Can they seriously compete for the league title again when Manchester City have the capability to spend the best part of £200million on their defensive unit in one transfer window? The answer is unlikely but that is not what we as fans want to hear. The role of the fan is to dream, no matter how unrealistic our dreams may be, while the role of the manager is to deliver those dreams. Unfortunately Wenger just couldn’t deliver another league title. There were opportunities, most notably when Eduardo was seriously injured at Birmingham with Arsenal set to mount a serious title challenge, only to see that cruelly disappear in the weeks that followed. However there was also the season that Arsenal finished second to Leicester City, having only signed Petr Cech, when outfield reinforcements would have surely seen them win the title.
It is possibly Leicester’s triumph which significantly turned the tide against Wenger amongst the supporters. Fans can accept the likes of City, Chelsea and United winning the league with their financial superiority, but Leicester? If they can win it then why haven’t Arsenal even mounted a serious challenge? Came the question. Unfortunately Wenger just didn’t have the answer and every time he tried to explain it or to come up with reasons for it, then the more deluded and out of touch he sounded. To a certain extent the board and the players let him down too. During the austerity years as Arsenal paid back the stadium loan, the board would release statements regarding the supposed significant transfer reserves available, but the club would then sell its best players to rival clubs such as Man City and United, for which Wenger took the brunt. He was made to look foolish and unnecessarily frugal as his team continued to slide further and further away from the top of the table while resentment amongst the fans grew. The players must also take their share of the blame as they failed to rally behind the manager and repay the unyielding faith he placed in them. Heavy defeats away from home time and time again were as much to do with a lack of organisation or planning as with a lack of character from the players. The call for genuine leaders within the group has long gone unanswered but ultimately in football the buck stops with the manager. If only he had been more amenable to change, refreshed his backroom staff and took their counsel for new ideas to reenergise a squad that appeared to have grown tired of the same routine and same instructions, then maybe things would have been different. Unfortunately we will never know.
Wenger took the brunt of the pressure and the abuse and has now decided enough is enough. The feeling is that this was not entirely his decision, that he was pushed by a board fearful of the number of empty seats at the Emirates growing game by game. Wenger’s comments after the win against West Ham regarding the lack of unity amongst the fan base was somewhat pointed. 22 years is an incredibly long time and many of those who hurled abuse in his direction, raised banners demanding his exit and ludicrously paid for that plane at West Brom last season, do not remember a time before Wenger and therefore do not truly appreciate just what he has done for this club. He has brought so much joy to everyone associated with Arsenal Football Club and has been such a loyal servant of the club that it is a crying shame he now feels let down by those that he served with such dignity and class for 22 years. It can only be hoped that the fans now unite to bid Wenger a fond farewell and most of all to say thank you Arsene.