The curious case of Arsène Wenger

So that’s it. Arsène Wenger will leave Arsenal at the end of the season after 22 years at the club. It’s hard to explain what it feels like knowing it was 100% the right decision, being excited about an upcoming summer of great change at Arsenal, whilst simultaneously experiencing an almost gut-wrenching sensation of sadness and, without wanting to sound too melodramatic, loss.

I’d just turned 12 when Arsène took over at Arsenal. Too young to form a well informed opinion on whether he was the right man for the job, not entrenched enough in old school British football culture to question what the hell a relatively unknown (in the UK at least) Frenchman knew about the Premier League. I just thought it was cool our new manager’s name kinda sounded like Arsenal.

In the two decades that followed, that guy with the cool name would go on to become Arsenal’s most successful manager. He would predict and then watch his side go a whole Premier League season unbeaten. He’d win three Premier League titles, two of which were league and FA Cup doubles and as many FA Cups as Liverpool and Chelsea have in their entire history.

However, he’d also be accused of taking the club into a steady decline. It’s hard to think of another manager so revered and reviled at the same time.

Wenger is such a standalone figure in modern football that it is almost impossible to compare him to anyone other than himself. He unquestionably moved English football forward, introducing practices now taken for granted.

He assembled teams that blew away any concept of football most of us had ever known, combining intimidating power with technical majesty, pace and elegance. It was during this trophy-rich period that Arsenal’s fan base truly exploded on a global scale.

Then came the move to Emirates Stadium in 2006, which acts as a neat dividing line of the two Wenger eras. It would take Arsenal eight years to win another trophy and whilst many see this as the point where Wenger’s powers started to wane, it’s also where the debate around him became so complex.

Aware of the shifting football landscape, Wenger committed himself to an almost decade long process to bring Arsenal financially in line with the powerhouses of European football, whilst rejecting offers from many of the clubs at the level that this process was designed for Arsenal to reach.

It’s no secret that funds to finance the move could only be secured if Wenger committed to staying, during which securing Champions League qualification every season was essential, despite repeatedly selling off players. Arsenal’s business model relied on this until the long term sponsorship deals that aided the move could be renegotiated in 2013.

It’s hard to think of another case where a manager would knowingly make their job more difficult in the short term in order to benefit the club in the long term, but this is exactly what Wenger did. The problem with this decision was that it was made at a time when Manchester United and Arsenal were the two dominant forces in the Premier League.

The new financial power of Chelsea and Manchester City, plus the huge increase in Premier League TV rights meant that when the time came for Arsenal to finally say goodbye to their years of frugality, the game was unrecognisable to the one that they’d been playing before.

Once Arsenal could financially compete again, they made the transformative signings of Mesut Özil and Alexis Sanchez in back to back seasons and would further break their transfer record with the signings of Alexandre Lacazette and Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang.

They also won three FA Cups in four years, making Wenger the most successful manager ever in the competition and spent sustained time at the top of the Premier League table.

Yet they also collapsed in those seasons, suffering multiple humiliating defeats, barely securing Champions League qualification and finishing second in 2016 behind Leicester City when other clubs had left a clear path to the title.

Then Arsenal finally missed out on Champions League for the first time since Wenger’s first season in charge and they look set to finish this season in sixth. But, there is still the possibility of them finishing the season with their first European trophy since 1994’s European Cup Winner’s Cup, a position many fans would love their clubs to be in.

So a club that hasn’t won the Premier League in fourteen years, but have won three FA Cups in the last four seasons and could potentially find themselves in the final of a European competition and about to part ways with their manager.

And yet, the time is absolutely right. Many will point to various points over the last decade as being the time that Wenger and Arsenal should have parted ways, but as with a lot Wenger’s tenure, it’s just not that simple.

When Stan Kroenke took ownership of the club, he purchased shares from directors whose families had been involved in Arsenal for generations.

A dearth of long serving directors and, arguably, football knowledge at board level led to a huge power vacuum at the club. Wenger was the only senior person at the football operations level whose involvement went back to the Highbury era.

Although the case for a new manager started to grow, it was hard to feel those above Wenger would be capable of making a change so seismic. Arsenal had been running differently to every other major club in Europe and that remained the case until just a few months ago.

The recent additions on the operational side meant a huge shift in structure. Former Barcelona director of football, Raul Sanllehi, was appointed head of football relations, whilst Sven Mislintat and Huss Fahmy joined from Borussia Dortmund and Team Sky Cycling respectively.

Sanllehi, who joined Barcelona from Nike, oversaw multiple managerial changes at Barcelona, as well as dealing with transfers such as Neymar from Santos.

He also became the first person to fill the void created by the departure of Vice Chairman David Dein in 2008. Mislintat joined as Head of Recruitment, having brought the like of Shinji Kagawa, Pierre-Emerik Aubameyang and Henrik Mkhitaryan to Dortmund; whereas Fahmy was appointed to lead up contract negotiations.

Over the last decade, Wenger was never just a manager at Arsenal, he oversaw multiple areas of the club, which is why a change in manager wouldn’t have been as easy at would have been at other clubs: no one person could fill the role Wenger occupied. The restructuring gave Arsenal the ability to move from a Wenger model of management to a modern ‘First Team Coaching’ model.

So now it’s done there is almost a sense of relief the whole thing is over. The polarisation of the Arsenal fan base meant it became almost impossible to acknowledge that probably the best answer to are you #WENGEROUT or #WENGERIN was actually somewhere in the middle.

Understandably, it’s hard trying to justify wanting a manager to stay whilst knowing the club probably wouldn’t compete again at the very top level until he left. However, that’s how it was for many until the club’s recent restructuring.

To come back to the the opening point, even though I (and many) know it’s the right thing and the right time, there is still a real sadness to Arsène Wenger leaving.

Other than football, he is one of the only managers who can comment on things outside of football and be thoughtful, engaging and even inspiring.

He’s responsible for some of the most enjoyable moments in my life and he revolutionised football. It’s inevitable that someone so pioneering sees their powers wane over time, but that should never overshadow all that Wenger has done.

Some love him, some hate him, but I doubt there will be another like him ever again.

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Ryan Hunn

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