In a heavy week, it demonstrated a lightness of touch on Arsene Wenger’s part to note how it had felt like observing his own funeral.
Though not quite a “where were you when President John F. Kennedy was shot” moment, last Friday’s announcement that an amicable parting of ways between Wenger and Arsenal had been agreed for the end of the season, a year before his existing contract was due to expire, drew an audible intake of breath from anyone with even a passing knowledge of the Frenchman.
After what could be an eye-watering 1,236 matches in charge by the end of the season, Arsenal have finally disproved the old Benjamin Franklin idiom, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes and Wenger getting another year.”
“I had the feeling a little bit that I have assisted life at my funeral, because people speak about you, how you were,” Wenger said, per the Guardian’s Amy Lawrence. “It was a little bit interesting on that front. I don’t need to die anymore—I know what people will say about me!”
It’s true that much of what has been written about Wenger reads like an obituary. The longest-serving manager in European football is well into his final act, with gripes now replaced with grace. Caustic comments have been wiped out with kindness.
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Things have changed at Arsenal https://t.co/gPJjFI9dYX
A majority of supporters and writers seem unified in feeling a sense of relief. Having spent the previous decade dancing between guilt and practicality, it’s over now. The bickering can cease as memories come flooding back as though looking over sepia-tinged photographs.
Wenger will no doubt have noticed, amid the myriad of kind words, how no one has said he has gone too soon. Even if he can turn around Thursday’s dispiriting 1-1 draw with Atletico Madrid and go on to win the Europa League, as glorious as a finale that would be for the most decorated of tenures, there’s an overarching feeling it still wouldn’t be enough.
Elegantly crafted eulogies have already been delivered. The early market moves he made in France have been hailed as visionary, while former players have reminisced over how Wenger encouraged them to radically alter every aspect of their lives as professionals when he arrived in England from Japan in 1996. Many of Arsenal’s squad at the time were said to have been delighted when he encouraged them to get steaming. Less so when he clarified it was broccoli he was referring to.
Wenger may have subsequently lost his Michelin star, but that he was the first in the Premier League to be awarded one should not be forgotten either.
That’s the irony at the crux of it all. In that first decade in England, he was the ultimate innovator, but he will exit accused of being wedded to a set of ideals now antiquated. Whereas Sir Alex Ferguson was cute enough to realise an “adapt or die” mantra rings true, even for pioneers, Wenger could live to be 1,000 and still earnestly believe his is the only way.
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Great players became legends under Arsene Wenger 💪 https://t.co/wfNSZaKEe7
Perhaps the best line about those early days, when Wenger was looking to weld British steel with an imported cosmopolitan finesse is an old one, belonging to Ray Parlour. He tells of Arsenal’s pre-season tour to Austria, ahead of their first title under Wenger in 1997-98, that the players were given a night off to do as they pleased. The disparate cultures between the two groups quickly became apparent. Neither screams elite athlete.
“How are we going to win the league this year? We’re all drunk and they’re all smoking,” Parlour recollected thinking at the time to the Telegraph’s Jeremy Wilson. On the same trip, Wenger’s now-assistant manager, Steve Bould, ordered 35 pints in a five-man round.
Now Wenger is on his way, we can’t get enough of the man who married together two deeply different psyches to produce some of the finest sides ever seen on an island reared on meat-and-two-veg football.
English football’s greatest moderniser has been given the send-off he richly deserves. Except, he’s not dead yet. Far from it. He still has the wiry frame of a coat stand and a mind that has had the press struggling to keep up over the past seven days, such has been its capacity to spray bon mots as Kevin De Bruyne does passes.
“I had no break for 35 years,” Wenger said. “In our job you can look around, that doesn’t exist.
“I don’t know how addicted I am. I’m a bit like a guy who plays Russian roulette every week and suddenly has no gun anymore. I will see how much I miss that gun.”
Wenger’s arched eyebrow at the idea he might take an in-vogue “gap year” out of the game, a la Pep Guardiola and Thomas Tuchel, along with his hopes to manage another European heavyweight, has had conspiracy theorists twitching over who had hold of the revolver when the Frenchman went into those fateful talks with Arsenal’s board.
Paradoxically, given the omnipresence of the news and outpouring it manifested, the general mood inside the Emirates Stadium for the home game against West Ham United that followed seemed to be one of acute apathy.
And that’s what got him in the end: apathy.
It wasn’t the rent-a-crowd, howl at the moon, micro-brained turned micro-celebs on ArsenalFanTV who did him. No, it was the stay-at-home bourgeoisie who truly stuck the butter, salad, meat and fish knives in him.
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Arsene Wenger has strong words for Arsenal’s local support. https://t.co/KbPTwXJ8cd
Each year the cycle of hope got shorter and shorter. To borrow the title of perhaps the most famous book ever written about Arsenal, the mood was at “fever pitch” from the moment the club’s supporters realised this season was going to be a replica of the one before it, and the one before that, ad nauseam. It got so bad even Nick Hornby, the author of the book, was starting to leave games early, per ESPN. And he has been a Wenger apologist since forever.
Fittingly, given his lifelong championing of austerity in an age when rivals spend as if in the throes of the last days of Rome, Wenger has been experiencing Scrooge-like visitations from the ghosts of his past and present. Those of the future are unconfirmed at the time of going to press. One-time bete noire turned BFF, Sir Alex Ferguson, has been on the phone to give what one can only presume were words of conciliation, while even Jose Mourinho has felt moved to offer the olive branch of friendship.
A man as droll and dry as Wenger will almost certainly have been wryly amused that one of his few remaining games as Arsenal manager is against Manchester United. That Sunday’s game is at Old Trafford feels even more apt.
Wenger’s 22 years at Arsenal are perhaps best split in two: the Highbury years versus the Emirates years. A common theme that binds the two periods (1996-2006 and 2006-present) is how Old Trafford has so often been the venue for the best and worst of Wenger’s oeuvre.
It is a stadium that has not just witnessed but drawn from him some of his most and least dignified moments. It is a stadium in which perhaps he has never been so high, or so low. It is a stadium that helped give birth to arguably the greatest managerial rivalry in the history of English football. It is a stadium he will look back on with equal parts love and hate, but when the dust settles, even withstanding the tiresome and vile chants, will probably miss more than any other with the exception of Highbury and the Emirates.
It was at Old Trafford in March 1998 when Marc Overmars’ goal was enough to peg back Manchester United’s lead at the Premier League summit to six points. It was Wenger’s first full season in charge at Arsenal, and one bookmaker had already paid out on United claiming a third successive title with still two months left to play. Arsenal went on to win their next eight games in the league to secure the title with two matches remaining.
A 2-0 win over Newcastle United in the FA Cup final saw Wenger become the first foreign manager to win a double in England. Le Professeur had schooled his English counterparts at the first time of asking, and Ferguson was fuming. It would be a rivalry that endured until Arsenal’s threat to Manchester United became anemic to the point of being academic.
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It was at Old Trafford in February 2001 when Dwight Yorke’s hat-trick helped United to a 6-1 victory over Arsenal, having led 5-1 at half-time. Arsenal would finish the campaign 10 points shy of Ferguson’s champions.
It was at Old Trafford in May 2002 when Wenger enjoyed arguably his finest moment against Ferguson. For most of a first half played under the floodlights, on a Wednesday night, Arsenal’s players had one eye on securing the title; the other on ensuring they returned to the capital with all of their limbs in tact. Paul Scholes went in wildly on Edu, Phil Neville senselessly on Sylvain Wiltord and Roy Keane left Vieira crumpled as if he’d been struck by a bar room stool. On the touchline, Ferguson was all seething malevolence.
Arsenal, without Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Tony Adams, kept playing their precise football. Ten minutes after the interval, Wiltord was on hand to steer home after Freddie Ljungberg’s shot had been parried by Fabien Barthez. A 1-0 win in Manchester, a 12th on the spin in the league, was enough to secure Arsenal not just the title in the penultimate game of the season but the double; four days earlier, they had beaten Chelsea 2-0 at Wembley in the FA Cup final.
It is important at this juncture to appreciate how winning a double double in the space of five seasons is just about as remarkable an achievement as it gets.
At a time when people are discussing Wenger’s legacy, talk of what he will leave behind in the form of the Emirates Stadium and the club’s London Colney training ground seems as prevalent as appreciating what occurred on the pitch. As immaculate as such facilities are, and as good a fiscal job he did in ensuring they were delivered within a tight budget, they are nothing compared to the memories his sides have left behind. His greatest works of architecture will always be those glorious early teams. It would be tragic if the past decade supersedes the first in terms of what he is remembered for.
When he pitched up in England, he was as much a visionary as Guardiola is now. He was as revolutionary in his methods and tactics as the Catalonian too. No doubt Manchester City‘s manager, a firm advocate of Wenger, would concur.
Like Guardiola, Wenger didn’t just deliver aesthetically exquisite sides. They were thoroughbreds alright, but ones that would bite the jockey if he didn’t ride them hard enough. Let’s not forget both he, and his teams, were as fiercely competitive as any in those halcyon years. If delivering 10 major trophies in 22 years represents being a specialist in failure, then it’s a title most managers could live with.
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22 years 1228 games 10 major trophies Legacy. https://t.co/tr4HSkiOty
It was at Old Trafford in September 2003 when the rivalry between Manchester United and Arsenal became one of pure spite, spewing out the kind of toxicity that plagued Leeds United and Chelsea’s relations in the 70s.
It was the pivotal game in Arsenal’s unbeaten season. They went on to win the title by 11 points with a team of almost perfect parts that fully realised Wenger’s raison d’etre (“I believe the target of anything in life should be to do it so well that it becomes an art”), but that afternoon in Manchester proved they had a nasty side too. It is a dark streak the club’s supporters have craved ever since, albeit pretty much in vain.
As only he could, the indomitable Brian Clough put it, “Arsenal caress a football the way I dreamed of caressing Marilyn Monroe,” but that team could mix it too.
It was at Old Trafford in October 2004 when the Invincibles lost their moniker to fall one game shy of 50 not out. A callow 17-year-old by the name of Cesc Fabregas, in his infinite wisdom, decided the best way to alleviate any tension with Ferguson was to launch a slice of pizza at him in the tunnel at full-time.
What is often overlooked in the retelling of this game is how, in many ways, it proved prophetic, in terms of the mental fragility Arsenal would go on to demonstrate so readily over the years that followed.
As Phil Neville gleefully attested in the recent documentary Fergie vs. Wenger: The Feud, United essentially bullied Arsenal into a 2-0 defeat.
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A Premier League legend 🙌 https://t.co/3ynLbhuY1q
“They had a young Spanish winger called Jose Antonio Reyes, and we literally kicked him off the park. I think he got subbed off after about 60 minutes,” he recalled (via Football.London), with a demonic look in his eye that suggested as a child he may have spent too much time pulling the wings off insects.
“Every time he got the ball, Gary [Neville] smashed him. Next time he got the ball, I smashed him, next time he got the ball, Scholes smashed him, and after a bit I remember looking at him and [him] thinking “What am I doing in English football?””
Arsenal’s response that afternoon, and over the next few months, was akin to a tortoise seeking sanctuary in its shell. They travelled to Old Trafford 11 points ahead of United having won eight of their first nine matches. They would win two of their next seven, dropping points to Crystal Palace, West Brom and Southampton before eventually losing out on the title to Mourinho’s new (rich) kids on the block, Chelsea.
It was at Old Trafford when, in August 2009, Wenger was sent to the stands by referee Mike Dean for kicking a water bottle in his technical area. After stumbling around looking for somewhere to sit, he proceeded to adopt a Christ the Redeemer pose while in the midst of the home faithful as Arsenal fell to a 2-1 defeat. He would later receive redemption of sorts via an apology for his dismissal, but not before first giving United supporters the best time they have had since winning the treble in 199.
It was at Old Trafford in August 2011 when Arsenal conceded eight goals in a league game for the first time since 1896. The Premier League season was just three games in and Wenger was already under pressure. In the build-up to the game, Ferguson had demonstrated how his relationship with the Arsenal boss had thawed considerably by offering a staunch defence of Wenger’s record. He then beat him 8-2.
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Football pays tribute #MerciArsene https://t.co/VyEjo5kq7v
It was at Old Trafford in March 2011 when Ferguson picked a four-man midfield comprising Darron Gibson, John O’Shea and the Da Silva twins for an FA Cup quarter-final tie. Had he been eligible, there’s a fair chance Fred the Red would have been given a run-out at some point as United claimed a 2-0 victory.
For one last time on Sunday, Wenger will make the long walk from the Old Trafford tunnel to the dugout. Whisper it quietly, but Manchester United supporters may miss him as much as the rest of us when he’s gone.
After all, no one knows better than them that they don’t make ’em like Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger anymore.
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