He did not seem at ease accepting a bespoke gong from his erstwhile nemesis. Nor was he comfortable in receiving kindness and what seemed like genuine ‘respect’ from Jose. There was more than a hint of hesitancy in his smile and it took addition countenance from Sir Alex for him to sheepishly hold up his gift and thus accept a mixed applause from the crowd. For the man had forgotten what it meant to be loved and admired by the greater population of the game. The last few years had turned into a battle to stay relevant. There were shots taken at his state of mind – words akin to ‘delusional’ and ‘senile’ had become commonplace.
A lot of the criticism was gratuitous, hurtful and straight up obnoxious. So, you could forgive his suspicion when Mourinho dragged him by the hand and escorted him to the imaginary dais where Sir Alex was waiting to receive him. Eventually, he relented and accepted that the suits at Old Trafford had in fact planned a ‘classy’ going away tribute for him. He smiled first out of relief (that it wasn’t a prank dredged up by Arsenal Fan TV) and then out of dignified respect for the Sir Alex, who was leading the ceremonies on behalf of United. And in those fifteen seconds I realised that the man was far from delusional and senility would have to wait forever to catch him. No that wasn’t the problem. Only his heart had gone. The lights that were dimming for a decade, had finally gone out. Monsieur Wenger was through with the Arsenal.
It will be difficult to explain Wenger’s legacy to kids that will take to the English Game in the coming years. “In his last ten years, How many league titles did he win? Umm…None.” “What about Europe? Must have been competitive there? Err…Not Really?” “And they never got rid of him all this time? Umm….No…I mean…You’re right….but…I mean…well….he did win three FA Cups so….” “And the fans were cool with this? Umm….Sure….I mean…No they weren’t….but they were…I mean…err… they were divided….Wenger In…Wenger out…you know…it was complicated”. We can expect similar father child dinner table inquisitions across the Arsenal world and predict, with a high degree of certainty, than in most cases the senior gooner will retire to his room with his head in his hand and wonder – “Was he really that great? Did we in fact lose a decade because of him?” Whether Arsenal lost a decade or not, he will have certainly lost his sleep for the night.
Wenger 2.0 relied for the most part on blooding the academy youth, who were complemented by signing unheralded gems from all corners of the continent. In the wake of the new stadium, cash flows had to be supported by selling on many such players who were on the cusp of the next big leap in their career. The man was dealt a strange hand. The move to a new grand stadium, that was expected to propel the Gunners into the Pantheon of giant European Super Clubs, had in the initial years, served only to constrain it by means of abridged transfer budgets and forced sales of their best players to rivals. Arsenal were also caught unware once the Sheikhs rolled into town in 2008.
Between the summer of 2008 and the signing of Ozil in August 2013, Arsenal’s most expensive signing, at a paltry sum of 15 million pounds, was Andrei ‘Four Goal’ Arshavin. What Chelsea had set in motion in 2003, was then taken to unseen heights by City and by the turn of the noughties, the Arse was well and truly playing third or fourth fiddle in the transfer market. The devil may argue that the choice to rely on youth was not an appeal to a higher ideal but an idea borne more out of necessity. Arsenal could not let go of Wenger because they needed the Champions League Coins and Wenger could not complain because everything to do with Arsenal was just too ‘bloody’ dear to him.
What the top brass at Arsenal did not foresee was the expiry on Wenger’s goodwill. To them it seemed like the tide of his personality was interminable and they genuinely expected to ride the wave without reproach, into years and years of mediocrity. By the start of the decade, fans had already begun to air their resentment. Early knock out round exits in the Champions League were becoming the norm. Matters were increasingly aggravated by the board’s inability in both planning for a successor and in supporting him in the transfer market.
The spread of on-the-fly social media outlets had given the fans a medium to express their outrage towards the manager and the board. Ranting about the state of affairs at the club had become a full time occupation and the rest of us could not get enough of Arsenal’s misery ( Arsenal Fan TV, especially after a defeat, had become therapeutic and I am myself guilty of the crime, having spent more time on the channel than I would like to admit). Wenger out banners were becoming the accessory of choice.
Planes were being leased out regularly to provide the man little relief from staring at the heavens for support. Earlier this year, after the Gunners had been comprehensively defeated by Brighton away, a despondent fan called the lines on 606 and lamented the vile and toxic atmosphere while breaking down in the process. Beloved ‘Wrightey’ was visibly shocked and upset. To add to their woes, season ticket holders had begun to boycott home games and the sight of large pockets of empty seats alarmed both the suits up top and the fans siting below. The mood, it appeared, had changed for the utmost worse and the glaring image of a half empty ‘Emirates’ beaming across the world, was ultimately the ‘final nail in the coffin’.
Defenders of the Wenger faith, over the years, hid behind the consolation of ‘attractive’, if not ‘winning’ football. Proponents of Mourinho and his winning mentality were repeatedly ticked off and directed towards the style and grace of ‘Wengerball’. Some agree it’s the closest thing to a footballing philosophy this side of the Atlantic. The discerning fan grew accustomed to the idea that, in a competitive arena such as the Premier League, it was nigh on impossible to marry attractive and free flowing football with the pursuit of trophies. In fact, for a while (however short), it might have been more fashionable to lose in the process of playing like Arsenal did, than win, say in the grim and functional setup of Mourinho.
You can see the hipster’s proclivity towards an Arsenal or in a similar vein, a Dortmund, who always ended up on the right side of all arguments concerning the right way to play football. But all that was put to bed by the fresh grace of Pep Guardiola in England. In Pep’s mind, there is no dichotomy between philosophy and success. There is no such ideal in his mind where winning can be justifiably sacrificed at the cost of playing well. The two are not mutually exclusive but the yin and yang of the same idea.
This season, Guardiola has shown England a better version of ‘Wengerball’. One that does not baulk at the responsibility of finishing first after 38 games. We are at the crux of a paradigm shift in English Football (at least for as long as Guardiola is at the helm at City). For as long as he is here, the team that beats him has to score more goals, create more chances, take more shots, pass more accurately, hold more possession and press way harder. Therefore the best team in the land will also be the most attractive team, because it would have outdone City in all the aforementioned metrics – and City will naturally be always playing attractive football under Pep.
So the goodwill’s gone and the throne of exciting football has usurped by a new contender. Does that make Arsene Wenger irrelevant? Quite the contrary. Because to elevate and moderate his legacy based on a glittering first half and a lukewarm second half is to wholly misunderstand the point of his position in the game. Le Professeur provides a balancing act to the game, a game that is enriched by differing and at times conflicting personalities. Such personalities often feed off each other and leave us further enthralled an divided in the trail of their enigma.
Jose Mourinho for one has publicly defined himself and his team as anti-matter to Arsenal. He cannot seriously believe that the Wenger is a ‘specialist in failure’ because that would mean that the Frenchman is not a worthy competitor. But over the years, by virtue of the disproportionate amount of attention heaped on him during interactions with the media, we can rest assure that Jose has at the very least, contemptuous admiration for the big man.
It pricks him every time someone points out that Wenger’s teams are easier on the eye. To him, Arsene Wenger provides at different times both a reason and an excuse, to explain his own ideas and outlook towards the game. The same could be said for Sir Alex, who in an era before Mourinho, partook in one of the greatest managerial rivalry of all ages. When a manager survives at a club for more than two decades, it is in our better interest to look beyond the pieces of metal in the trophy cabinet and understand his or her larger contribution to the game.
History is likely to be far kinder to the Frenchman than the past few years have been to him. Wenger’s management of the club during its transition from Highbury to the Emirates, will act as precedent for clubs undertaking such projects of their own in the future. He paved the way for foreign coaches to enter the league and trust that their ideas would be held in good stead by the British game. He brought discipline and routine to the free-wheeling, binge drinking culture among footballers in the 90s.
The purists will prefer to argue that in the frenzied world of modern club football – with its impatient owners, restive fans, inorganic player recruitment and reliance on top flight TV money – Wenger, and for that matter his Arsenal, shone through like a serene ray of early morning light. The story of Arsene Wenger is bound to have a special place in the memory of football.
As for the fans, each time they come out of the Arsenal Underground, climb up the steps, and walk across the train tracks – they need to only look at the lights in the distance to know where home is and find comfort in the presence of the great man, whose spirit will forever rest there.
Feature Image via Paddy Power
Image 1 via The Sun
Image 2 via Mirror
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