La fin for Le Professeur: credits finally roll for Arsène Wenger
Frenchman had a profound impact on club and while he lost his touch he kept his values
Arsène Wenger with the Premiership trophy after Arsenal’s unbeaten 2003/04 campaign. Photograph: PA
La Fin. And so the credits finally roll. Like reaching the end of some heaving biopic, it may take a while for Arsène Wenger to feel able to shake himself back into the real world, to emerge blinking from that life intensely lived as manager at Arsenal Football Club, to take off the red and white spectacles and not assess everything through that prism.
Finally, now, he has reached that point that for so long seemed impossible, the trigger which has pushed the endgame button. The mantra that he would always respect his contract, the stubbornness that made it so implausible that he one day would do that, has been blown. The debate bubbled and frothed around him for years, for quite a lot of that turbulent second half of his tenure in London N5, but the truth is it was something that Wenger could not easily judge for himself because he was always so immersed. Bob Dylan caught the mood in inimitable style in one of his piercing love songs: “I could stay with you forever and never realise the time.” Wenger’s collaboration with Arsenal sucked them in deep, which is why, for club and man, this break will shudder through the both of them. Moving on, after such a long spell entwined, will be strange.
Maybe it seems like yesterday, the cool January afternoon in 1989 when Wenger turned quizzically to the taxi driver who pulled up in the terraced streets near to Avenell Road and queried: “But where is the ground?” Retelling the story he remembers the reply – “We are here” – with the same mixture of bemusement and curiosity he had all those years ago. A very first visit to Arsenal, when he was the 40-year-old manager of Monaco passing through London, puzzled him most of all because he could not quite believe a grand and famous old stadium could exist amongst what appeared to be ordinary streets full of ordinary houses. He was charmed. Something of the romance of that first meeting never left him as he would in his later years occasionally drive by the façade of the old place, park up and indulge in some nostalgia.
Maybe it seems like yesterday that he walked into a dressing room in the autumn of 1996 to find a squad coming to terms with the fact its inspirational captain, Tony Adams, had only days before announced his struggle with alcoholism. A predominantly British group, with stereotypically British qualities, would soon be open to progressive ideas even if a foreign manager was not initially everybody’s cup of tea. Adams described his own scepticism as “contempt before investigation” but would soon see how much there was to learn from a manager so different to those he came across before. Dennis Bergkamp was already in situ, a fresh-faced arrival with telescopic legs called Patrick Vieira had been ushered in on the incoming manager’s recommendation even before he arrived. Before long Wenger blended old and new perfectly to win the Premier League and FA Cup double.
Maybe it seems like yesterday that David Dein, the Arsenal chief executive and friend of Wenger, signed a form to check the manager into a hotel at a gathering of football gliterati and on the section for profession wrote “miracle worker”. How about that for esteem. Arsenal were wowed by him in those early years. The “Arsene Knows” banner that aired frequently epitomised that. Back then dissenting voices were simply nonexistent.
Maybe it seems like yesterday that the team were dubbed Invincibles for turning Wenger’s dream to complete a league campaign without defeat into glorious reality. Those peak years included a Champions League final, and a style of football that was widely admired. Some fans took to using the nickname “Wengerball” to explain the high-speed passing, injected with ingenuity and aesthetic combinations, which were a hallmark of the way they played at their very best. Nick Hornby summed it up by describing the surreal feeling for a fan who had seldom had the highest expectations to be watching some of the best players in the world play right there in front of his eyes in his club’s colours.
Maybe it seems like yesterday that Arsenal bid farewell to their soulful home, Highbury, and moved down the road to the shiny, new bowl with naming rights that would be known as the Emirates Stadium. It was a change that would have massive ramifications, and conveniently enough, the two addresses are associated with the two contrasting periods of Arsène’s Arsenal.
Maybe it seems like yesterday that the tide began to turn and title bids collapsed amid jokes about the top-four trophy. Years without silverware were clocked up and fingers began to point at Wenger as his new project, to attempt to build a successful team out of youth products educated to believe in the club and its ideals, was picked apart by richer, more ruthless, competitors.
The more recent yesterdays have been brutal at times. There have been humiliations on the pitch, protests off it, and the atmosphere around the club deteriorated to the point where more seats lay empty on a match day as apathy set in, more of the disaffected sought to demonstrate against their manager and the way the club was run.
A glorious history versus an underwhelming present was the nub of the argument that provoked so much friction. In one of his great quotes, Wenger predicted the problems that would ultimately fracture this great footballing relationship. “If you eat caviar every day it is difficult to return to sausages,” he said. It is hard to believe that quote stretches back to 1998, and the weeks after Wenger blazed a trail by becoming the first foreign manager to win the Premier League.
How do you like your sausages? In many ways that sums up how and why the latter period of his Arsenal career has been so complicated. Arsenal’s owner, Stan Kroenke, and the board who act according to his business plan, have seemed perfectly happy with sausages and shown no obvious craving to do everything they possibly can to get their hands on some caviar.
Here’s the thing. Wenger’s own apparent acceptance of more modest fare is perhaps the most intriguing element of all. He knew exactly what ingredients were needed to build a conquering team. So why settle for less? He could have left Arsenal at several points along the way, not least when he knew he was in for a few challenging seasons in the immediate aftermath of the move from Highbury to the Emirates. Finances were restricted, the football landscape was changing rapidly with the arrival of oligarchs and investors from far and wide. He chose not to be tempted by offers from some of Europe’s giants, clubs with more financial muscle and stability, to oversee a huge redevelopment. There was no trophy for that even if Wenger regards that period – keeping the club near the top – as one of his successes.
It is interesting to remember there was no serious fan unrest in those first few seasons post-move. The mood has hardened in the subsequent phase, the years that Arsenal were supposed to be on an even keel and able to compete with anyone. The record signing of Mesut Özil in 2013 was symbolic of that shift. But, barring the not-to-be-sniffed-at phase of three FA Cups in four recent seasons, Arsenal’s same old problems of falling out of contention for the most eye-catching honours, the Premier League and Champions League, have loaded critiques at the manager’s door.
It remains a mystery that a manager who saw the building blocks for success close up has veered away from those characteristics. Original Wenger teams were based on a defence with a loathing of conceding goals – first from the back four inherited from the George Graham years, and then rebuilt around the steel of Sol Campbell and company. Then came a midfield heart that had both steel and silk as epitomised by Vieira. The attacking embellishment dazzled – bold players who knew how to fight for the right to express themselves in the manner of Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, Nicolas Anelka, Bergkamp.
Original Wenger teams were powerful and fast. The more recent creations have become vulnerable, slower, more predictable. Was he stale? Could he not cut it any more? To the last, he resisted that notion and felt sure he could build one more great Gunners side. Even if critics thought he had been given too many chances his belief never wavered.
All Wenger’s Arsenal yesterdays are now in the history books. In time those stories retold will be kinder to him than the critics who have become sharper and angrier than ever in recent times. Act One of his story will be remembered more than Act Two.
Wenger has spoken often, and with feeling, about how Arsenal became “the club of my life” and the two decades and counting that came to an end encompassed numerous emotional hits. Along the way there have been spiritually uplifting highs, harrowing lows, and just about everything in between. He wanted to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson in the longevity stakes. He has always said that he wants to manage as long as he feels physically and mentally strong enough to do so and even during the difficult moments his inner resilience, his capacity to come out fighting, has been something he has been able to rely upon.
Funnily enough, when he joined in 1996 he envisaged being Arsenal manager only for a few years. But the longer he stayed, the more the club got under his skin to the point that not being in the role was something to dread.
Few other modern managers in England had as profound an impact on one club. Ferguson, in terms of trophies, trumps everyone. But in terms of putting an imprint on a club Wenger can stake a strong claim. He was fundamental to the building of a modern, lucrative stadium, pushed for the developmemt of one of England’s first high-tech training grounds, brought an international eye for recruitment that delivered some of the best players to grace the Premier League, and fostered a love for a beautiful style of football that was light years away from the “Boring Arsenal” tag of old.
Historically, the influence of Bill Shankly over Liverpool, Matt Busby over Manchester United, Brian Clough on Nottingham Forest shine on to this day. Those managers became part of the fabric of their club, enmeshed in its soul. Arsenal had their first visionary in the 1930s in Herbert Chapman. But the obvious difference between all those luminaries and Wenger is that the others were all products of British football and a British cultural upbringing.
Wenger came to Arsenal a foreigner with not much of a name or reputation on these shores at a time when English football was still quite insular and resistant to overseas ideas. Not that long before that it was banned from Europe, a kind of pariah which accentuated the sense of distance between the English ways and continental ways. “What does he know, coming from Japan?” Fergie pondered sharply when Wenger first began to make waves in England following his arrival from Grampus Eight, which was symptomatic of a mistrust of ideas that were perceived to be new wave or revolutionary to an English scene.
Wenger became part of the furniture. By the end we all felt we knew him so well, foibles and all. He was a manager who always – always – stood by his values. For better or for worse he did his job with unstinting conviction. As Dein noted when he first came across this intellectual Frenchman with a name that made him think it was destiny he would at some point be associated with Arsenal, he was “different”.
He thinks a lot about the human side of management. He prefers to regard his players as people first and athletes second. He has a keen interest in finances and social policies and a view of the world outside the football pitch. As a man, he has many characteristics that seem contradictory but all go to make up this unique manager. He has a razor-sharp wit but can be absent-minded and clumsy. He is kind and generous but a terribly sore loser. He speaks with confidence in public yet remains very private away from the game. He is addicted to the intensity of the best sporting challenges but loathes personal conflict. He is somehow one of the most liberal-minded of managers and also the most stubborn. As a man, his kindness and generosity are held in the highest esteem by those who know him.
Whatever lies ahead – and there is as much chance of it getting better as getting worse – one man cannot easily fill the void he leaves. He is the last of the managerial overlords, the long-term managers who dedicate decades to one club. After all Wenger’s yesterdays, Arsenal without Arsène will take some getting used to.