United remind Arsenal what’s at stake when replacing Wenger
London club must think long and hard before opting for a suitable replacement
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is sent to the stands after kicking a bottle at Old Trafford in 2009. Photograph: Carl Racine/Reuters
Arsenal have only three away games left in the Premier League this season but happily there is still time for Arsène Wenger to return to Manchester United, the scene of many of the highs and lows in his extraordinary career.
One suspects the image that will surface most often this weekend is the iconic one of Wenger banished to the stands in 2009, arms outstretched at the pettiness of it all after being told by match officials that kicking a water bottle in frustration was far too grievous an offence to be allowed to remain on the sidelines.
There are other, happier memories. A win at Old Trafford put Wenger on the way to his first Double, a single Marc Overmars goal in March 1998 cutting Manchester United’s lead at the top of the table to six points – some Manchester bookmakers had already paid out on bets on Alex Ferguson’s team retaining the title – as Arsenal entered a 10-game winning sequence that would see them crowned champions by a single point.
Slender as that margin appeared at the time, Arsenal’s tremendous run-in gave an early indication of the consistency of which they would prove capable under Wenger, as well as usefully preventing United winning six titles in a row to draw unflattering comparisons with the Scottish league.
Later there would be the Battle of Old Trafford and then the Battle of the Buffet as Arsenal grew into their role as United’s chief challengers in the early noughties, even if another few years brought the infamous 8-2 defeat that confirmed by 2011 they had rather lost their way.
More than anything, though, more than the prospect even of a last touchline grimace with José Mourinho or a cheery hello from Alexis Sánchez, Arsenal are visiting a stadium that stands as an enormous monument to what is at stake when the time comes to replace the sort of transformative manager who has given years of service to the task of successfully reinventing a club.
No one could dispute that Wenger is up there with the very best in that regard. While some might quibble about the lack of a European Cup, all the deserved testimonials have stressed the fact that this is a man who altered English football, not only the club of which he was in charge.
There is no need to run through Wenger’s achievements and innovations here when they have been all over the news for the past few days. Only the very best managers make themselves unsackable, and in the years of gradual Arsenal decline, that became part of a unique problem.
Ferguson before him had assumed such a position of strength and control at his club that he was able to choose his own retirement date, yet crucially United kept winning.
Even with comparatively ordinary sides in unremarkable seasons, even with the emergence of Chelsea and Manchester City as rivals with deep pockets, Ferguson averaged a title every other season or better right until the end. That is what big clubs want and need.
Wenger was unable to produce it for Arsenal after the dizzy heights of the first decade and, as he himself admitted, around the time that Mourinho was labelling him a specialist in failure: “You cannot pretend you are a big club.”
That, nevertheless, is what Arsenal seem to have been doing these last dozen or so years. There were mitigating circumstances, the move to a new ground being one of them and the arrival of petro-dollars in the English game another, though it is hard to sell yourself as the biggest of clubs when you make do with Champions League qualification income and the occasional FA Cup.
What has just happened, though presented as sympathetically as possible, is presumably linked to Arsenal struggling to make the top four for a second successive season and empty seats becoming a feature at the Emirates.
In those circumstances even the Arsène Wenger Appreciation Society – branches inside and outside the Emirates and apparently all over the world – would find it difficult to maintain the big club pretence.
While Mourinho might have been twisting the knife when implying that most clubs in the Champions League bracket would demand more, he was not necessarily wrong.
That is why Wenger struck a slightly sour note with his most recent public utterance, when he appeared to blame the fans for sending images of impatience and disunity all around the world. There were faults on all sides, surely?
There is no doubt that some of the terrace protests were excessive, unfeeling and went on for too long, but the plain truth is the whole Wenger endgame went on for too long. It was allowed to become a tiresome sideshow, which was something no one really wanted or deserved.
Other parties were involved in that lassitude apart from the fans, the story here is not only the usually stated case of over-entitled supporters and their short memories. Even Wenger admits he understands why the fans are not happy. The club now seem to have an inkling as well. If Arsenal’s image has been tarnished, in other words, the buck stops higher than the terraces.
It is tempting to wonder, as Arsenal prepare to visit Old Trafford, whether Wenger’s 22 years at the same club would have been possible without Ferguson’s 26.
Were Arsenal persuaded of the value of patience and the rewards longevity can bring by Ferguson’s peerless example? Both were exceptional managers, neither feat is likely to achieved again at elite level, but while the United template was one of unpromising beginnings followed by undreamed of glory, the Arsenal version had the ingredients in the wrong order. Hence the somewhat stickier ending.
Perhaps a clue can be found in all the tributes to Wenger from the last few days. English football was still a provincial, insular game when he arrived here, the sort of self-contained comfort zone where you might find a decent manager aiming to stick around for a decade or longer. Ferguson had already done 10 years at United by the time Wenger turned up at Arsenal.
It will not be going back there any time soon, not at the top level at any rate. That is the pair’s great modernising achievement, if you like, and it is also the reason why United miscalculated the Ferguson succession so badly.
Arsenal still have all that potential disruption to come but they could do worse than be guided by the wise words of their departing leader.
“What I like about Arsenal,” Wenger once said. “Is that they respect traditional values while not being scared to move forward.”
That sentiment is probably more true of the Arsenal he joined rather than the Arsenal he will leave, though at least there need be no more agitating or pretending. The time to move forward is definitely here.