Arsene Wenger near the close: Requiem for a good man-ager

It is easy to spew vitriol when you risk nothing. If I’m thankful to Twitter for anything, it’s not so much for having made the world a better place (remains to be seen) as teaching me, perhaps unintentionally, that to save whatever’s left of my soul, I had to leave it. My hot take simply isn’t as important as my ego would hope it to be.

A few years ago, I covered Arsenal for an online site, and one of my favorite topics was a steadfast defense of Arsene Wenger, the oft-embattled manager of the storied English football (soccer) club. This was during the 2011–12 season, during which Arsenal once more produced what has become something of the norm in performance terms: crests of breathtaking form, offset by crippling dips somehow assuaged by a victory-heavy flurry toward the end of the season that sees them earn a top-four finish and a coveted ($$$$) spot in the Champions League, Europe’s fabled club campaign.

Arsenal won no trophies that season, a drought that began following the club’s Football Association (FA) Cup title in ’05, and which would last nine more years until they re-captured that crown. Here, as has often been the case whenever Arsenal enjoys success, came critics’ favorite caveat: it was “only” the FA Cup they’d won, after all. Now, should they not win that title in a given season, it’s a mark of the apocalypse. C’est la vie, you see.

What has happened at Arsenal this past decade-plus is well-chronicled. They fell to FC Barcelona in the ’06 Champions League final, the only cup crown Wenger hasn’t captured. That fall, they moved into the gleaming Emirates Stadium, a state-of-the-art 60,000-seater that signaled the club’s intentions to move into a new era.

To help shoulder the burden of the Emirates construction, Wenger began a project—he once called it a “pari”, or bet—that many will point to as his eventual undoing in a steaming puddle of hubris. It was a bet on youth, cheaply assembled, whom Wenger hoped would fuse into a formidable machine once these starlets hit their prime.

Wenger has long been known for his commitment to giving youngsters opportunities within the Arsenal first-team fold, and for the first few seasons of this initiative, the club continued to contend on the elite stages both domestically and continentally. By 2011, the pari appeared to have come to fruition. Arsenal came within a whisker of defeating Barcelona in the Champions League Round of 16, a two-leg tie that included a thrilling 2–1 victory at the Emirates. Barcelona would go on to win the Champions League title that May, that particular side cementing their status as perhaps the best club of the current century.

Near-misses became a theme for the Arsenal team. Those same starlets Wenger hoped would form the club backbone began leaving for clubs they felt had a better chance at silverware. And yet, another potential turning point came in 2014, when Arsenal snapped that trophy-less run with the FA Cup title. They’d shown an ability to contend for the Premier League title that season, before fading late. Now, it seemed they were ready, finally, to turn the corner and become elite.

Players were staying, a talented squad in place, and now Arsenal had the financial muscle to attract star quality. Mesut Ozil had joined the previous autumn. Now, Alexis Sanchez and Petr Cech, world-class and well-known, would sign in successive summers. Arsenal were ready to win big trophies.

And on a cold February day in 2016, they were there. The Gunners defeated Leicester City, 2–1, with a last-minute goal that saw Arsenal nab top spot in the league. And yet…once again, they would fall short in a season that saw Leicester make history in claiming the title.

Though there have been singular great days since, that Leicester victory feels like the turning of the tide. A rot has set in, and fan sentiment is always tinged with the doubt that any great result will be followed by terrible runs of form. The message is loud and clear now: it is time for Wenger to go.

I have always enjoyed Wenger, a man who speaks more languages than fingers on one hand, and can wax philosophical on any topic. Like Truffaut, his encyclopedic understanding of his chosen field is revealed not through tedious tactics and technical nous, but rather in a sense of poetry that takes hold in the breathtaking collective goals Arsenal have made a habit of scoring. Form over function.

But this is not enough, anymore. For all the miraculous season-ending saves of recent seasons, this feels different. Arsenal are well and truly up against it. It’s hard to believe there are two months yet to go in the campaign.

My final take remains the same as the one I employed when I wrote about him on a daily basis: most of the criticism of Wenger, like most of what is said online, is puerile. Wenger is a great man, and a great manager. I hope he is allowed the final say for when he leaves the club. At current standing, that will be at the end of the following season, when his two-year contract is completed. For many, that is not nearly soon enough.

There has been talk about how Wenger is the last of the “old guard” of managers, men who transformed their clubs over decades at the helm. His imprint is all over Arsenal. And yet, one hopes that he will have the courage to see that it is time to go. This is no indictment upon him; and to leave would not be defeat.

Rather, it would be the ultimate example of his genius. The great men know when it is time to go.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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