“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season…”
With a single sentence, after fighting the arguments for his removal the past couple of years, Arsene Wenger’ ended his Arsenal reign, seemingly bowing out on his own terms. 22 years removed from his arrival from Japan which ushered in a new era at Arsenal F.C., he has now decided he is not the man to take the club forward.
Three Premier League titles, seven FA Cups, a Champions League final, a UEFA Cup final, and consistent appearances in Europe’s premier competition for nearly two decades, but with his exit feels past due, his accomplishments are overshadowed by his own apparent stubbornness to stay on. Within minutes, rumours swirled of his forced departure by the club board, given he has another year on his contract.
Arsene’s football philosophy was beautiful to watch in fluent motion, but he became stuck and mutated into a different being towards the end of his tenure at the Gunners. Arsenal have looked a shadow of their former selves at times this season, capitulating in big games and failing to capitalise on oppositions slips in the league. Whether he lost control of the dressing room, or his tactics were simply found out by savvy managers, the result was evident: Arsenal were no longer perennial Premier League contenders.
They had become far removed from the mythical Invincibles of 2003/04, a side that nobody in England could topple, one that created the sweetest of moments in clinching the league title in Tottenham’s backyard, White Hart Lane. A watershed moment in Wenger’s tenure – they haven’t won a league title since.
As the seasons wore on, a cyclical chain of events came to fruition in North London as fans usually complained about a positional problem, and Wenger signed players that rectified the issue at face value but could only scratch the surface of their potential on the pitch. Wenger had lost the ability to get the best out of his players, they believed. Arsenal Fan TV called for his head after every loss, every poor performance, and every draw to a side they believed beneath them.
Last August fans craved a pacey striker to assume the mantle from the less mobile Olivier Giroud, but despite the delirious reaction to Alexandre Lacazette’s incoming, the results continued to dry up. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Henrikh Mkhitaryan looked to herald a new identity for Arsenal, but haven’t had the desired effect so far.
Meanwhile, Giroud has been consistent for Chelsea while another departure, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, has been a revelation for Liverpool. Is this Wenger’s fault? Did he start listening to the fans too much or did he do so too late?
Looking back further, Granit Xhaka, Shkrodan Mustafi, Petr Cech and Danny Welbeck have been underwhelming, to say the least. Yet each of these players came to the Emirates with pedigree and filled an apparent need in the side at the time. Is Wenger to blame for not getting the best of the players, or have the players been exposed as average having fit into their previous club’s systems which made them look good?
The faces of consistency for Arsenal – Sanchez, Ramsey, and Koscielny – began to let their masks slip, with Sanchez eventually buckling under the weight of carrying the team and demanding a move to the red side of Manchester (despite his original willingness to side with blue). Wilshire never became the player the fan base believed he would be, and defensive fragility evolved into an unfortunate hallmark of Arsenal sides in the mid-2010s. The playmaking brilliance of Mesut Özil was equal to his frustrating ability to disappear when he was needed most. They never truly replaced the stalwarts of the 2000s, as Viera, Henry, and Campbell left gaping holes that became more obvious as the season ticked on.
The questions will ring on into next season when a fresh face takes on this team in the hope of inspiring Arsenal back into prosperity. Unlike David Moyes at Manchester United, Wenger’s successor will feel less pressure to fill his boots, as his achievements have slowly evaporated during the 12 spell without a Premier League title. The first aim will be an immediate resumption of Champions League duties, and to retake control of North London from their very own noisy neighbours currently residing in Wembley.
However, we are quick to forget that it was Wenger who began those very traditions. St. Totteringham’s day. The day in the Premier League season when it became mathematically impossible for Tottenham to overtake Arsenal in the standings, was established under Wenger’s reign. Two years in a row finishing below Spurs has undoubtedly been a motivating factor in the fans’ soured feelings towards Wenger.
The nature of Arsenal’s demise in recent Champions League exploits has been unsavoury it best, but it was the failure to regain the consistency held for so long that has brought Wenger’s leadership into disrepute. Arsenal may yet qualify through winning the Europa League, much like Manchester United did last season, but it will not be enough to keep the managerial hierarchy afloat.
Stan Kroenke has now removed the last bastion against criticism of his ownership of the club, as Wenger has been scapegoated the past few seasons as the reason for Arsenal’s downfall. His next move will be crucial to his side’s future and his backing of the next Arsenal manager, both in terms of time and finances, will be paramount to the immediate direction of the club.
Perhaps in the years to come even the most ardent ‘Wenger out’ Arsenal fans will look back at Wenger’s time with the club and realise how successful the club was under him. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll be able to look at his management of Arsenal F.C. and repeat the phrase used on the Arsenal club website with genuine thanks.
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