LONDON — Now, then, it is time to make amends. Time for all of the mutineers to lay down their cudgels. Time for those who had drifted away, in apathy and in anger, to return. Time for the swaths of empty seats that have littered Emirates Stadium to be filled once more.
It is probably too late for a statue to be unveiled, but not for one to be commissioned, at least. Arsène Wenger would understand if it was not ready for Arsenal’s final home game of the season — against Burnley, on May 6 — or even for what may be his last match as Arsenal manager, a visit to Huddersfield Town, a week later. He knows, more than most, that a labor of love can take time.
This week, under increasing pressure from Arsenal’s suite of executives and in the midst of long-running discontent among the club’s fans, Wenger decided that he would do the one thing he said he would never do: He would break a contract.
These weeks, he told Arsenal’s board, will be his last in a job he has held for 22 years. Before training on Friday, he informed his players that he would step down as manager at the end of the season. An hour or so later, the club announced it to the world.
“He is, without doubt, one of the greatest Premier League managers,” said Alex Ferguson, who battled him frequently during his own long tenure at Manchester United. “I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man.” Even José Mourinho, perhaps Wenger’s most bitter foe, was moved to discuss the “respect” he had for the Frenchman, even if he had a funny way of showing it at times.
All of those eulogies are true, of course. Wenger’s longevity, as Ferguson highlighted, is an achievement in itself. The loyalty between him and the club “of his heart,” as he has always put it, is increasingly an anachronism in soccer’s age of impatience. It is the end of an era not just for Arsenal, but for the sport as a whole, too, in that sense. There will be no more who do what Wenger did, for as long as he did.
He did, as others mentioned, shape some of the finest teams England has seen: the one that won the Premier League and F.A. Cup in his first full season, built on the granite defense he had inherited; the Invincibles of Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira in 2004; the team that came within 12 minutes of winning the Champions League in 2006.
In doing so, he transformed what Arsenal was, how it was seen, across the globe. That is Wenger’s legacy, just as much as the sleek, space-age stadium the club built on the back of his success and the state-of-the-art training facility he helped design: Arsenal had not always been seen as a bastion of taste and style in England, let alone around the world.
He transformed more than just his club, though. Possibly more than any other manager in history, Wenger changed the nature of English soccer. Not just, as is always trotted out, because he accelerated great leaps forward in nutrition, in conditioning, in hydration, in sports science, in recruitment and, in later years, in analytics, too, but because of something more fundamental: He opened an entire country’s eyes.
Wenger was only the second foreign manager to be appointed to an English club having never experienced the game on these shores. The first, the Czechoslovak Jozef Venglos, arrived at Aston Villa in 1990 championing similar methods to Wenger’s, and left not long after, his players unable, or unwilling, to adapt.
Wenger was greeted by similar skepticism. What does he know of England, he who comes from Japan, as Ferguson — unwittingly bastardizing Kipling — almost put it. When Wenger immediately set about recruiting a battalion of French players, he was greeted by a wave of doubters and critics. A year later, he won the title, and then the cup. Wenger proved that foreign managers could cut it in an island obsessed with its own exceptionalism.
It is for all of that he should be remembered, his unyielding allies and recently converted admirers claimed on Friday, not for these last few years of drift and despair. Those long seasons punctuated by three F.A. Cup wins but dominated by the sight of Arsenal, of Wenger, being overtaken by Chelsea, by Manchester City and, worst of all, by Tottenham Hotspur; of a club first unable to compete in the Champions League and then eliminated from it entirely; of a stadium slowly emptying as fans lost patience and then hope; of a board paralyzed by its awe for an employee; of a man unable to turn away. All of that should be written out of the record, cast into shadow by the searing brightness of what went before.
It does not work like that, of course, nor should it. Wenger’s second act is just as central to his legacy as his first, and the questions of why he could not halt the decline — why, for so long, he did not seem to notice it, why he kept pursuing the same solution, believing the outcome would be different, why he allowed the final years of his reign to be marked more by sadness than glory — are just as relevant as how he managed to kick-start the club’s ascent all those years ago.
A few years ago, in one of those many low moments that seemed to prompt a bout of soul-searching in Wenger, he contemplated how he wanted to leave Arsenal for his successor. At the annual meeting of the club’s shareholders, he talked about how he wanted to bequeath a team primed for immediate, continuing success, one in ruder health than ever before.
It is hard to argue he has achieved that. No matter who replaces him — and a young, ambitious coach to re-energize a torpid club is the order of the day — that person will have to rebuild morale, reshape the squad and restore purpose. That job will be more difficult this year than it would have been had Wenger stepped down in, say, 2014.
Nor will it be the work of just one man. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to Wenger’s greatness came not in the words poured out in his honor over the last 24 hours, but in the work Arsenal has been doing to prepare for this day over the last 12 months. Raul Sanllehi has come in from Barcelona as director of football operations. Sven Mislintat, his reputation forged at Borussia Dortmund, is the new chief scout. The legal expert Huss Fahmy was drafted in from cycling’s Team Sky to work on contracts.
Billy Beane, a friend of Wenger’s, has always preached the need not to find like-for-like replacements for players, but to try to replace the aggregate of what they provided. Arsenal has recognized that it will take four people, effectively, to stand in for Wenger.
That is the highest of praise, but it is also fitting recognition that Wenger was no longer a man of his time: Soccer clubs are now too vast, too complex as organizations, to be overseen by just one person. Wenger was the last of the all-powerful managers; the institution he represented, the way of thinking, is past. That, in part, is why he has been overtaken, why he lost his way.
None of that means that he should not be given a monthlong valedictory tour not just by Arsenal, but by the country he graced for 22 years, the country he changed, just a little, in his own image.
Nor does the fact that he was imperfect, that he stayed on too long, that he departs not with garlands but regrets, mean he does not warrant a statue. In the ancient world, even monuments to the gods contained physical imperfections, a simple metaphor. They are great, and they deserve to be remembered, and cherished, and idolized. But they have their flaws, too, just as we all do.
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