I still don’t believe Arsène Wenger’s leaving. False rumors swirl around European soccer like cinders around a bonfire, and we’ve been here before. Wenger, the man whose name has become synonymous with London’s Arsenal FC, is supposedly stepping down from his post at the end of the season, his 22nd with the club. He has supposedly been on his way out before, as an army of British tabloid editors named Clive (in my head) have linked him with jobs at PSG, Real Madrid, and the English and French national teams.
I’ve been preparing for this moment almost since I became an Arsenal fan more than a decade ago, and now that it’s here it doesn’t seem real. I won’t believe it when Wenger bids his tearful goodbye after (I hope) the Europa League final next month. I won’t believe it when he puts on another team’s baggy parka at a press conference, and I won’t believe it when I turn on my TV in August to see Carlo Ancelotti or Jogi Low or some manager with less expressive eyebrows prowling the sideline at Emirates Stadium. I can’t imagine what a post-Arsène Arsenal will look like because I’ve never seen it before.
Like most middle-class American children, I played soccer as a kid. I lasted until third grade, when my propensity for shoving and inability to run for more than 45 seconds at a time forced me to leave o jogo bonito behind and take up hockey. And like most middle-class American children, I proceeded to pretty much forget about the sport whenever the World Cup wasn’t on.
The 2006 edition of the World Cup changed that, because I fell in love with France’s Thierry Henry, in the way sad old men who go to dive bars alone and talk to people whether or not they want to be talked to about falling in love with cars. Henry was beautiful—there was no other way to put it—and I wanted to see more of him. So when I discovered that he captained a club in England that had a cool name, had just been to the Champions League final, and went undefeated two years before, I was in.
Thirteen months later, Henry left for Barcelona. Arsenal haven’t been back to the Champions League final or won the league since. And in sticking with Arsenal, I tied my soccer fandom to Wenger.
Wenger was a revolutionary hire when he joined the club in 1996. Most British managers at the time, even forward-thinking and successful ones like Alex Ferguson, started off trading on their playing career and rarely ventured outside the British Isles professionally. Wenger was a former semipro with an economics degree who had managed successfully in France with Monaco and Japan with Nagoya Grampus Eight, but never in the U.K. The gangly, bespectacled Wenger took on the nickname “Le Professeur,” because that’s what he looked like.
Wenger arrived in a British soccer culture still recovering from the Heysel ban, a five-year exclusion from European competition after 39 people were killed in a crowd crush at the European Cup final in 1985, introduced it to such innovative techniques as “telling his players to watch what they eat,” “keeping them from getting blasted drunk the night before games,” and “scouting Africa and continental Europe.” Within two years Wenger became the first manager from outside Great Britain and Ireland to win the English top-flight league title.
“When Arsène arrived, he changed things,” New York City FC manager and former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira told The Ringer’s Ryan O’Hanlon in 2016. “You weren’t allowed to eat chips with brunch. You weren’t allowed the butter. You were doing all the stretching. He’d bring a nutritionist to make us understand how important it is to eat properly.”
By 2006, the end of his first decade in charge, Wenger had cultivated the final great performances of legends like Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp, Sol Campbell, Robert Pirès, and Emanuel Petit. He’d scouted and developed Vieira, Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fàbregas, Ashley Cole, and Robin van Persie. He’d won four FA Cups and three league titles, including two doubles and the undefeated 2003-04 season, and had taken a lead into the 76th minute of the previous Champions League final.
That decade is how long it took the rest of England to catch up. In the next 10-plus years, England passed Wenger by. Not only was he competing with Ferguson’s Manchester United, he had to contend with the nouveau riche upstarts at Manchester City and Chelsea, where José Mourinho tormented Wenger personally, branding the Frenchman, among other things, a “specialist in failure.” Every star Arsenal helped develop—Cole, Fàbregas, Henry, van Persie, Samir Nasri—was poached by a bigger club. That was troubling enough on its own, but it also ossified the concept of there being bigger clubs than Arsenal. From 2007 to 2013, Arsenal won no trophies, never finished higher than third in the league, and only once advanced further than the quarterfinal of the Champions League.
In this time frame, there was a baseline of competence. Both Manchester clubs, Liverpool, and Chelsea all fell out of the top four at least once from 2006 to 2016, knocking them out of the next year’s Champions League, with all the financial and prestige implications that entailed. But Wenger’s Arsenal never did. They never seriously challenged for the league title—Wenger’s only second-place finish in the past decade came in 2016, when the entire league fell apart and Leicester romped to the title. Arsenal, who fell apart slightly less than Chelsea, Liverpool, and the Manchester clubs — and beat Leicester home and away — came in second, 10 points back. They never won the Premier League, but they always qualified for the Champions League and always made it out of their group.
Except, they always went to pieces in the first knockout round, where they crashed out seven years running. It ushered in a new Arsenal fatalism—not the “boring, boring Arsenal” of Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, but a kind of middle-class complacency. Arsenal continued to play beautiful attacking soccer, but Wenger never really replaced Vieira, the team’s fiery, physical midfield leader. Arsenal developed a reputation for being all filler, no killer, a team of nice guys who were good on social media and could run rings around second-tier clubs — but one that got slapped back to the petit bourgeoisie whenever confronted with serious competition. The defeats are more memorable than the victories: The most lopsided 3-1 loss in soccer history to Barcelona at Camp Nou in March 2011; Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal, August 2011; Bayern Munich 10-2 Arsenal on aggregate in March 2017; Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal, August 2017; Manchester City 3-0 Arsenal, EFL Cup final, February 2018.
Never disaster, just a series of moderate disappointments that were infuriating at the time, but not so catastrophic that you could complain about them without feeling a little like a spoiled brat. Arsenal became #FirstWorldProblems, the soccer club.
Last year, Wenger had the perfect chance to bow out with dignity: For the first time in Wenger’s tenure, Arsenal finally finished outside the top four, signaling that the club couldn’t go on pretending everything was OK. But Arsenal also ended the season with a perfect high note to see their manager off: an FA Cup win, giving Arsenal 13 and Wenger seven, both of which were records. This year, Arsenal has been played off the park by its supposed rivals, and despite deep runs in the Europa League and EFL Cup, is in danger of finishing as low as seventh in the Premier League. Contract disputes with Alexis Sánchez (who’s since moved to Manchester United), Mesut Ozil, and Jack Wilshere--essentially the team’s entire creative spine--dominated the headlines, while quiet contributors Giroud and Theo Walcott departed in January, replaced by Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, leaving the roster looking slightly more dynamic but a lot older. Arsenal is now a clear third in the London pecking order, trailing not only Chelsea but neighborhood rival Tottenham Hotspur, for the first time in living memory.
Wenger was one of the last great traditional managers, one man who set transfer policy and coached the team. But most big European clubs have split that job in two and taken on the American model, with a GM (or sporting director) who sets the roster and a first-team coach to coach it. In the past year, Arsenal has hired two sporting director types--Dortmund’s Sven Mislintat and Barcelona’s Raul Sanllehi--to oversee a transition to a more modern setup, but Wenger never relinquished power to the extent that the arrangement was workable.
The more the soccer world passed Wenger by, the more he made it clear that nothing would ever change. His success in developing young players early on made him reluctant to sign established stars, a problem exacerbated by the fact that critical Arsenal players had a long history of going missing for months, even years on end, with injuries that had looked minor at the time. Wenger kept saying that the club didn’t need big-name signings because when Tomas Rosicky or Wilshere came back, it would be “like a new signing.” Only Rosicky and Wilshere always stayed hurt, and until a change in transfer policy brought Ozil and Sánchez into the fold in 2013 and 2014, the club never signed replacements. The joke went on long enough that when Arsenal did splash club-record money on French striker Alexandre Lacazette, the club parodied the old refrain with the hashtag #LacaNewSigning. Wenger has lasted long enough to go from revolutionary to reactionary, and he remained in power as a reactionary long enough that we’re on the second or third level of making jokes about it.
The season Arsenal signed Ozil, the club won its first trophy in nine years. During that drought, which itself started nine years into Wenger’s tenure, every other club in the top four divisions of English soccer--91 of them in total--changed managers. That he got so much rope in a job where tenures are more frequently measured in weeks than in decades speaks volumes about how good he was at the start.
Even as an Arsenal fan who’s been around only for the decline, I love Arsène Wenger. His cosmopolitan, free-flowing approach to the game is what made me a soccer fan, even if I didn’t realize it at the time, and even if I’d trade it now for the petty pragmatism of a Mourinho if results improved. I love that there’s a place for a grandfatherly academic type in the ranks of managers, alongside the suave, charismatic Mourinhos and the granite-wrinkled Fergusons, and whatever brand of devout monk Pep Guardiola is. I love Wenger’s Frenchness, and the fact that his first name kind of sounds like “Arsenal”—if he’d been named Brian Wenger, he’d have been out of a job in 2010.
Almost every Arsenal fan, even the most ardent “Wenger Out” partisans, feels that way on some level. The man’s a legend, perhaps the single most important person in club history. That’s why he’s been allowed to stay on and decline like an aging American college football coach—the board, like the fans, would hope that he’d see the writing on the wall and take the hint, rather than forcing upper management to step in and go through the ugly public process of taking away Grandpa’s car keys.
What should be the celebration of the club’s greatest triumphs and a period of excitement at a new beginning is now shrouded in the shame of having to put a patriarchal figure out to pasture. That’s one last mild indignity forced upon Arsenal by Wenger’s recalcitrance, a final tribute to his last decade at the Emirates.
I’m so relieved he’s leaving, and I’m going to miss him every day.