Wenger is a fading force and it is a farce that Arsenal continue like this
When Arsenal sacked Leslie Knighton after an FA Cup first-round, second-replay defeat by West Ham United in 1925, the club chairman, Sir Henry Norris, famously advertised in the Athletic News for a “team manager” with the rider that “gentlemen whose sole ability to build up a good side depends on the payment of heavy and exorbitant transfer fees need not apply”. Sounds familiar.
Arsenal still attracted the perfect candidate, Herbert Chapman, and the rest is Highbury history, silverware and eventually a statue outside the Emirates.
Arsenal’s board had to act again in January 1934 when Chapman died suddenly from pneumonia. The club were shocked, left leaderless after the loss of their innovative emperor, but Joe Shaw proved an able caretaker, steering the team to the title that season. George Allison, and then Tom Whittaker, arrived to continue the good work.
Fallow periods always ended. Bertie Mee came in and guided Arsenal to the Double. George Graham brought two titles. In early 1995, I penned a short passage for a tribute book on Graham called The Wonder Years, lauding his achievements. As the book was being carried off amid a hail of hosannas to the publishers, Graham was dismissed because of bung allegations which rather affected the tone of the tome. There was a brief debate about changing the cover to insert a “?” after The Wonder Years.
Arsenal were bereft. Stewart Houston was out of his depth but still reached a Cup Winners’ Cup final. Bruce Rioch’s spell was less than bewitching but still bequeathed Dennis Bergkamp. Arsenal were hardly in the wilderness for long. Twenty months after Graham’s exit, Arsène Wenger was installed. He inherited a well-drilled defence as well as Bergkamp. Arsenal prospered. Wenger transformed the club on and off the field, enjoying an eight-year golden period.
History shows that eminent clubs tend to survive. Not all, but most, especially those with strong foundations and a passionate fanbase like Arsenal’s. Legendary managers such as Chapman and Graham come and go. Wenger will be saluted loudly, even mourned, when he leaves Arsenal, but the club will go on. Such institutions possess their own life force, mainly fuelled by fans’ loyalty. Blackpool are wretchedly mismanaged but are still here. Even Leeds United will rise up the pyramid again because of their support.
Wenger’s acolytes insinuate that the club will collapse without him, gesturing to events at Old Trafford when a heavyweight retired. Manchester United have laboured under David Moyes and Louis van Gaal but the club will eventually find the right man, expected to be José Mourinho replacing Van Gaal this summer, and rebuild. The blue flag of Chelsea will fly high again. Liverpool are already reviving under Jürgen Klopp. Arsenal too can play the regeneration game.
One of the themes of this delightfully unpredictable season has been the march of the middle orders, but the revolution will not be permanent. Next season’s title race will be rejoined by thoroughbreds. That season forms the last of Wenger’s present deal. Dare the club risk a drained-looking manager, an individual being outwitted by a younger generation, being in charge another year?
So when Wenger decides to move on, and it will clearly be his decision as Ivan Gazidis and Stan Kroenke are too in awe of him, Arsenal will carry on. Arsène is not Arsenal. He is a glorious part of a history stretching back to the Victorian era, providing some rich stitches in the tapestry of an illustrious club.
It is nonsense that Arsenal cannot survive without Wenger. Ronald Koeman could organise and inspire the squad. Thomas Tuchel at Borussia Dortmund is part of the new wave bringing new ideas and energy. People questioned whether he could succeed Klopp; Tuchel has answered the questions in style. Frank de Boer would bring panache to London and, possibly, Bergkamp from Ajax.
Arsenal remain an attractive proposition with a magnificent stadium, well-equipped training ground, celebrated history and location in one of the most popular cities in the world. They still have some excellent players in Petr Cech, Héctor Bellerín, Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Özil and Alexis Sánchez.
Wenger’s successor will doubtless endure some troubled times, moments when the cameras pan up to a 66-year-old Frenchman struggling with his coat in the directors’ box. His influence will always be cherished. The memory of the Invincibles will never fade. Wenger could even confound the critics and bookmakers by putting Arsenal on a barnstorming run up the table, but it is highly unlikely.
Fearing the unknown, those who march under the “In Arsène We Trust” banner argue that it is too much of a gamble to jettison such an experienced manager. Realists would counter that it has come to the stage where results and performances indicate it is too much of a risk for Wenger to stay. It is more hazardous allowing the present situation to fester where the Emirates Stadium is riddled with civil war, fan arguing with fellow fan.
After the deserved defeat by Watford in the FA Cup, Wenger claimed that debate about his future “is becoming a farce”. It is a farce that so many players are so frequently stricken with injury. It was a farce that Wenger started Sánchez against Norwich City in November knowing that he had a tight hamstring.
It is a farce that he has not ordered Gabriel to learn English quicker, so he can communicate with team-mates. It is a farce that he relies on Olivier Giroud as his main striker. It is a farce that Arsenal are still too open in midfield, still too tactically outmanoeuvred. It is truly a farce that nobody on the board, the successors to Sir Henry Norris, challenges a fading force.