Arsenal & Arsene: The Final Goodbye
For all the ructions to have emanated from The Emirates Stadium over the last few seasons, at least for yesterday Arsenal got the tone pitch perfect. Yesterday’s home match against Burnley might, under other circumstances, have been another example of the various competing forces that had come to define another season of rancour in this particular corner of North London, but yesterday was a day for setting previous strifes to one side, for allowing a little wallowing in the past, for saying, “Merci, Arsene.” With three Premier League wins and seven FA Cup wins under his belt, it felt as though yesterday was the right time to put the vituperation of the last few years behind them and say this.
There is a generation of Arsenal supporters for whom Arsene Wenger is the only manager that the club has ever had. But so great is the size of his imprint over the club that, even for those a little older than their late twenties, the past of Don Howe, George Graham and Bruce Rioch must seem like a different country by now. Few other football clubs – certainly in recent times – have found their identity become so closely aligned with one individual. From the almost immediate sacking off of the unwanted reputation that the club had during the middle of the 1990s, to the Invincible team of the 2003/04 season and the club’s subsequent move to The Emirates Stadium, to visualise Arsenal Football Club in recent years has been to visualise Wenger, and it won’t be the same again.
Perhaps it would have been unseemly for Burnley to put up too much opposition on a day such as this, and the visitors played their supporting role on this particular day to perfection. The five goals put past them yesterday afternoon secured Arsenal’s sixth place in the Premier League, although Chelsea’s one goal against Liverpool, scored in a match played at exactly the same time as this, guaranteed that they can finish no higher, for this season at least. Still, though, it served as a decent palette-cleanser after Thursday night’s defeat to Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the Europa League, a match which for some time had been the club’s best chance of reaching the Champions League for next season.
The story of Wenger and Arsenal is a tale of two eras. The first ended in the summer of 2006, with the club’s only appearance in a Champions League final, at the hands of Barcelona in Paris, and moving from Highbury to The Emirates Stadium. At that point, the future still seemed bright. An already successful team which, prior to the 2005/06 season, hadn’t finished below the top two in the Premier League in the previous nine years. With all that extra revenue due to come in from the new stadium, the future, it felt, belonged to Arsenal. Somehow or other, however, that future never came to pass. To a point, the buck regarding this has to stop with the manager, but there were other forces at play as well, not least of which was the protracted saga of the sale of the club to Stan Kroenke, which was not completed until 2011.
Whether Arsenal either will or can change under new management is anybody’s guess. What we might surmise, however, is that Kroenke has lost a layer of insulation agaainst criticism from supporters with Wenger’s departure from the club. It may be a degree of exaggeration to suggest that Wenger was long used as something akin to a “human shield” by those who run the club, but it’s true to say that the departure of the manager doesn’t necessarily provide a panacea to the small decline that Arsenal have gone through over the last few seasons. FA Cup wins have provided a fig leaf in recent years, but those who believe these trophies to be little more than consolation prizes in comparison with getting into the Champions League will not be assuaged until the club is achieving a regular top four place again.
And the margins are fine. A couple of wins here and there can make the difference between success and failure, and after two decades of unbroken appearances in the competition it’s not surprising that playing in the Europa League might feel like a degree of failure, even if this definition of failure can only apply to a handful of clubs in the entire country. In addition to this, the Chelsea of Roman Abramovich haven’t quite gone away – even if the club’s spending has edged away from the vertiginous levels at which it was a few years ago – Manchester City seem to have succeeded in making themselves a part of the establishment through the application of untold wealth, and Tottenham Hotspur have revitalised themselves in a way which wouldn’t have looked particularly likely, say, a decade ago. It’s competitive, the margins are fine, and six into four won’t go. Two clubs with Champions League ambitions will be disappointed every season, and for the last couple of seasons that two has included Arsenal. Wenger’s successor’s first job will be to seek to arrest that state of affairs, but it won’t be easy.
Another name hung heavily in the air over The Emirates Stadium yesterday afternoon, of course. The news that Alex Ferguson, photographed just a week ago honouring Wenger on the latter’s final visit to Old Trafford as a manager, is himself in hospital following major surgery on a brain haemorrhage was a reminder of the fragility of life itself. Veteran football managers are not young men, and it may say something for their strength of character that so many get to their eighth decade without dropping from the stress that comes with such a job. But even if we disregard matters of mortality and the broad questions of life, the universe, and everything, merely the thought of Alex Ferguson will have given Arsenal supporters plenty of food for thought over the last couple of days or so.
When Manchester United replaced Alex Ferguson five years ago, Arsenal supporters might well have been forgiven for looking on with greater interest than most. After all, long after other clubs gave up on the idea of the managership of a club being anything like a career that could last for decades or even years, these two clubs kept faith with the manager who had been there for a very long time. As such, when Ferguson retired, the question of his succession and how it might be managed was likely of greater interest to Arsenal, and it’s almost now a completely extinct business. It’s taken Manchester United five years to find anything like their former success – and there will be plenty who will argue that they won’t have truly found it until they win the Premier League again – and it’s entirely plausible that the difficult four seasons that their rivals underwent following Ferguson’s retirement could have had some influence on the Arsenal directors’ decision to keep Arsene Wenger in place for as long as they did.
Now, of course, no-one has any choice and no-one knows exactly how it might all turn out. But Manchester United were canaries in the mine for what Arsenal are going through now. Will Arsenal learn from United’s mistakes? Is it even possible for them to do so? Any managerial replacement carries an element of gamble to it, whether the previous incumbent has been place for weeks or for decades, but that feeling of taking a step into the unknown is surely all the more accentuated when vast swathes of a club’s support are unable to remember any different to this one individual being in charge of a club. But this always has to change in time. It changes because it has to, and no matter what Arsenal FC looks like in, say, five years time, it will not be the same as it did under Arsene Wenger.
But that wasn’t the concern of yesterday afternoon at The Emirates Stadium. Yesterday was an opportunity to look back and to say thanks, to reflect on the past and to give the smallest consideration to the totality of the present. The future could wait for another day, but at the post-match press conference, Arsene Wenger admitted something quite profound, that he would now need to “connect” with himself again after more than two decades given to Arsenal Football Club. One can only wonder about the extent to which the club and everyone else associated with it might now also need to do the same.