It’s official: Arsene Wenger is leaving Arsenal Football Club, and all that feels appropriate is to let out a sigh and say “finally.” This is no coronation, no swan song, no ride off into a sunset. However, this isn’t exactly a desecration either.
Aaron Eckhart’s Harvey Dent said it best, “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” That’s overdramatic for the situation — at the end of the day it’s only soccer — but I can’t find anything more applicable to describe Wenger’s reign as manager of Arsenal.
Arriving in 1996, Wenger was the opposite of the typical English Premier League coach. Wenger was a meddling semi-pro player who, while playing, went to school part-time to pursue a degree in economics; he was calculated and scientific, far from the brute force of direct play that characterized English soccer.
Wenger famously brought in a nutritionist to change player’s eating habits and demanded more stretching and warm-ups for players before matches, something that, although now ordinary, was radical even 20 years ago.
The coach also revolutionized scouting, looking across Europe, and was able to poach and develop some of the best talent over the next decade. Legends like Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Nicolas Anelka, Cesc Fabregas, and Robin Van Persie all probably owe the rise of their careers to Wenger.
It didn’t take long for Wenger to succeed either; in his second season as manager he led Arsenal to be Premier League and FA Cup champions. Then, in the 2001-2002 season, Arsenal, thanks to players like Henry and Vieira that Wenger recruited, again won both the Premier League and the FA Cup, and the season after Arsenal repeated as FA Cup champions.
Wenger continued to improve. In the 2003-2004 season the coach’s squad did not lose a single domestic league match, a feat that has not been accomplished since. As they coasted to the EPL title again, they became known as the “Invincibles.” Arsenal would end up winning 49 consecutive Premier League games (another record), and Wenger won his third FA Cup trophy in 2005.
However, in 2006, tides began to change. While Arsenal make it all the way to the Champions League Final, they fell 2-1 to FC Barcelona, despite holding the lead for the first 75 minutes. Only Wenger, a man known as “the Professor,” would reach the biggest match of his career and have nothing go according to plan.
This was the match that began Wenger’s slow downhill spiral. With Henry riddled with injuries, and the generation of players starting to age out of their athletic peak, he revamped the club roster and focused on youth development once again.
He sold Vieira in 2005, star striker Dennis Bergkamp retired, star midfielder Robert Pirès was sold in 2006, and Henry left in 2007. On came the new generation of young European talent: Cesc Fabregas, Mathieu Flamini, Gael Clichy, and Robin Van Persie stepped into their shoes, yet for the next decade, Arsenal never flourished like in previous seasons.
While they didn’t completely collapse, from 2007 to 2014, Arsenal did not finish above third in the EPL. They never finished below fourth place either, but it became clear that Wenger’s magic was fading fast.
All the while, longtime competitors Manchester United rose to take over the league, winning five Premier League titles and a Champions League victory over the same period.
Meanwhile, thanks to rich billionaires buying their clubs, teams like Chelsea and Manchester City also emerged to be fierce competitors, winning titles.
Worst of all, these clubs poached some of Arsenal’s second generation of talent. Ashley Cole went to Chelsea, Clichy and Samir Nasri went to Manchester City, and Van Persie left for Man Utd.
What made Wenger once so successful was exactly what led to his demise. Wenger’s focus on youth development became an impossible method of building a roster, as the league shifted to where teams were flush with enough cash that they could buy expensive, developed transfer players to fill out a squad.
Wenger’s balanced 4-4-2 formation, once modern and revolutionary, became antiquated in a league when managers would catch the attention of the league with new tactics.
Whether it be Jose Mourinho’s park-the-bus and counter strategy, the emergence of the 4-2-3-1 in the 2010s, or even Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2, Wenger would always only stubbornly stick to his ways or react to change, rather than prepare for it.
And so here we are in 2018, and Wenger has announced that he will be leaving the club at season’s end.
For at least three years, chants of “Wenger Out” become European soccer’s “Is Joe Flacco Elite” meme: while showing up in the most random places, it became a topic that needed to be addressed. While Wenger won two more FA Cups in 2015 and 2017, and even got the club to a second-place EPL finish in the 2015-2016 season, at that point the stench of mediocrity clouding the club couldn’t be ignored.
Trophies can’t cover up what was clear: Wenger had lost the attention of his players, and the squad was clearly okay with putting in mediocre efforts.
At the end of last season, all signs were pointing to Wenger’s exit. His contract was just about to run out; this was the time to let him go gently.
However, instead of giving him a heroic viking send-off, ignoring the decade of malaise and remembering him only for his greatness, Wenger signed a two-year contract extension.
This season only further complicated his legacy. Arsenal signed two transfer record strikers, yet still lacked any sort of conviction in big moments. Against the other “Top Six” clubs (Man Utd, Chelsea, Man City, Liverpool, and Tottenham) they’ve only earned six points in nine league matches.
Arsenal’s players had given into their criticisms and withered away when it was time to step up. The darkness and sadness that once was just talk has built on itself; even Arsenal’s crowning achievement this season, reaching the Europa League’s semi-final, is an indictment of how much Arsenal’s standards for greatness have fallen.
So how do we remember Wenger? As “the Professor,” the forward thinking genius who pushed the English Premier League to a higher level of quality? Or the man whose stubbornness in such beliefs tortured him into a comatose state of mediocrity?
I personally did not get to see Wenger at his apex. All I hear is folktales from older millennials who tell legends of Henry, Lampard, and Gerrard as English Premier League landed on the shores of the United States in the mid-2000s thanks to new television deals. While I can recognize the beauty of “The Invincibles” and the hero that Wenger was, I will unfortunately only remember his tragic, self-inflicted turn toward the villain.