Unless one is an Arsenal fan, there’s no denying that the circumstances of Arsene Wenger putting an end to his 22-year reign as the manager of one of the biggest clubs in England are rather unfortunate. Or perhaps, Arsenal fans might be the first to echo such claims — especially those that have witnessed the highest of highs for their clubs in the past.
That zenith, however, came a decade and a half ago, as epitomised by the 2004 Invincibles — the only Premier League side to remain unbeaten an entire league campaign. This has meant, that this farewell, which would carry emotional significance for followers of others club as well, could have easily come any time this decade, and Arsenal at best would’ve been in a phase of long-term stagnation, which has metamorphosed into regression, despite the FA Cup wins in recent years.
That Wenger has decided to bid au revoir at a time when Arsenal are arguably in their worst position for the past 22 years signifies the reality that he feared the axe — something that has been confirmed by reports in The Guardian and Independent as well.
This meant that his desire of retiring at Arsenal — which still might happen of course if he decides against continuing football management, even if it is unlikely — hasn’t been fulfilled.
Wenger’s time at Arsenal can be categorised into three very distinct epochs. And it’s the first one that everyone would like to remember him by.
He came to Arsenal with the task of making an English football giant competitive in a league that was increasingly being dominated by Manchester United. Not only did he manage to do that, he spent a significant chunk of this first epoch [1996-2005] outdoing Sir Alex Ferguson’s side.
Yes, United had a hat-trick of league titles between 1998 and 2001, and the 1999 treble, which meant that they had a higher trophy count in this time, but Arsenal had two league and cup doubles (1998 and 2002) and the 2004 unbeaten league championship in ‘United’s era’.
Add the FA Cup wins, which used to mean significantly more than they do now, in 2003 and 2005 — the latter when Chelsea’s riches had penetrated the league — and you have a decade where Arsenal enjoyed their fair stints of dominance and success.
Along with the significant number of trophies that Wenger had won in this time, what he also did was completely revolutionise English football and how managers — including Alex Ferguson — approached their play. Had Wenger not happened, United might never have had their 2006-09 team, considering how contrasting its structure and play had been to the United teams of the two decades before that.
Wenger’s second era overlaps runs from 2005 to 2014 — the trophyless decade. Ironically, it began with Arsenal’s first and only run to the Champions League final in 2006, which at the time signified that Wenger might be close to cracking the European code, having struggled in the competition over the previous decade.
It was also at the start of a successful run for English clubs, which began with Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League win and culminated in Chelsea’s 2012 title, with Manchester United winning the 2008 edition. And in addition to Arsenal (2006), there were other runners-up finishes for English clubs in this time as well — Liverpool (2007), Chelsea (2008), United (2009 and 2011) — along with numerous semi-final finishes.
However, while the others in the then Big Four managed to win a Champions League each in this time, Arsenal did not. Arsenal’s next trophy after the 2005 FA Cup would be the 2014 FA Cup.
Even so, this period also saw Arsenal being a permanent fixture in the top four domestically. And with Manchester City also bringing their own riches to the league at the end of the previous decade, the argument was that Wenger is doing a commendable job by maintaining the club’s presence in the top four, hence ensuring Champions League presence, all the while playing some of the most progressive brand of football in all of Europe, at a relatively shoestring budget.
The lack of competitiveness, along with coming unstuck against the ‘Big Boys’ on a regular basis, was being vocally criticised by a section of the club’s fan-base. But there appeared to be a symbiotic relationship between the Arsenal board and Wenger, in how they both were perhaps delivering just enough to keep things rolling for the foreseeable future.
United’s failures in the post-Alex Ferguson era, right from the onset, was seen as further vindication of this position that Wenger leaving could result in a plunge that the club hadn’t seen for around decades.
And yet, in a continued spate of irony, Wenger’s third and final era has overlapped with United’s continued struggles, and Arsenal winning three FA Cup trophies in four years.
If the symbiotic understanding had centered around Champions League football, and the revenue it generates, last season’s fifth-place finish dented it. And with Arsenal missing out on the top four again this season, and six points behind fifth-placed Chelsea at the start of this weekend, it was felt that last year’s league finish was not an anomaly, but perhaps the start of a slump.
With what Wenger had achieved between 1996 and 2005, and what he had done for the club during this time, he was always going to be given the chance to exit on his own terms. And even though that’s the graceful shroud created by the club, that is not what is happening.
However, Arsenal still have the chance to bid Wenger adieu with a Europa League trophy. That would be closer to a finale appropriate to Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal — and English football — than a sixth-place league finish and a trophyless season.