Wednesday 19 December 2018

Innovator, thinker, winner - Arsene Wenger's Highbury glory days will be revered in football folklore

'This is a colossal story to write the final chapter of; not only on the pitch, but with Wenger's role in the English game as innovator, thinker, and, yes, guardian of dignity in an industry where denigration and disrespect have become the norm.' Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
'This is a colossal story to write the final chapter of; not only on the pitch, but with Wenger's role in the English game as innovator, thinker, and, yes, guardian of dignity in an industry where denigration and disrespect have become the norm.' Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Paul Hayward

Arsenal's identity is so bound up with Arsene Wenger that a huge fracture is on the way. Arsenal Wenger, as it was tempting to call him, departs with people's minds refusing to imagine another figure in his touchline seat.

Arguably the last of the 'statesman managers' leaves one of the great English football clubs to make a fresh start from a point that might be called the end of history. It feels that way now, but when next season starts a new man will be in charge of a squad that has grown soft and ineffectual.

Wenger's great legacy - and for the most part it deserves to be described that way - is vulnerable to the need to sweep the later parts of it away. At Manchester United, David Moyes, who changed too much, inherited a title-winning side from Alex Ferguson and guided it down the Premier League table.

Wenger's successor must perform the opposite trick of steering the team back up, possibly from two successive failures to reach the Champions League.

Unless the new boss is an evolutionist with identical ideas, much of what we think of as 'Wengerism' will disappear.

It would end, a warm-hearted scriptwriter would make sure, with victory in the Europa League final in Lyon, in Wenger's homeland. That would allow him to pass on a trophy-winning side with access to next term's Champions League. Standing in his way in the semi-finals is a counterpart who is said by many to possess the more pragmatic qualities Wenger has come to lack: Diego Simeone, with his aggression and drive, the manager of Atletico Madrid.

This is the day Arsenal fans had stopped thinking about as a serious possibility. Wenger's unbreakability has survived 1,228 games, with 704 victories and 21 full seasons in charge.

He has blessed his employers with three Premier League titles, a managerial record seven FA Cups and a side who went through an entire league campaign unbeaten - The Invincibles of 2003-04. Alan Smith, the former Arsenal and England striker, said it well when the news broke: "A time to be thankful, a time to pay homage, a time to reminisce."

Although much of the best bits were a decade or more ago, this is a colossal story to write the final chapter of; not only on the pitch, but with Wenger's role in the English game as innovator, thinker, and, yes, guardian of dignity in an industry where denigration and disrespect have become the norm.

Wenger is no angel. His occasional myopia in relation to referees and opponents who refused to obey his script was often problematic, but his complaints were decorously expressed, and stemmed from a competitive nature he sometimes found hard to control. There is a gulf between misguided and nasty.

"Every defeat is a scar in your heart that you never forget," he once said and no rival ever doubted his hatred of losing, his converse need to win.

Bobby Robson once told him he had to "learn to lose' while Ferguson marvelled at the stormy nature of his character in defeat (and Ferguson was hardly passive in the face of reverses). This gives the lie to the idea that Wenger, by the end, was simply taking the money for a cushy life.

The curse of a creative life is to be judged on the ending, rather than the prime. But there was a prime with Wenger - a glorious one packed with special players, an iron spirit and a style of play that in part pre-dates Pep Guardiola's Manchester City.

There are differences, for sure, but Wenger also believed in sweeping play based on pace, skill, penetration and synchronicity between gifted players. Watching City now, the memory stirs of Arsenal's final years at Highbury, where Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp would glow under the lights and cut visiting teams to shreds with confident and intuitive passing.


Watching Arsenal back then was the hottest ticket in town. They were beautiful and mean, talented and tough - much like Ferguson's United, who provided Wenger with his defining weekly challenge.

In truth, United changed English football more than Wenger's Arsenal. United set the trophy-winning standard for 20 years and created a culture of self-renewal that was largely beyond Wenger for his last decade in charge.

His 10 major trophies are eclipsed by Ferguson's 27, which include 13 Premier League titles and two Champions League crowns.

Ferguson had warm words for his old rival yesterday. "It's been an incredible journey for Arsene," he said, "during which he has maintained the highest levels of professionalism throughout.

"He has been in charge of one of Britain's greatest football clubs for over two decades and has produced some fantastic teams. His longevity shows that continuity can bring great success. His impact on English football and the game worldwide has been immense and I'm sure he will continue to have an impact in the years to come."

United's style of play was also of a comparably high standard. Wenger, though, stuck with his guiding principle for almost 22 years, and this, his critics say, was his undoing. While Ferguson adapted to changes in the game, Wenger stayed true to his belief that almost friction-free passing possessed an inherent power to overwhelm.

The personnel changed, but the idea was almost never questioned, even when the building of the Emirates Stadium weakened Arsenal's financial clout and the power of super-agents began to outweigh Wenger's superb knowledge of players across the European leagues.

He may not be the man who saved English football from the dark ages, to quote the mantra of 15 years ago, but he was transformational, dragging Arsenal's players out of habits which, believe it or not, were unremarkable at the time.

The drinking, the shocking diets and the refusal to see football as a game that required thought, as well as action, were all successfully challenged by a manager who foresaw the age of sports science and broke the anti-intellectual stranglehold of those trapped in the 1970s and 80s. Many of the stories are funny now, because the game has moved on so much.

A random example, which Wenger revealed himself. "I changed a few habits, which isn't easy in a team where the average age is 30 years. At the first match the players were chanting 'we want our Mars bars'. Then, at half-time, I asked my physio Gary Lewin: 'Nobody is talking, what's wrong with them?' He replied: 'They are hungry'. I hadn't given them their chocolate before the game."

Another would be Ian Wright saying, in 1997: "He has put me on grilled fish, grilled broccoli, grilled everything. Yuk!"

Sol Campbell, a defensive rock in some of Wenger's best sides, says he was told: "If you must have sugar in your tea or coffee you must distribute the granules evenly so it's absorbed evenly."

The idea was that energy in the body would thus be distributed equally and not in a rush.

This was a time when top-flight football was fundamentally English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh - before the cosmopolitanism of today's Premier League.

To hand the Arsenal job to a Frenchman who had been managing Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan was almost a subversive act. Little value was placed back then on coaching skills that drew on countries beyond these shores.

English football was still profoundly inward-looking. It required no lessons from Frenchmen who looked like ascetic chemistry teachers. Until, that is, Wenger reinvented the English players in his charge and plundered the best of a golden generation of French footballers, hiring and inspiring Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Nicolas Anelka and Robert Pires.

When the abdication was confirmed, there was no shortage of experts willing to reaffirm Wenger's standing as the great reformer.

"He was the dominating guy in mid-1990s, 2000s," said Liverpool's Jurgen Klopp. "In Germany he was a role model."

Powerful testimony came, too, from Jupp Heynckes, the Bayern Munich manager, who said: "He was a positive influence for English football with his philosophy and his style of play. But, as in politics and in sports, when you get a bit older you have to say 'that's enough'."

The feeling that Wenger went on too long is universally shared. But the abdication will rebalance, over time, the more hysterical and apocalyptic judgments of his last three or four seasons. Some of the stats, for example, come to his assistance. Many are quirky too.

Opta say that from 124 different opponents, Wenger failed to beat only five: Fiorentina, PAOK Salonika, Paris Saint-Germain (where he might have fled several times), Port Vale and Rotherham.

With 823 Premier League games, he surpassed even Ferguson, and he also put one over on the late Brian Clough. Between May 2003 and October 2004, Arsenal went unbeaten for a record 49 consecutive top-flight league games, passing Nottingham Forest's total of 42 between November 1977 and November 1978.

These are more than pub quiz oddities. They are marks of managerial immortality. Wenger's magnetism and faith in stability has shaped every aspect of Arsenal for more than two decades.

The club's owner, Stan Kroenke, admitted: "One of the main reasons we got involved with Arsenal was because of what Arsene has brought to the club on and off the pitch."

Kroenke, who seemed to want a quiet life and relied too heavily on Wenger's 20-year unbroken record of securing Champions League football to keep the revenues up, was at least right to say: "Arsene has unparalleled class and we will always be grateful to him."

Now, though, the paddling about in third or fourth position in the table has given way to a pattern that cannot be spun into enviable "stability," or jam tomorrow.

Winning the FA Cup has protected Wenger from their fall as credible title contenders - so much so that the FA's pot might have been renamed the Forgive Arsene Cup.

The negativity around him has polarised opinion in the stands, with anger running up against latent nostalgia for everything Wenger built, and instilled, in an era when his vision alone guided the club right down to the choice of chairs.

Players who regarded him as a parental figure and protector began to morph into hired guns who exploited his loyalty and played tamely without fear of punishment.

From an earlier time, Cesc Fabregas, who was part of a damaging exodus of talent, from which Arsenal never recovered, wrote: "I will never forget his guidance and support, his tutelage and mentorship. He had faith in me from day one and I owe him a lot, he was like a father figure to me who always pushed me to be the best."


There will be lots of this, as personal debts are acknowledged. There was much turbulence along the way, too, with touchline bans and deeply personal clashes with Jose Mourinho, who could not bear Wenger being held in such high esteem when his teams were finishing fourth, and upset him so badly that Wenger shoved him heavily at Stamford Bridge.

Ferguson also remembers Wenger clenching his fists and "looking like he wanted to fight" in the tunnel at Old Trafford after a particularly sulphurous match (the two are friends and confidantes now).

These flare-ups confirmed an odd truth about Wenger. Cerebral by nature - the TV scriptwriter Laurence Marks called him 'The Sigmund Freud of football managers' - he was also willing to see football as a battle of wills, a test of character, which makes the frailty of his Arsenal teams in recent years all the more baffling.

Roy Keane - yes, Keane - has talked about sleep disruption in the days before United faced Arsenal - the sense that hell was approaching, in the shape of Vieira or Tony Adams.

Like all great sides, Arsenal could beat you beautifully or they could fight you in the dirt. In Wenger's later years, the pendulum swung too far one way, and his signings became more speculative, or random, in the face of greater competition for the elite players.

Where Wenger had once sent Vieira, Petit and Gilberto Silva out to screen his back four, he was now asking Granit Xhaka to do the job. All across the piece, there was a decline in ability, a proliferation of names that looked wrong on the back of Arsenal shirts.

But now the rancour has passed, and the emperor has bowed to reality, there will doubtless be a renewed appreciation of Wenger's groundwork, and his artistic principles, which need updating and modernising.

The new manager can preserve the 'Arsenal way' with new, hungry players, or take the brutal view that the squad needs clearing out and a new way of seeing the game laid down.

Either way, history is likely to be more and more kind to Wenger as distance lends enchantment to his early achievements, and the thrilling football he bestowed on us, in a country that was frankly suspicious of people who wanted to apply intellect to ye olde English quest for physical domination and post-match larks.

Plenty of times he might have left to take other jobs, and each time he stayed at Arsenal, renewing his vows to a team that ended up as a projection of his personality, until they failed him, and brought him down by violating his most sacred principle: that football is a game of the heart.

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