Thursday 24 May 2018

Parting of ways so painful for Wenger

Arsene Wenger watches on from the sideline at the Emirates Stadium yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Arsene Wenger watches on from the sideline at the Emirates Stadium yesterday. Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Paul Hayward

Arsene Wenger has been reading the professional obituaries with a mix of gratitude and bafflement.

"When people speak about how you were, it's interesting, so I don't need to die any more," he joked. He's not ready to accept the death of his career.

This is not going to be an easy parting. There are too many undercurrents, from Wenger's obvious hurt to disengagement by many Arsenal supporters, who left thousands of seats empty and chanted their manager's name with fervour only when the team were 4-1 up against West Ham.

Until then "there's only one Arsene Wenger" was sung only once or twice - and quietly.

Many are plainly ready for the day when there are no Arsene Wengers. Or not here, anyway.

Anyone expecting violins and roses for Wenger two days after he announced his impending departure was in for a shock.

The 'Wenger Out' banners were gone but so were many Arsenal fans who are either delaying their farewell until the end of the season or want no part in the send-off.

Emirates regulars talked of a "strange day", and felt conflicted. Yet no neutral could claim the crowd were clinging to his legs in the hope the decision would somehow be reversed.

Audience reaction aside, there are big themes churning below the surface here.

The first is that Wenger almost certainly jumped before he was pushed. The consensus is that he was going to be replaced as first-team manager in the summer and did not want to go out of the club that way. There can be no velvet divorce if one side is unhappy with a separation.

From Wenger's angle, the next few weeks present a diplomatic challenge. How this all came about will be known one day, but for now he must keep indignation in check, because he is sincere in his wish to see Arsenal avoid further turmoil.

He speaks as if he is the spiritual father of the modern Arsenal (which he is) and would clearly hate to surrender that role for the sake of revenge.

There is, though, a schism at the heart of this. Wenger said the discord around his position "did not give the image of unity I want at the club all over the world and that is hurtful".

That can only be a reference to supporters flying 'Wenger Out' banners on the back of planes, marching with placards and fuming on social media.

Pointedly, he said the respect shown to a football club was based "on the way we treat people".

Those who know him say he is dismayed at the damage to the club's international standing by the presentation of this image of Arsenal as a basket case.

And he said as much after the victory over West Ham yesterday, stressing that his concern has been how the club "is perceived worldwide by kids who play in Africa, in China, in America".

Sensing headlines, he rowed back, saying: "It is nothing to do with the fans. The fans were not happy and I can understand that."

On the pitch, "nothing to do with the fans" is right, even if some players have probably been adversely affected by the negativity (a good answer would have been to show more fight, and win more games).

The banner held up by a young fan saying he had not seen the glory years but had been told all about them by his "dad" was sobering.

Wenger's best teams are museum pieces, by the standards of today's shortened attention spans. Those who picked their all-time best Wenger XIs struggled to pick a player who had played for Arsenal post-2011.

FA Cup wins aside, Wenger cannot escape the charge that Arsenal have regressed as Premier League and Champions League contenders, although the Europa League still holds out the possibility of a magical valediction.

Many fans have moved beyond the Wenger obsession to a wider apathy about Arsenal's lack of purpose and direction.

Foundations

This was surely the mood picked up on by the board when they began preparing for the post-Wenger era. Commercial reality kicked in.

Wenger talks with justification of the strong foundations he has left for the next manager, but the first team is not one of them, and has passed the point where mere tinkering might stop its slide.

Thus, recovery becomes a greater concern for most Arsenal fans than Wenger's legend and legacy, however much he deserves respect for both.

The story has moved on, leaving him behind. He tried his best to acknowledge that point: "If my personality is in the way of what I think our club is, for me that is more important."

This was his Captain Oates moment in our press conference. But you can also see him hating the idea that he has become a burden, because he still values his work so highly.

"Every decision I have made for 22 years has been for the sake of Arsenal," he said. "I arrived here at 46 years old and I worked seven days a week. Not six, and not six and a half. Seven. For 22 years. So you cannot just walk away and say thank you, bye-bye."

Neither side seems willing to hide their true feelings for the sake of a perfect abdication.

There is too much history - 22 years of it - for this to be painless.

Telegraph.co.uk

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