The inside story of how Arsene Wenger's Arsenal departure was decided
It was a colossal shock and yet not such a big surprise. Arsene Wenger is leaving Arsenal but, for a man once described by Sir Alex Ferguson as a brilliant poker player, we should have known that the seismic news of his departure would be unknown even to those who worked closest with him.
Wenger had made the decision to go at least partly on his own terms before his weekly press conference on Thursday but, if it was predictable that he should give no inkling in front of the cameras, even most of his closest friends had no idea before a training ground meeting was called at the highly unusual time of 9.45am.
Suspicions had been raised by Wenger also gathering his staff to discreetly speak with them immediately before, but still no one really expected the Frenchman to walk into the room where the players had congregated to deliver what he called some “bad news”. The meeting was kept relatively short and all the commitments that Arsenal had pre-planned on what was a club day for various commercial and community partners would continue from 10am.
Wenger simply told the players that he would be leaving at the end of the season, but that he hoped he could count on their absolute commitment until them. Stunned silence followed until the club’s captain, Per Mertesacker, stood up. He told the players they they must deliver Wenger the send-off he deserved for the remainder of a season that the club hope will end with the Europa League final in Lyon on May 16.
There was still silence even after Mertesacker spoken and, by the time that the players had left the room, the news had been confirmed on the club’s official website. “Usually everyone is going about their work and not especially looking to stop and talk but not [on Friday],” said one member of training ground staff. “There were tears among staff and some of the players were visibly shaking as they tried to digest the news.” Carrie Brown, a reporter for beIN Sports, was on site to interview Mesut Ozil and, while the German did still complete the interview, he said that he was not yet ready to speak on camera about the manager who had made him his club record signing in 2013.
There was genuine sadness and emotion among the players and they did later make a pact amongst themselves to send Wenger out on a high, even if the wider truth was that it was their performances which have brought the 68-year-old to a point of no return.
Another training ground meeting had been held at the beginning of March in which Wenger told the players that they were all fighting for their futures. Wenger had said they must “all show that they have the level to be at Arsenal Football Club” but it was not sufficient to provoke the needed upturn in performances. The manner of the 2-1 loss away to Brighton and Hove Albion was especially damning.
The clear expectation was that Wenger would be asked to leave this summer and, with a far more ignominious departure hanging over him, he decided to bring forward confirmation of the news. Significantly, it was something that the club’s board were happy for him to do.
There were two main considerations for the timing. Chief executive Ivan Gazidis might have been sizing up potential replacements from a respectful difference for several years but the risk of any direct discussions had been too great. The managerial search could only be meaningfully done with Wenger’s future publicly settled.
There was also a desire for Wenger to have the send-off from the Arsenal supporters that he so deserves. Wenger is not big on emotional gestures but was persuaded by the possibility that an early announcement could have a sporting benefit and galvanise players and fans for the remaining matches.
It was significant on Friday that Gazidis repeatedly mentioned the word “unity” in how he expected fans to now respond over the rest of the season.
Wenger was also determined to avoid a scenario whereby Arsenal were beaten by Atletico Madrid on Thursday and it then looked like he had been sacked as a result of that match.
Although the decision to make a managerial change had only finally come to a head over recent weeks, the pressure had been steadily accumulating for years.
We could even look back as far as 2006 and how, after going within minutes of realising his ultimate ambition in the Champions League, Wenger was premature in discarding virtually the entire ‘Invincible’ squad. Losing his great ally, David Dein, from the Arsenal boardroom was also hugely significant.
Wenger did rebuild with a younger and less physical style of player and how close he came to an achievement that would have surpassed everything else is often forgotten. They had beaten the Barcelona team of Xavi, Iniesta and Messi but the 2011 League Cup final would be a turning point. The likes of Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie themselves lost faith and Wenger’s stubborn refusal to supplement his team with commanding centre-backs or midfielders would be costly. Wenger was always steadfastly supported fully by the club’s directors after results like the 8-2 at Manchester United or 6-0 at Chelsea on his 1,000th Premier League game, but there was a fragility about the team that always suggested another big accident was never far away.
Majority owner Stan Kroenke was over regularly enough to be hugely impressed by Wenger’s boardroom performances and not especially alarmed by results but, day-to-day, there was a feeling he did not quite appreciate how difficult it had become to manage the often angry and outright abusive behaviour of some fans.
A ‘Wenger Out’ campaign has been running in some form now for five years and, while a change was closer in 2013 and also last year than is commonly perceived, Kroenke always stood back from the noise and carefully assessed the bigger picture. He knew that Arsenal’s budget was only the fourth largest in the Premier League and, alongside three FA Cup in four years, concluded that finishes of fifth, second, third and fourth were not grounds for change.
And yet Wenger had inadvertently laid the foundations for his departure early last year with a dreadful sequence of results and performances in February and March.
Parts of the board already wanted change amid feeble performances against West Bromwich Albion and Crystal Palace. This forced Kroenke and Gazidis to confront the very real possibility that Wenger could not continue into this season and what they found was a structure built entirely around perhaps the last of the truly all-powerful managers.
When Gazidis began looking last March for a sporting director-figure, it became clear that the post-Wenger years were now being proactively worked upon.
A flurry of appointments have followed - notably Sven Mislintat as head of recruitment and Huss Fahmy to work on player negotiations - and the new order became very apparent in the January transfer window. They were driving the club record signing of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and, while Wenger has made no public compliant, it is hard to believe that it was his idea to commit such vast resources to three forwards in Aubameyang, Ozil and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with such limited sell-on value.
Yet even at this stage in the season, there was a sense that Wenger could again defy the negative momentum. A 5-1 win against Everton at the start of February provided hope that they might get back into the top four this season. The entire mood then changed amid four straight defeats, most damagingly when they so struggled to compete with Manchester City and were even overrun by Brighton.
Supporters responded in a way that they had never done before. Many simply stopped attending matches.
Thousands of empty seats were evident in fixtures against Manchester City, Ostersunds, Stoke City, Watford and Southampton. Pockets of anger had turn to swathes of apathy and this certainly got the attention of the club’s board. At the very same time, Josh Kroenke - Stan’s son and himself a director - had taken up residence in London in an effort to gauge the mood around the club. Wenger had been backed the previous summer but the Kroenkes were concerned by whether the club had reached a point where it was almost impossible to re-energise some sections of the fanbase without change.
Wenger has always been something of a shield for the board amid any fan frustration but he also made a mistake in allowing the public debate about his future to become quite so dominated by those who wanted change.
After spending an hour on Friday with Gazidis, Wenger was still at the training ground until a typically late in the day and, according to friends, is focusing only on the remaining matches. He once described his relationship with Arsenal as the “love story” of his working life. “You have to behave like it will last forever, but it could end at any minute,” he said. Wenger has indeed managed Arsenal in that style but, after 22 years, the appointed minute is now upon us.