I was going to write a goofy article this morning about my “combined non-top six starting XI” but I woke up this morning to news that Arsene Wenger announced his retirement at the end of the season and writing about anything else would be pointless.
I don’t know if this will be a popular sentiment but when I read the news I was overcome with relief. Not for me, for him.
Maybe it was for me.
I didn’t want to see him suffer these last two years of constant abuse. I felt he deserved better after all the years of joy he gave to Arsenal, that he deserved our love and admiration and above all our respect.
But you could see the abuse coming, rolling in like a stormcloud. As the results got worse, as the players started leaking more and more inside information, as things looked like they were falling apart, people started getting too casual with their language about Arsene Wenger.
Some reading this post might respond “that’s rich coming from you, you led the charge in that abuse”. Incorrect. Pointing out someone’s flaws, or temporary flaws, is not the same as abuse. Wanting someone to step down so that he and we could move on is not the same as abuse.
Arsene is the only manager I have ever known as an Arsenal supporter and Arsene Wenger’s Invincibles were the reason I fell in love with football at all.
For two years in college I studied Japanese and one of my study habits was to get up early on Saturday mornings and watch a Japanese language news program that ran from 7-7:30am local time.
After that I would sip coffee and flip through the channels for something else to watch. This was the 90s and the internet wasn’t like it is today, there were no streaming shows, no Netflix. There wasn’t even a TV guide on the screen (that was published in the newspaper). To see what was on TV, you literally just changed the channel, going up or down as you liked.
One day, after Japanese news, I was flipping through the channels and noticed something new: Fox Sports World. I can’t remember if I stopped there because of Hurling, Gaelic football, Aussie Rules football, or whether it was seeing some highlights of a Heerenveen match (which I remember because of the hearts on their shirts) but whatever the reason, I remember that it was football that made me come back. The roaring crowds, the colors, the pageantry: football was what I imagined an old joust would be like and I decided to start watching for the spectacle.
By the turn of the century I had watched enough highlights from various leagues that I knew I loved English football best and that I had a special fondness for Arsenal. They were a team of underdogs. They didn’t play football the way everyone wanted them to, they were fast and powerful and yet also slightly frail and prone to falling apart at times.
I also knew that I hated one team in particular: Manchester United. They won the League every year, they were bullies, and they had David Beckham – who I started seeing everywhere and couldn’t stand.
By the 2001-2002 season Arsenal played football like I’d never seen. With Sol at the back, Vieira in the middle, and Thierry up front, they barnstormed teams. What they couldn’t take by talent, they could with brute force. And for the first time, I remember a team that could stand up to the bullies at Man U.
Arsenal not only stood up to them, they went to Old Trafford and did what Man City couldn’t do 16 years later, Arsenal won the League at Old Trafford. It makes me a bandwagon supporter, but the moment that Kanu jumped over Wiltord, I jumped on. From that point forward it was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal for me.
I don’t want to give a season-by-season recap. I just want to say that from 2000-2005 I remember thinking that this Arsenal was going to last forever. That even the assault on the transfer market by Chelsea wasn’t going to shake Arsenal. We would be competing for the League every year.
Foolish, I know now. That summer we sold Vieira and the next summer we lost Campbell, Bergkamp, Pires, and Cole. I remember that summer of 2007 after we sold Thierry Henry and bought Eduardo to replace him was the most nervous I have ever felt about Arsenal’s future.
But what Arsene Wenger did next was almost as incredible as winning the League unbeaten. He turned the teenager Cesc Fabregas into our main man, turned Adebayor into an actual footballer (temporarily) and kept Arsenal not only playing beautiful football, but also kept the club financially solvent by earning Champions League money every year. And he did all of that without spending anything in the transfer market.
This is the so-called “banter era” and it is filled with bad memories but it’s also filled with so many “nearly” great moments. We nearly won the League in 07/08, probably should have beaten Barcelona twice in the Champions League (but for some awful officiating), and Wenger kept Arsenal playing great attacking football nearly the entire time.
Few managers could have done what Wenger did during that time from 2007-2014 and if you look at what Spurs are doing now, the parallels are uncanny: little to no transfer spend, new stadium, hopeful and attractive football, but ultimately falling a little short in the titles department. What makes Wenger unique is that he stuck with the club after things got significantly worse and kept Arsenal playing at a high level despite massive financial constraints. If Mauricio Pochettino sticks it out with that club for 7 more years, after they sell Kane and Alli, I’ll eat my house.
Wenger leaves us this summer having won three FA Cups in the post-banter-era, one of the many records he set during his career at Arsenal.
In 22 years, Wenger always managed the club with integrity and commitment to Arsenal’s values, something he reiterated with his statement today. It’s a statement which I think was a warning: “To all the Arsenal lovers take care of the values of the club. My love and support for ever.”
Take care of the values of the club.
Finally, I wonder if Wenger played this “retirement” card as one last little tactical bombshell: one last push for the team and the supporters to go out there and give everything in the Europa League. It would be a wonderful send-off for Arsene Wenger and Arsenal football club to win a European trophy in his final game as Arsenal’s manager.
That is the only thing he’s not accomplished at this club.