KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- Arsene Wenger, one of the greatest managers in the history of the modern English game, is to step down as Arsenal boss at the end of the season.
Wenger, 68, will leave a year before his existing contract was due to expire having led the club to three Premier League titles and seven FA Cups during a 22-year reign.
Appointed on October 1, 1996, the Frenchman is the Premier League’s current longest-serving manager and has taken charge of a record 823 games. Veteran Italian Carlo Ancelotti and former Arsenal captain Patrick Vieira were early front-runners amid speculation over a successor.
Arsenal are sixth in the league and almost certain to miss out on a top-four spot for the second successive season. Their hopes of a Champions League return resting on winning the Europa League where they face Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals.
In a statement Wenger said: “I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years. I managed the club with full commitment and integrity. To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club.”
Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke described the announcement as “one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport”.
He added: “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. His longevity and consistency over such a sustained period at the highest level of the game will never be matched.”
Kroenke praised Wenger’s “exceptional record”, adding that he “transformed the identity of our club and of English football with his vision for how the game can be played”.
Wenger’s Arsenal reign can be divided neatly in two halves.
In 2006 Wenger celebrated 10 years as manager of Arsenal. At that point the Gunners, under his guidance, had won the Premier League three times, the FA Cup four times – winning the legendary ‘double’ once – and finished runners-up once in both the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
Since then they have won ‘only’ three FA Cups (in the last four seasons) and remain ‘alive’ only in the Europa League where they will face Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals. Winning the competition would promote the Gunners back into the Champions League next season.
In that same year of 2006 Arsenal came closest to winning the ultimate prize in European club football. Perhaps, if goalkeeper Jens Lehmann had not been sent off controversially, they would have defeated Barcelona in Paris. Victory could have been the springboard to even greater achievements for one of world football’s most historic and revered clubs.
Instead Arsenal as a club, and Wenger himself, gradually conceded their right to be masters of their own destiny and, instead, became victims of circumstance.
Certainly winning those three recent FA Cups and maintaining – until this season – a place in the Champions League every year are feats which the vast majority of European clubs would envy. But for Arsenal fans those attainments only accentuate the manner in which so much power, so much potential has been squandered.
Two major events occurred in the months which followed that defeat in Paris. First, Arsenal ‘moved house’ from their iconic old Highbury home to the new, grand, but soulless Emirates Stadium. Secondly, in the October, the board kicked out David Dein who, as executive vice-chairman, had been the guiding power behind Wenger’s throne.
Up until that point Wenger had been a trailblazing manager. He had introduced to English football new standards and styles in terms of training, diet, match preparation and international youth scouting (in particular in his native France). He had inherited a solid defence, led by club captain Tony Adams, and developed a football melange with inspirational acquisitions such as, most notably, Thierry Henry.
Arsenal, in the first half of Wenger’s reign, played football of a skilled quality only now being matched again by Manchester City.
But the move from Highbury to the Emirates cost more than £500m, comprising £390m for the new stadium and £130m to redevelop the Highbury site. This was added to the £10m expended seven years earlier on the Wenger-approved new training centre at London Colney, just north of the city.
Arsenal’s board – and both Wenger and Dein – had warned fans that the costs of the move would restrict the club for up to three years in the amounts available to spend on new players in terms of both transfer fees and wages. They did not warn fans that within a decade they would be paying higher prices to watch their team than any other club.
Wenger had always prided himself in his ability to bring through promising young players, in particular French players. This became even more important in the wake of financial restrictions.
Dein had brought the comparatively unknown Wenger to Arsenal and had been the one man at the club whose football opinions the Frenchman respected.
Hence Dein’s exit in the October was a disaster for Arsenal and proved fatal for Wenger’s own management. Dein, with his financial connections in the City of London, would probably have found a way to generate greater income for established players to balance Wenger’s increasingly stubborn over-insistence on foreign mediocrities.
Worse, Dein’s departure was the first step in a power battle within the board which led, fatally, to its purchase by American sports entrepreneur Kroenke.
‘Silent Stan’, as he was already known in the United States media, has developed Arsenal successfully in business terms: the latest ‘Benchmarking Report’ from European federation UEFA ranks Arsenal up with Manchester United, Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool among Europe’s leading clubs in terms of both wage bill and average attendance (59,957 last season, second only in the Premier League to United’s 75,279).
But financial success has come at the cost of failure to keep pace on the pitch with the other giants of the Premier League.
A perpetual presence in the Champions League enabled Arsenal to turn over a healthy profit each season which kept the board and chief executive Ivan Gazidis content, kept Kroenke happily able to draw down a cash dividend and kept Wenger secure in his job.
But job security for Wenger has proved self-defeating. He has made occasional big-money signings – for example, Alexandre Lacazette for £46.5m, Mesut Ozil for £42m, Alexis Sanchez for £30m and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for £55m – almost as a gesture to fans’ impatience rather than out of personal belief.
Hence fans have seen Arsenal outstripped every summer by the big spending of the two Manchester clubs and Chelsea.
One fan complained on a national radio talk-show: “It’s like Wenger doesn’t want to spend because he thinks it’s his own money – it isn’t, it’s ours, the fans whose tickets and TV subscriptions pay his wages.”
The joke about Arsenal was that finishing in the top four every season was considered a “Wenger trophy” because ‘his’ Arsenal in the past decade have won comparatively next to nothing. But the fans do not cheer the annual accounts – the fans want to cheer a real trophy.
Wenger’s transfer and team selections have baffled fans.
One transfer example: his refusal to buy the sort of midfield enforcer, in the style of a Vieira or Gilberto Silva, whose physical command perfectly balances the skill Wenger admires elsewhere on the pitch.
One selection example: his refusal to put his trust in a proven striker such as Olivier Giroud who scored 73 league goals in five and half seasons and was sold in mid-season to Chelsea. Strikers, more than any other outfield player, need confidence and that comes only with regular games and goals.
Behind the scenes Arsenal have made 11 new appointments over the past year including the arrival of Sven Mislintat for player recruitment. But Wenger, asked for the new man’s role, suggested it was merely to mine the German market “for players we may have missed.”
Maybe this was a joke; maybe not.
Fans have agonised over Wenger: they appreciated his achievements for the club and hated to see his legacy tarnished by the failings of the last few years. Most believe he should retired after the FA Cup triumph last year. He could have gone out in glory and gratitude as did his old rival Sir Alex Ferguson at United.
Instead he signed a two-year contract extension to prolong the agony.
In an ideal world, Wenger’s loyalty to Arsenal should lead him to prepare the way for a successor. Unfortunately all the indications are that this has been the last thing on his mind.
Manchester United found it tough enough, regaining balance after Ferguson’s retirement even though he – and they – tried to prepare. Arsenal are heading into a similar chasm of uncertainty.
Winners (3) – 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04
Runners-up (6) – 1998/99, 1999/00, 2000/01, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2015/16
Winners (7) – 1997/98, 2001/02, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2013/14, 2014/15, 2016/17
Runners-up (1) – 2000/01
Runners-up (3) – 2006/07, 2010/11, 2017/18
Runners-up (1) – 2005/06
Runners-up (1) – 1999/00
Winners (6) – 1998/99, 1999/2000, 2002/03, 2004/05, 2014/15, 2015/16
Runners-up (2) – 2003/04, 2005/06
Premier League Manager of the Season (3) – 1997/98, 2001/02, 2003/04
League Managers’ Association Manager of the Year (2) – 2001/02, 2003/04
BBC Sports Personality Coach of the Year (2) – 2002, 2004
Premier League Manager of the Month (15)
WENGER’S ARSENAL CAREER: HIS ENTIRE RECORD IN ALL COMPETITIONS
Competition Games Won Drawn Lost Goals for Goals against Win %
Premier League 823 473 199 151 1549 801 57.5%
FA Cup 109 73 22 14 214 88 67.0%
League Cup 73 42 9 22 144 95 57.5%
Community Shield 9 6 2 1 16 6 66.7%
Champions League 177 83 41 53 281 205 46.9%
Champions League qualifying 14 13 1 0 30 3 92.9%
UEFA Cup/Europa League 23 14 5 4 51 21 60.9%
TOTAL 1228 704 279 245 2285 1219 57.3%
WENGER’S REIGN IN NUMBERS:
1996 – the year when a then-unheralded Wenger, who had been in charge at Monaco and Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight, took over at Highbury.
1228 – games at the helm, ahead of Sunday’s Premier League fixture against West Ham.
704 – wins to date as Arsenal boss.
3 – Premier League title wins, the last during an unbeaten Invincibles campaign of 2003/2004.
1549 – goals scored in Premier League matches by Wenger’s teams.
10 – major trophies won.
473 – Premier League victories.
7 – FA Cup triumphs, with three of those having come the last four seasons.
151 – Premier League losses.
21 – full seasons in charge.
49 – games unbeaten in the Premier League from May 2003 to October 2004.