In an alternate reality, the Arsène Wenger story ends in 2006: Paris in the springtime.
The most beautifully blue evening in the French capital culminates with a son of the city, Thierry Henry, putting away the winning goal against Barcelona in the Champions League final. Wenger, who led Arsenal to a double, fought three seasons of hoodoo to win another, then stunned the doubters to go a whole season unbeaten, finally lifts the biggest prize in European football. He leaves a hero; as does Henry for a new challenge. Arsenal embark on a fresh start in a fresh part of town. The club evolves. Fans will probably always talk of how much rosier things were under Wenger.
Losing that Champions League final is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment in the history of the club. It was their year, or so it felt, as a team of underdogs battled the odds and came up short. Robert Pirès ended his Arsenal career on a cloud, being substituted after 20 minutes; fellow legend Dennis Bergkamp never left the bench for a swansong. Keeper Jens Lehmann, who hadn’t conceded a goal all tournament, was cruelly red carded after a challenge on Samuel Eto’o. Henry himself admits he will forever blame himself for that missed one-on-one. But more than this being a squandered last chance for Highbury sentiment, that night was a symbolic turning point. After this game, Arsenal and Wenger never challenged Europe’s elite again. That’s what sticks for so many.
Imagine all the things you could tell Wenger in May 2006, if time travel were possible. Xavi and Iniesta on Barca’s bench? They’ll win their country the World Cup in four years’ time. Mathieu Flamini, who played most of the season at left-back during a freak injury crisis? That crisis will become a theme of your second decade in charge; Flamini will paper over the cracks in your squad so much more. Champions League glory? No. You’ll reach one more semi and be remembered for beating Bayerns and Barcas on their turf in the last 16, while bollocksing up easier home legs. Your own fans? A “Wenger out brigade” will form. The EU? We’ve left that now. Reality is often a lot colder than any fairytale story.
Reality is famously cold actually, as are facts, figures, finances, austerity; and we’re not still on the subject of Brexit. Whether Arsène Wenger wanted to leave Arsenal in Paris or not is irrelevant; the club tied him to a new contract because the bank needed it as insurance for the Emirates Stadium loans. They saw Wenger, a man with a history of footballing success, a degree in economics and an eye for a shrewd deal, as financial security.
Money in football might just be theoretical figures shouted down a phone, never actually exchanged via a PayPal transfer, but real, actual bank loans mean that a club can’t compete with billionaire investors: that’s reality. David Dein, Wenger’s righthand man off the field, was ousted from the Arsenal board in 2007 due to disagreements over such investors. Arsène pushed on alone, acted awfully by himself in the transfer market at times, but kept the club in the top few teams in England for seven years on a shoestring: that’s what good managers do. In 2013, patience already wearing thin at the maybes of past campaigns, Wenger signed Mesut Özil, weeks after chief executive Ivan Gazidis blurted out that Arsenal now had money to spend. Wenger couldn’t complete the squad that summer, though. Another almost campaign resulted in an FA Cup triumph. Things were obviously improving, albeit only slightly; this was another fresh start for the club. Once again, Wenger was rewarded with a three-year contract to be the one to build on this team and bring back more trophies.
With that contract approaching completion, Wenger hasn’t achieved what he set out to, perhaps for the first time since signing a contract in North London. The expectations were raised back to pre-2006 levels, and he hasn’t won a league title. His squad has marginally progressed position-wise in the league, but in terms of points and mid-March capitulations, it’s the same old Arsenal. The fans are turning, and quick; Mertesacker could learn something from them. The fans blame Wenger for the missed opportunities, the squad deficiencies and what feels like ten years of watching the same season over and over. He is, after all, the one constant: even the stadium has changed.
When Wenger leaves, there will be a legacy. The brand of football that Arsenal fans expect, the tales of undefeatable teams and the stadium that he helped not only design but finance. That’s the positives, the story to tell your kids about. There are harsher realities of what will also remain, though, and reality is often colder than stories, remember. It’s hard to know which stories you’re reading are true, especially when it comes to your favourite club – fans automatically believe the tale most convenient – so let’s focus on the reality.
Majority shareholder Stan Kroenke has the utmost admiration for Arsène Wenger: that’s a fact. He says he didn’t buy Arsenal to win silverware, and if the stories are true, Bournemouth boss Eddie Howe is being lined up for the Arsenal hotseat next season. If the stories are false, when have this board ever suggested that they want something different from Wenger? It’s just a chunk of Arsenal fans that want “different” right now: they want a winner like Simeone, a true equal to Mourinho. They berate the board for putting faith in a “specialist in failure” so what makes them think they’ll plump for a serial winner to be hired next? They don’t want another manager famous for getting the best out of average players, like Howe or Wenger, they want marquee signings to compliment the average players that Wenger pushed into becoming better.
The lack of big signings are where the grumbles are loudest, whether on deadline day or when Danny Welbeck is faced with another setback. Arsenal show no signs whatsoever of having the money though: Gazidis mentioned a war-chest one year, and that became the tale most convenient. Arsenal have never been reported as bidding over £50m. Sources closest to the club this summer talk of a “transfer budget”, an alien concept to a City or a United. Wenger, it seems, likes to spend small, but the club clearly don’t want to spend big either, or you’d see Gazidis operating an Ed Woodward-sized role in tabloid columns. When it comes to tying up deals, Arsenal dally in the market and only sign the players that clubs need to offload, rather than approaching players early like Bayern Munich or Juventus. It used to be that Wenger would hand David Dein a list, and Dein would do the rest. The man was charming enough to convince Sol Campbell to move from Tottenham to Arsenal, for goodness sake. These days, Xhaka, Sanchez, Özil all talk of Wenger persuading them directly.
It makes you wonder how Arsenal would function without Wenger, and not just in the transfer market. The injuries are still a massive worry for the club; ten years after Flamini was forced into a season at left-back, Arsenal have headed into a season with two fit centre-backs, both under 21. It’s absurd: medical teams have changed, world-class doctors have been brought in from the German national set-up, and it’s still the same. There’s no evidence that it would clear up post-Arsène. The much-maligned ticket prices won’t change either. When they’re not frozen, they rise with inflation, but try telling that to fans of a working class sport; even more so when the manager doesn’t produce value-for-money entertainment. It’s something the next boss will have to deal with, along with the house-of-cards wage structure that could see big stars throw toys out of the pram, should bigger stars be signed.
It’s clear that the Arsenal job is about number-crunching, pleasing a split fan-base and dealing with a difficult board. There’s no David Dein waving a magic wand anymore. Injuries are a-plenty, the youth academy has offered precious little for a few years, and the owner is reported to have just taken millions out of the club for “advice”. The chairman doesn’t feel the need to explain to the fans why. And for what seems like a strangely-run club, Wenger having such a long reign is the biggest baffler for many. Wenger has won more trophies than any other Arsenal manager, but equally, he’s made more mistakes than anyone else. Giving him a new contract when his squad was on a cusp is one thing; renewing his contract in today’s circumstances would be nothing short of unambitious, surely.
Where does a club that sacks a servant like Arsène Wenger go next though? Looking at what Wenger’s given to Arsenal, surely he deserves to at least finish the job, given that there’s only one more season of it left. He won’t manage the club forever, so it’s surprising how many Arsenal fans are so impatient to see Wenger leave the club when history shows that he never loses them ground on their title rivals (despite gaining ground very slowly). Equally though, Arsenal fans are naive, deluded (they like that word), big-headed even if they think their club is too big, too wise to avoid the Ferguson lesson.
He’s won two trophies in ten years, but fans could well look back on this time as rosier than the next ten. Wenger’s failures are just the tip of the iceberg of problems that the club need to address, and they could be so worse off without him next summer. He bears the brunt of so much that isn’t his fault, while his achievements slip under the radar; ultimately, the club will miss him when he’s gone, and even the most ardent “#Wenger Out”s admit a lengthly adjustment period when he goes. How long for? It’s difficult to say when the man with the most money in the club has no interest in trophies.
If times are bleak now, they could be about to get a whole lot worse. And for such vitriolic hate to be directed to such a legend of Arsenal from their own fans? That’s almost as heartbreaking as that night in Paris. Wenger isn’t perfect, but nothing at the club is. Arsenal won’t compete until a lot changes: not just Wenger. And that’s the cold reality.