It is the news that most traumatized Arsenal FC fans across the world have always been eager to hear. When it eventually came, many of them understandably heave a great sigh of relief. For several fans, who are reasonably devastated by recent developments from the hitherto inspirational football club, the news came so suddenly that it was too difficult to believe. But then, it is now official, Arsenal Football Club and English Premiership’s longest serving manager, Arsene Wenger, will be leaving the team at the end of the current season.
An official message by Wenger on the club’s website stated: “After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season. 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. I want to thank the staff, the players, the directors and the fans that make this club so special.”
The French born tactician, who joined the club in October 1996, is no doubt, the most successful manager in the club’s history. He introduced a fascinating pattern of playing that quickly relegated the hitherto boring and highly physical English ‘kick and follow’ approach into oblivion. This actually made the English Premiership to attract more foreign players and managers and also enhanced the popularity of the League. Under his watch, Arsenal won the Premier League title in 1998, 2002, and 2004 as well as seven FA Cups, including three in the past four years. In the 1998 and 2002 seasons respectively, Arsenal won League and FA Cup Double. One of the major highlights of Wenger’s coaching career in Arsenal was recorded in the 2003-2004 season when the team was nicknamed “The Invincibles” after it went through the Premier League season undefeated with 26 wins and 12 draws. For 20 consecutive seasons, Arsenal under Wenger finished in the top four bracket of the Premier League log. In the 2005/2006 season, Wenger’s Arsenal played out the UEFA Champions League final but was edged out 2-1 by a Lionel Messi inspired FC Barcelona.
When he arrived England, as the only third foreign manager to coach a Premier League team, Wenger revolutionized his side’s playing philosophy. He introduced new ideas about nutrition, training and tactics and established a track record for signing players who became global stars, notably Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Nwankwo Kanu, Marc Overmass and Robin van Persie. For his innovative approach to the game, Wenger was nicknamed the “Professor”. With a degree in Economics, the French born tactician was not only interested in bringing laurels to the team; he was equally keenly concerned about bringing financial stability to the club. Perhaps, one of his most enduring legacies at Arsenal was his role in the construction of the team’s new playing ground, the £390m Emirates Stadium which they moved into in 2006.
But then, in the past few seasons, there has been a gradual decline in the club’s performance. Currently sixth in the 20-teamPremier League, Arsenal is 14 points off fourth placed bitter North London rival, Totteham Hotspur. Last season, for the first time in 22 seasons, the team failed to qualify for the lucrative Champions League competition as it finished 5th on the Premiership log. Since its loss to Barcelona in 2006 Champions League final, Arsenal has struggled endlessly in the Europe elite football championship. They were eliminated at the last-16 stage for the seventh successive season on their last appearance in the competition in 2017, scandalously losing 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich.
Thus, fans have become plausibly disillusioned and Wenger had been under increasing pressure to step down by some fans, having failed to win the League for 14 years and with the club set to miss out on Champions League qualification for the second consecutive season. Of late, there is no other way that the fans’ anger has best been demonstrated other than deliberate boycott of the team’s home matches. Currently, Arsenal is 33 points behind champions Manchester City, who have 87 points.
What then went wrong with Wenger? Why did the man in whom the fans used to chant: “In Arsene we trust” suddenly lost his goodwill? According to soccer pundits, Wenger really lost it when he started recruiting skillful but tiny, feeble and less passionate players. In the years when Arsenal was dominant, its players were chiefly physically strong and equally skilful. In-spite of recent revolution, the English league is still a dominantly physical one. Hence, Wenger’ frail boys, though skillfully endowed, always lose out when it comes to the gritty end of the game.
Aside this, many have posited that Wenger’s penchant for spending less on players’ recruitment is equally one of his Achilles’ heels. His notoriety for helping the Club management make and save money earns him the appellation of “Baba- Ijebu (the Miserly One) among soccer fans in Nigeria. In a game where money has become a major determinant success factor, it is not surprising that Arsenal s gradually becoming a spent force in European football.
A few soccer pundits have equally chided Wenger for what they term his predictable tactical approach to games. Wenger is an attack minded manager who cares less about other aspects of the game. His team is often punished by more tactically suave managers who regularly capitalize on Wenger’s team conventional style of play. The outgoing Arsenal manager has also been accused of being excessively loyal and soft on his players as he lacks the no-nonsense trait of tough managers such as Jose Mourinho and Sir Alex Ferguson who ensure that only players who are overtly commited to their respective teams are fielded. Rather than chide his players for poor performances, Wenger usually jumps at their defence. He would rather blame the referee or the pitch for his team’s abysmal showings.
In-spite of all his shortcomings as a manager, Wenger will, no doubt, remain a legend at Arsenal. Many fans and former Arsenal players are already clamouring for the immortalization of the Frenchman. For instance, former Arsenal midfielder Paul Merson has urged the club’s board to rename the Emirates Stadium Arsene Wenger Emirates Stadium.
As a long standing and long suffering Arsenal fan, my feelings on Wenger’s impending exit is a mixed one. Like every Arsenal fan that has clamoured for a change in the team’s managerial hierarchy, I am elated about the latest development. Ironically, however, I am already missing Wenger, almost to the point of wanting him to remain in the saddle for as long as he could. But then, that is human emotion which can sometimes be unreliable.
The truth about life is that there is time for everything and for Monsieur Wenger this, indeed, is the right time to move on.
Ogunbiyi is of the Lagos State Ministry of Information & strategy, Alausa, Ikeja