Au revoir Arsène, and thank you

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In the end, the announcement came out of the blue, pushed onto the Arsenal website and social channels with the simple words: Merci Arsène.

That’s it, it’s over. Wenger finally pulled the plug on his 22-year reign with delicately chosen timing. There’s long enough to think, to weigh it all up, and to soak in some of the extraordinary memories he created. There’s time to give him the send-off he deserves, to find someone new, and to focus on ending his final season at Arsenal with a final hurrah in Europe.

So yes, thank you Arsène. Thank you for transforming our club, for building those teams of grace, power and panache, and for going head to head with the best teams in the land, for the biggest trophies there are. Any history of his reign will be nuanced, some would argue chipped around the edges, thanks to the latter half of his tenure, where in league and European terms at least he presided over a slow decline, but as time goes by I have no doubt he’ll be remembered for what he is: one of the best managers, if not the best manager, in Arsenal’s history.

The good, the bad. The mostly good.

Some legacy. The results, trophies and near misses – three titles, seven FA Cups, one Champions League final, one Uefa Cup final, a few League Cup finals and just the one FA Cup final defeat – are just a part of it. Beyond that there are the well-documented changes to things like player nutrition and diet. There’s the rapier-fast, ruthless football that changed Arsenal’s tune completely. There’s his role in the move to the Emirates Stadium, there’s his intelligence, good grace and social conscience. His humour and ability to delve into deeper societal issues. The way he trusts and defends his players, even at times when, quite frankly, they don’t deserve it. OK, in the interest of balance there’s his stubbornness too, and his myopia. But how many managers aren’t a bit like that?

So that’s Wenger the manager; Wenger the man. But for me, as for most Arsenal fans, it’s more complicated than that. His astonishingly long tenure means there are Arsenal fans out there in their mid-to-late twenties who’ve known nobody else at the helm of their club.

The end of an era

I’m a bit longer in the tooth, but I was 25 when he took over. It’s heading towards half my life ago. I look back at 1996, and it genuinely feels like another time. A different world, a different England and a different me. So as I’ve grown up, moved jobs, got married, had kids and experienced all of life’s peaks and troughs, there’s Arsène Wenger, a constant, there or thereabouts, a big part of my life. And there’s me, there or thereabouts, experiencing all of Wenger’s peaks and troughs with him.

That’s why I’m in a bit of turmoil, because memories blur into one and it’s made me more emotional than I thought it would. I’ve advocated a change for several years now, and I’m glad (for the direction of the club) that it’s happened. It’s the right time. I’m also genuinely excited at what next season and beyond holds. But at the exact same time, I feel sad, a little nostalgic and sentimental.

To all the Arsenal lovers, take care of the values of the club. My love and support for ever”.

Well, that tipped me right over.

So thanks Arsène, thanks a million. For a long while you gave us the best football we’re ever likely to see.

Au revoir, and good luck.

Europa League: the last shot at a European trophy for Wenger?

I’m still here, just about – much like Arsenal this season.

Moving on up

Last time I posted here, about a month ago, I pretty much couldn’t see anything other than a summer exit for Wenger. Things felt bleak: it’s been a season that has careered from one statistical zinger to another. The stats still don’t paint a pretty picture, but it comes as no real surprise that things have picked up since then (won four, lost one since sinking in the snow to Man City in a half-empty Emirates).

Why? Well, it was clear we were playing below our capabilities, for starters. But also, this is Wenger: a man who’s mastered the art of conjuring good finales to disappointing seasons. Here he is again, attempting to sing his signature tune – qualification for the Champions League. And he’s five games away from doing it via the back door.

Moving on out

It doesn’t change the fact that many – most – would like him to bow out gracefully in the summer, but it might persuade the majority owner, if indeed he needs persuading, that Wenger’s the man for another year. But anyway, that’s a circular argument nobody is going to win right now. We’ll find out soon enough.

Time to break free

In idle moments, I do wonder how Wenger’s European record will be judged. Accentuating the positives, you’d say perennial qualification for the Champions League was pretty good, and there was one memorable run to the Champions League final – the first time we’d ever been there in our history. There were also two Uefa Cup finals – one with Arsenal and one with Monaco. But on the flipside, the last seven years in Europe’s leading competition have been wasted, and it doesn’t really feel like we ever got to grips with it. We look further away from truly competing in it now than ever.

Nothing can stop me

Wenger’s never won a European trophy. So for a leading coach – and he has been that – his European record is not that great, especially if you judge success by lifting cups, as you should. Nor indeed is Arsenal’s European record that great as a club, to be honest. One Fairs Cup, one Cup Winners’ Cup.

But here Wenger is, facing Moscow in the rarefied atmosphere of a Europa League quarter-final. Of course we have a chance. And how many more chances will Wenger have to win a European trophy? I’d say this is probably his last realistic chance. If he doesn’t win the Europa League this year, it makes the argument for his departure almost impossible to ignore. He could move to another club that offers European football, but he’d only have a few years, in all likelihood, to have another crack at winning in Europe, and that’s a tough ask indeed.

And if he does win it this year and stays at Arsenal, what chance does he have next season – which we can assume really *will* be his last – of winning the Champions League? Given Arsenal’s historical record in it, and given Wenger’s own painful maulings in recent years, I’d say it’s zilch.

So this year’s Europa League really is it. This could be your last realistic chance, Arsene.