Some thoughts on Wenger

So it’s Wenger until 2019 – the least surprising surprise since Surprisey McSurpriseFace jumped out of the wardrobe and shouted, “surprise!”

Those making the decision couldn’t have scripted a more appropriate moment to announce it if they’d tried – the warm afterglow of a fantastic performance and result in the FA Cup.

If you took this decision based on the last 9 or 10 games alone, the logic would be undeniable to be honest. It would be mean-spirited not to give credit to Wenger for the way he hauled us out of a very bad place indeed and made a success of a very average season.

If only things were that simple though, because if you look at the last decade you see a team that hasn’t got close enough to the business end of a title challenge, and you see a side that has been routinely embarrassed in the Champions League; most recently shipping ten to Bayern. That wider view, rather than the shorter-term burst of form and the heady bliss of Wembley, is why this decision will not, to put it diplomatically, be universally popular.

The weight of history would suggest that we’re in for more of the same – fourth or thereabouts – with Wenger at the helm.

So changing that is the challenge, and it’s huge. Because while the board and Wenger are saying all the right things, as you’d expect them to, the big question remains: What will he or can he do differently to bridge the 10 – 20 point gap that has come between us and the champions for the last nine years?

What needs to slot into place to give him a fighting chance? To break the mould? And the answer is probably – ‘a lot’.

An admission that things went wrong

That things will be freshened up to shake the club out of complacency. To come out and admit that things went stale and that we have fallen behind, and that we’re going to do something about it, structurally or with a change of staff. Because for all the glory of three FA Cups in four years, in the league we have fallen behind.

Some serious ambition

Back up the words with actions. Stan the investor needs to at least give the impression that he intends to be Stan the winner (I hear the hollow laughter at the back – detention for you!) Remember how it felt to sign Ozil? We need a statement of intent and of power play like that, because big names coming in aren’t just a case of buying for the sake of buying – they give you a better chance of winning. And Wenger tells us he wants to win the league. So Arsenal need to be prepared to spend big and to hit the ground running. To make swift decisions, to move fast. Not to just talk about it, but to do it.

To keep our big players

There’s long been talk that Alexis wants out and Ozil won’t sign, and that Ox is mulling over his future. Getting rid of any of them would send out all the wrong messages and would leave Wenger under the cosh and on the back foot before the season’s even started. I can’t see this part of his summer challenge ending well, to be honest, and I worry that we’ll spend too much of the next three months reacting rather than proacting.

To change the mentality… for good

You could argue the move to the back three has helped with this, but Arsenal need to be that committed for an entire season before we can say it was a success, rather than simply a nine-game upturn. Wenger needs to shake things up more often if needed. Hell, he might even consider making a substitution before the 68th minute… Will he change? We’ll find out, won’t we. But… yeah.

All the best

So good luck Arsène – I mean it from the bottom of my heart. Given the last few seasons, with the splits, the apathy, the frustration and the anger, and given the increasing strength and financial firepower of our rivals, you will need it.

I watch football to have fun and to see some great performances and, occasionally, to have a crack at winning things, so I’d like nothing more than for the next two years to be some kind of sunlit uplands. To be a bit more ‘cup final’ and a bit less ‘Watford at home’.

I don’t want to spend the next two years with furrowed brows, because life’s too short. So I’m going to be positive about it and see the FA Cup as a springboard (another springboard…)

Every year I give into hope and offer myself a tantalising thought that it might just be different this time round.

And I’d rather look at it that way, to be honest. Off we go again.

I just don’t think you understand

Wembley Stadium

Wembley Stadium

Arsenal 2-1 Chelsea

What a day, what a performance, and if anyone over the last few years has ever said to you: ‘Think how good Arsenal could be if they played to their full potential’, simply point them to Wembley Stadium, 27th May 2017.

No shrinking in the face of the big challenge here. In the white heat of a cup final against the champions, a match few expected us to win (not least me), we pulled our best performance of the entire season out of Arsene Wenger’s moth-eaten magic hat. He clearly said, “I’m having that”, and have that he did.

Our motley back line held firm for all but one moment. Our midfield was in control and high-energy, and going forward our pace caused considerable problems.

I’m not going to run through the whole team, because to a man they were magnificent, from the evergreen Mertesacker (an inspiration on and off the pitch) through to the fizzing dynamism of Ramsey and beyond to the irrepressible Alexis.

What got me out of my seat was the way we broke with such menace. For too long (and too often) we’ve watched as Arsenal ping it upfield then get bogged down. But on Saturday, with extraordinary regularity, we went for the jugular with our directness and pace. It was genuinely exciting football, and a reminder of the sheer excitement it can bring when all the elements come together. It hasn’t been like that enough this season. But – ah yes – that’s how it can be.

It was a final that just had it all, to be honest. A hot May day, two big teams contesting it, a bit of controversy right at the beginning, a hatful of chances and a winning goal only several minutes after the equaliser. An embattled manager proving a point against a manager whose stock couldn’t be higher.

And then there was the build-up, with that special tingly pre-cup-final atmosphere that is palpable but hard to explain. Nerves, excitement, anxiety. Fans and friends from far and wide.

It baffles me that some seem so willing to denigrate the FA Cup – the most important domestic cup competition – while simultaneously complaining about clubs celebrating getting into the top four as if it was a trophy.

Let me clear this up. The FA Cup is a trophy; getting into the Champions League is not. I would rather have an FA Cup win over getting a place in the Champions League any day of the week, frankly, and not just because we’re very good at one and very bad at the other.

Anyone who was at Wembley, and all those watching in pubs or at home with friends – feeling the highs and the lows, the swings and the roundabouts, the tantalising prospect of elation and of real success – will surely agree.

And finally to Wenger, the seven-times-FA-Cup-winning elephant in the room. All but the most curmudgeonly will grant Wenger the respect and gratitude he deserves for an unparalleled achievement. The team rose to the occasion and showed us what it can do. He got it right.

I’m well aware this muddies the water for some, myself included. But I suspect it has calcified the thinking of the man who pulls the strings, Stan Kroenke, and for all the recent obfuscation and whiff of power struggle, for all the deflection and uncertainty, I’d still be surprised if Wenger wasn’t here next season.

Well played Arsenal. You have made me happy.

*goes off to watch highlights again*

FA Cup final preview: Cech and balance

*eyes open at 6am*. It’s the cup final, baby! Best write a preview then.

Cup runneth over

Though the river marked ‘league titles’ ran dry many years ago, leaving an arid wadi of frustration, the one labelled ‘FA Cup’ continues to bubble along nicely.

In fact, while Wenger’s record in the League Cup final (P2, L2) and in European finals (P2, L2) leaves a lot to be desired, he’s made up for it in the FA Cup with an astonishing six wins.

The last time we lost in the FA Cup final – his only defeat to date – was in 2001, when quite frankly we woz robbed anyway.

That record comes under severe scrutiny today against Chelsea, who have Lazarused their way out of last season’s doldrums under the tutelage of the impressive Conte.

Wenger’s goodbye?

The two sides are coming at this from wildly different places, if we’re honest. For us, winning it would be a positive end to an arduous season where all the usual weaknesses took their turns to make an appearance. It could be Wenger’s justification for a new deal – or it could be a way to bow out on a high (and maybe the best chance he will now have to do that). We still do not know and it seems utterly bizarre that this could be Wenger’s last game, but we wouldn’t know and couldn’t say goodbye. (Spoiler: it probably isn’t).

For Chelsea, already riding the crest of a wave, it’s a chance to win their second double, so it’s safe to assume they’ll be sufficiently motivated.

Cech bounced

They will be favourites, a view reinforced by an untimely dose of defensive misfortune for us – added to yesterday with the news that Cech will be replaced by Ospina. A “slight knock” in training led to this decision, apparently, though it’s slight enough for Cech to be devastated. If this is Wenger being stubborn and keeping his promise to ‘cup keeper’ Ospina, it wouldn’t surprise me. But this kind of sentimentality is madness on a day where we’re already without Koscielny, Mustafi and Gabriel.

It could be a bluff. I’m a hardened cynic, but honouring a departing keeper’s promise does feel a bit textbook Wenger. Or it could just be that he’s genuinely encumbered by injury and is not fit to start, in which case maybe I’m reading too much into it.

I’ve got a lovely Per

In front of Ospina, who has not played for eight weeks, will be Per Mertesacker, who has not started a match in about 56 weeks. Rob Holding, who has made just 16 starts for Arsenal, will join him and Nacho Monreal, a left-back, will make up the three.
We’ll probably see Bellerin on the right and Ox or Gibbs on the left, and the rest of the team picks itself, bar striker. It should be Welbeck, but this is Arsene Wenger we’re talking about so don’t stick money on it.

But look, we’ve finally hit some form and it’s a one-off Wembley final, in glorious May sunshine, so while we won’t be everyone’s favourites, we’re hardly starry-eyed underdogs here.

Cup fever

I’ve always loved the cup, and the good fortune to have seen so many finals in my time does not lessen my love of it in any way. The atmosphere, the anticipation, the nerves, the mates coming together from far and wide; steeling yourself for joy or despair – it’s got the lot and I can’t wait.

For those of you who are either travelling or at a loss at how to fill the pre-match hours, warm yourself up by curling your lug-holes round Arseblog’s pre-match live podcast, (where we all scoff at the thought of Cech missing out).

The nerves are well and truly kicking in, so that’s your lot. Come on you rip-roaring reds!

Arsenal revert to type in supine derby defeat

Tottenham 2-0 Arsenal

Remember that second half at Wembley, when we looked like we had a plan and worked our socks off to execute it? There was always the danger that it was the outlier in a season that began to implode in December and has barely come up for air since.

The Leicester game on Wednesday – the first of our seven ‘cup finals’, apparently – was slow and predictable, with Arsenal’s inability to outmanoeuvre defensive teams all too apparent.

Then yesterday. Another ‘cup final’; another day when our impressive array of weaknesses were there for all to see. Weak at the back? Tick. Blunt up front? You got it! Overrun in midfield? Natch. Incapable of keeping the ball? Not a problem. A team lacking motivation and direction? Yep. Compare that with our hosts, who could so easily have won by more if it wasn’t for Cech’s excellence. It’s a painful comparison but you cannot ignore it.

Arsenal’s decline – and it is a decline, albeit a relative one, but let’s not sugarcoat it – has been slow-cooking for some time and you cannot now avoid the smell coming from the oven (with humble apologies to all hard-working metaphors out there). Depending where you are on the Gloom-o-meter, you could trace it all the way back to 2006 and the breakup of the Invincibles. Or maybe 2008, when Eduardo’s leg break derailed our title challenge. You might, if your glass is fuller, merely say that after coming second last season the real decline only began at around Christmas when we lost in quick succession to Everton and Manchester City.

The truth, as ever, is somewhere in-between. But right now, Arsenal are in a big old rut, playing stale football, and the only realistic way I see of addressing it – for there will be no boardroom coup – is by calling an end to Wenger’s 21-year reign.

There are some players who need to move on, but by and large I think this squad is decent – it’s just spectacularly underachieving. It’s time for someone else take them on and shake them up.

By some strange coincidence, Wenger’s recent contract renewal dates have coincided with FA Cup finals. Last time, in 2014, felt like a good time for him to sign off on a winning note, but in the euphoria of our first trophy since 2005 he signed up for more. I don’t remember the dissent being especially strong back then.

This year, the same opportunity presents itself. This time, three years on, the dissent and apathy is more acute. But should Wenger win the cup for an astonishing seventh time – and it’s a tough assignment – then it feels very much like the right time, and perhaps the best opportunity he will now get, to go out on a high.

The impossible announcement

Watching that clip of Arsenal players being abused by our own fans at Selhurst Park is really tough viewing – another low in a season that’s magicking lows out of nowhere.

It’s not pretty. But in the absence of any other way to air their grievances, with the board largely silent and Wenger not prepared to talk about his future, I understood why the fans did it. Had I been there, I may well have been caught up in the emotion of the moment too.

That being said, I’m not a banner holder or a marcher or a Wenger Out chanter by nature. My own protest – such as it is – has taken the form of burgeoning apathy.

How? Well, despite being a season ticket holder, I’ve been only twice since 12th December. A load of us got our £55 back on the exchange and went out for a curry instead of bothering with the Champions League return leg. I’ve stopped blogging (not, to be fair, entirely attributable to the current swirling eddies of misery, but partly – after all, what else is there to say?) Out of the eight of us who registered for the cup semi-final, only two ended up applying.

Like the players, I’ve given up a bit – and even allowing for Twitter and the web being an echo chamber, I know I’m not alone.

Maybe that makes me a plastic fan. If you level that at me, fine. But if my mood is reflected widely, then the club has a big problem on its hands.

Because if they’ve lost the fans, nothing they do round the edges of the problem will make the slightest bit of difference. It’s not tenable.

They’re aware of this, of course, which is why Wenger’s future is a such a taboo subject in the corridors of power.

In my mind I’ve been through Wenger’s strange deflection of the subject, and the general silence from the board, dozens of times. To me, if he was planning to leave all along, the silence doesn’t make any sense at all. He’d have announced it by now and basked in the long valediction.

So the new deal was always going to happen, irrespective of how the season panned out – it was to all intents and purposes a fait accompli. But the reason they won’t talk about it now is because they can’t. Imagine the response.

We have a manager who wants to stay and a board who want him to stay too, and they’re desperate for a break in the clouds so they can hang out the washing.

But as I said in my last post, ‘sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own’, and I think that’s what’s been happening. There is no break in the clouds – it’s lashing it down. The team’s descent to mediocrity and the fans’ mood have made this the impossible announcement.

It’s astonishing and bonkers, but it could still go either way.

However, for their preferred outcome (Wenger staying), they’ll need a volte face in supporter confidence that they can’t easily engineer, and currently looks like utter pie in the sky. There’s too much water under the bridge and I don’t see most people being assuaged by a few recuperative wins. Put simply, it’s broken.

So we’re in limbo.

What a mess.

It’s not a matter of if, but Wenger

It’s been a tumultuous week alright. There have been moments – days, weeks perhaps – over the past 21 years when I’ve thought it could be the end for Wenger. The 8-2 at Old Trafford and the 6-0 on his 1,000th match in charge felt seminal, for example. But he hasn’t lasted this long by chance; he has an incredible eye for reinvention and survival that makes him, by some distance, Arsenal’s longest-serving manager.

The pattern often goes like this: there’ll be some damaging reverses, resulting in exiting two competitions in short order; but just when you think the mood couldn’t darken more, Wenger rounds up some form and takes us on a 10-match unbeaten streak. The needle moves back out of the red zone. We qualify for the Champions League. Off we go again.

We are in poor form (let’s be honest, we looked an absolute mess of a side after half-time in Munich) but I wouldn’t bet against something similar happening now, because this is a strong Arsenal squad and Wenger has been here before many times. The difference now is that I don’t think it will make much difference to what happens next. It feels like these next few months are Wenger’s last; that change is upon us.

“No matter what happens, I will manage next season, whether it’s here or somewhere else.”

Said Wenger in yesterday’s press conference. On the one hand it tallies entirely with what Amy Lawrence wrote about Arsene knowing nothing but football and being lost without it. On the other, it feels like a message to his detractors, to the board, and probably to the fans.

I don’t think he’ll be here because the siren call for change is only getting louder. The players – not exempt from criticism, as I said on yesterday’s Arsecast – look like they need it, many fans crave it, and Wenger would probably benefit from it. I don’t think two more years would do anyone any good.

Would I begrudge him a move to a big European club? The man is an Arsenal legend and there’s nothing I would begrudge him, short of rocking up at Spurs with a Chas and Dave single under his arm.

Whenever it happens, it will be moment of huge sadness and reflection for me. His legacy is huge, his achievements myriad, and he has been a master of intelligence, courtesy and good humour. On top of that, and this is a selfish point I suppose, Wenger has been a constant for me for nearly half my life. Job changes, house moves, marriage, two children – Wenger has been there all along (metaphorically of course – I can confirm he wasn’t at Barnet General Hospital shouting ‘little bit push’).

In a world where things are changing fast and in unpresidented ways, there’s Arsene, with a cheeky smile and a throwaway quip. His departure will be a challenge to my own world order.

What happens next is in a big way up to him, but not entirely – and he will know that. Sometimes these decisions take on a life of their own.

Looking back to 1996, all it took to assuage the swirling chorus of ‘Arsene Who’, was Patrick Vieira’s introduction against Sheffield Wednesday. The new man had pulled a rabbit out of the hat and things seemed immediately rosier. That was one bookend.

For the other bookend, he has to cajole everyone into believing, at least for the next three months, so that we can find another rabbit, and another magic hat.

Bridge over: Troubled Wenger

Chelsea 3-1 Arsenal

Apologies in advance, because this is a pun-free, humourless post. “I wonder if you could stick a gag in?” asked Mrs Lower as she read it. I’ll see what I can do.

Are sure as eggs are eggs, Arsenal sank to their annual defeat at Stamford Bridge with barely a whimper. In terms of the title – that’s all folks; though in terms of performances the writing has been on the wall for some time.

First though, Chelsea. They were fantastic yesterday and have been fantastic since September, leaving everyone – not just us – well and truly in their wake. They defend as a unit, pick off their opponents and are relentlessly good at it. For an Arsenal fan, comparing the two sides yesterday was painful, especially as – unlike Chelsea sides of yore – there are fewer players to dislike.

There surely have to be doubts about the validity of the first goal, but few pundits or commentators seemed that fussed by it. Odd, no? Bellerin was flattened by Alonso’s elbow before he headed it in and I suspect that would have been blown as a foul anywhere else on the pitch.

To add insult to potential head injury, Bellerin was forced to retire with Gabriel replacing him. It was a double blow, because while Gabriel is an OK backup central defender, he really is no right back.

Would it have been different had we taken one of the few chances we had? There was one for Iwobi early on, a very presentable header for Gabriel and a great chance for Ozil.

I suspect not. It was a day when we really needed to step up but too many of our players were depressingly absent. Ozil and Sanchez, our two superstars, were two of the worst culprits. The former was peripheral while the latter cut a lonely and frustrated (and frustrating) figure.

Walcott was ineffective and didn’t defend, Iwobi faded, Coquelin was utterly overwhelmed and to cap it all off Petr Cech picked a bad day for a howler. We were at best ineffective yesterday, and at worst disorganised, error prone and playing off the cuff.

A horse walks into a bar. The barman looks at him and asks, ‘Why the long face?’

Our 3-0 win earlier in the season – our best performance of the season – was the outlier. Because overall, when the chips are down against sides that we like to compare ourselves against, we have been poor.

And our record at Stamford Bridge since our 5-3 win in 2011 also speaks for itself. We’ve lost every time with an aggregate score of 15-2.

The title is as good as over. Even if Chelsea collapsed, we’d have to go on a barnstorming run. Neither looks remotely likely. Maybe the boss can pull something out of the hat in the Champions League? Past performance would suggest otherwise.

The fact is that year after year, irrespective of the players, we are too often making the same mistakes. We let in silly goals. We disappear too often. We aren’t prepared well enough. We are inconsistent. We are predictable. We switch off.

And that, of course, rests at the doorstep of Arsene Wenger. Martin Keown said after the game that he believed Wenger would sign a new two-year deal. The boss stands alone at being able to get us into the top four, but taking us to the next level? That now seems beyond him.

Will he really take that deal? I’m not so sure he will. To me it feels like the team needs a massive dose of the smelling salts. It needs a new broom to sweep through it and it needs new ideas. I don’t know many Arsenal fans who think Wenger will be the man to do that. But in the end, because of the incredible power he wields within the club, perhaps the more pertinent question is: Does Wenger still think he’s the man to do that?

“We want you to stay,” sang the Chelsea fans with mirth. I wonder if he heard.

Let’s hope it’s not just me who’s mentally ready

In the heady aftermath of our 3-0 win against Chelsea in September, it didn’t seem feasible that come the return leg we’d be teetering on the edge of the familiar title challenge abyss. That we are is partly to do with the phenomenal way Conte responded – after all, we are not the only team holding on by our fingertips. (In idle moments I wonder what he might have been able to do with our squad – and I doubt I am alone.)

Since then our win percentage is 58%. But three results in particular have cost us – Boro, Watford and Bournemouth. Had we won those we’d now be just two points behind.

The bottom line though is that Chelsea have been nigh-on flawless, while we have struggled for true consistency, an achilles heel that has dogged us throughout the latter Wenger years.

Having seen us so listlessly and carelessly throw away all the points on Tuesday, I don’t hold out much hope for today. But the thing about Arsenal is that it wouldn’t enormously surprise me if we did win, either. Though we’d probably go and draw our next game against Hull.

Our midfield has been decimated, which does call into question Wilshere’s season-long jaunt on the south coast. I maintain it was not such a bad idea to go, but quite why we weren’t a little clever by inserting a recall clause is odd.

Still, we are where we are and it looks like the job falls to Coquelin and Oxlade-Chamberlain. A nice little assignment for them at lunchtime on a Saturday – which everyone knows is our favourite time to play Chelsea.

Elsewhere, in theory we have the firepower and options to match Chelsea. Converting theory into practise is another thing though. Wenger still doesn’t know why we sometimes turn up mentally unprepared. Ultimately though he must accept that it’s a faultline of his own making.

Can he sharpen them up today? Suffice to say, only a win will do.

Now you see us, now you don’t. Following Arsenal is magic.

Preston 1-2 Arsenal

Ah, hello again mystifying Arsenal. The third round of the FA Cup heralded another performance – the second in a week, now *that’s* consistency – that left me overwhelmed and underwhelmed pretty much simultaneously. Carved open at will in the first half, we improved in the second and nabbed some pride at the end with a goal from the man of the moment, Giroud. And then the same thing happened again yesterday.

Into the valleys of the Ribble rode the 6,000 Arsenal fans, but theirs was not to reason why two distinct Arsenals would turn up once again. All we can say is that it’s a good job Preston didn’t take several of their other presentable chances. But really, why did we play like that? “They surprised us with their commitment,” said Giroud afterwards, a comment that is probably best not dwelled on too long.

In the end, it doesn’t really matter I suppose, because we edged through to the fourth round, despite missing a phalanx of players for one reason or another. But I don’t think anyone’s under any illusions that we can get keep on getting away with being this skittish. This season is already turning out to be fiercely competitive, and any more fits of daydreaming like this will doubtless see us drift further off the pace. Six teams will be squeezing into four (if getting into the Champions League is your thing – it’s been a while since it’s got me fizzing), and who’s your money on right now? Could go anywhere.

I do wonder when we have weeks like this – and those like the one before Christmas when we lost to Everton and City – whether this is an excellent Arsenal team prone to switching off, or an average Arsenal team prone to occasional excellence.

Anyway, that all sounds more miserable than it ought to, because there were some positives in the end, quite apart from staying in the FA Cup. Lucas had a decent game topped off with a match-winning assist, and it was good to see Ramsey back on the scoresheet too. Giroud, who for all his frustrations is £10m extremely well spent, continues to be crucial. And I love watching Iwobi ghosting about the place in his languid style.

With Giroud, we are perhaps reaping the rewards of not overcooking him by February, which is something we’ve done on several occasions. When he hits that physical brick wall, boy does he hit it. Having him fit and firing to the end, alongside Welbeck, Alexis and Lucas, is a mouthwatering prospect (if almost entirely implausible – that would require the medical gods to align in spectacular fashion, and this, lest we forget, is Arsenal).

As for what happens next, well we should have Alexis and Ozil back for Saturday’s trip to Swansea, and with any luck both will be a little refreshed. In terms of their futures, I’ve detached myself from it to be honest. It’s just not worth fretting about because there’s so much smoke and mirrors.

Today we read that Ozil is happy and would be happy to sign a new deal, but it depends on Wenger staying. In true Arsenal style, all this really does is muddy the water for our divided fanbase, because for many, ‘Wenger staying’ is part of the problem rather than the key to the solution.

Like I say, I won’t lose much sleep over it. I’d like Alexis and Ozil to stay, of course I would, because losing both would be a big blow, footballistically. It would be damaging in terms of the allure of the club if they left. But players come and go and sometimes it’s as simple as that.

With that flourish of sang-froid, I bid thee goodnight. Here’s to racing out of the blocks at the Liberty, ideally in the first half.

Where’s my commemorative pen, Arsène?

Chapeau to you Arsène, for 20 years of dedication, for transforming Arsenal and for giving us some truly magical moments.

For 98, 02, 03, 04, 05, 14 and 15 and plenty of what-might-have-beens between.

For pushing Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Keown and Adams that bit further. For Vieira, for Overmars, for Henry, for Pires, for Campbell, Fabregas, Ozil and Sanchez.

For never finishing below Spurs.

Yes, it’s been up and down. We’ve moved from dour to delicious, and back a bit. We’ve been beautiful but brittle – sometimes at the same time.

We’ve been fabulous and frustrating. We’ve had it all these last twenty years to be honest, and while – like many people – I question Wenger’s teams, tactics and future more than I ever did, I rate him so highly as a man.

He’s an amazing ambassador and figurehead for Arsenal. He’s intelligent, educated and sharp. We know that he can be stubborn and difficult, but in public he’s loyal to his players and loyal to the club, and he never makes it about himself. I suppose you could say he’s a company man, even if it sometimes feels like he’s the company.

So congratulations, Arsène. It takes rare passion and skill to last this long, to be this consistent and to retain a good sense of humour when jobsworths like me criticise you. If it had been me, I’d have caved in at the first whiff of criticism.

It seems like a pleasant coincidence that as we look back at his reign, his latest team has hit a vein of form. I wonder if people would have worded things differently had we been wading through stodge on the pitch.

Probably. But I try to look at the bigger picture, and Wenger’s time at Arsenal will be remembered as hugely successful on the pitch, and transformative off it. We have a lot to thank him for.

Oh, and Arsène – I’ve been blogging about you and your sides since 2003, mostly without resorting to abuse – and for that I demand my own commemorative pen like the ones you so generously gave the members of Her Majesty’s press.

DM me and I’ll fire over my deets, fam.