Monday, April 23, 2018

Thanks for the trophies, but...

WENGER'S DEPARTURE LEAVES AN ODD AURA AROUND ARSENAL

So Arsene Wenger is leaving after 22 years in charge of Arsenal and after such a long stretch, moving the familiar furniture creates an unusual feeling.

Emirates Stadium
Emirates Stadium
Yesterday the fans at Ashburton Grove gave him a polite and warm welcome but hardly an overwhelming crescendo of praise for a departing hero on his way to Valhalla.

It was after all supporter unrest in the form of banners, chants and vacated seats which ultimately sealed his fate.

Arsenal have been drifting for some years and there is no doubt that had Wenger not transformed the club and engineered its new stadium, he would have been fired some time ago. It is impossible to think he would have lasted as long at Barcelona, Manchester United or Real Madrid for instance.

Such an elephantine reign in a business where bosses last an average of 18 months is extraordinary and for that the Frenchman deserves much praise.

Only Alex Ferguson's 27 years at Manchester United or Brian Clough's 18 at Nottingham Forest compare in the English top flight.

Like those men he had become almost unsackable because of the body of work he had already produced and the metamorphosis he had effected.

Yet Wenger also resembled Guy Roux in the way his fellow countryman embodied Auxerre over 44 years, while Valeriy Lobanovsky's 19 years of statistical and technical innovation at Dynamo Kiev have similarities with the wholesale changes Wenger brought to Highbury.

Once the Arsenal board realised the man they had hired to replace the yeoman Bruce Rioch was intent on a revolution on all fronts they bowed down to his evidently superior wisdom, even if two decades down the line that deference had turned into a hindrance.

Wenger modernised English football more than anyone really, and it was his bank of ideas more than Sky TV's millions which changed the First Division into the Premier League.

Arsenal had a notorious drinking culture before his arrival but Wenger soon cut that out and swapped the steak and chips for pasta and broccoli.

He brought in conditioning and not just training, using his economics background to apply performance analysis to justify his changes, including selling star players once they had reached their maximum transfer value.

He also used dieticians, masseurs and psychologists in a successful attempt to make football truly professional and move beyond the traditional virtues of English football, which had grown obsolete.

Yet however huge his achievements at Arsenal, it became hard to justify the club keeping him in the dugout for another season.

Last campaign was a disaster as the club failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time in 20 years. One wonders if winning the F.A. Cup on the last day of the season even saved the manager's bacon.

Winning the Europa League this year and qualifying for the Champions League through the back door will not be enough. The club appears to have already made up its mind to relieve Wenger in the summer, hence his desire to leap first to avoid the end of season guillotine.

Indeed it should be noted that the Frenchman did exit with consummate grace, gently and almost silently, refusing to blame anyone in the management or be overcome with much emotion.

The fan protests became loud last season, with several anti-Wenger banners visible. This season they have returned and for the first time the ghastly spectre of swathes of empty seats at home games has added insult to injury.

Add to that star player Alexis Sanchez's departure to Manchester United, Arsenal's embarrassing F.A. Cup exit as holders to managerless Nottingham Forest of the Championship and their 3-0 League Cup final loss to Manchester City and the mood of gloom seemed ingrained. Perhaps the only spot of hope for Arsenal is young midfielder Alex Iwobi, who fans can next see if when they watch the FIFA World Cup 2018 HD.

Sailing wide of the Champions League for a second successive season was surely the coup de grace for another season of unhappiness. However inert the owners appeared last season in failing to act on supporter unrest, this time they have done the right thing.

Those owners must take some blame for allowing the club, rated the sixth richest in the world by Deloitte this year, with wealth almost twice that of Europa League rivals Atletico Madrid, to slowly deteriorate from their invincible season of 2003-'04 and Champions League final of 2006.

The drawn-out struggle between Stan Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov for majority control did not help Wenger or the team.

Arsenal have clearly been in decline for some time and a sluggishness has infected the starting eleven, who have only been able to raise themselves for certain games.

One shudders when comparing the great Arsenal back four of Dixon, Winterburn, Adams and Bould/Keown which Wenger inherited with the ropey defence of recent years, the midfield enforcers of Vieira and Petit/Gilberto with the current crop of Granit Xhaka and Mohamd Elneny or even the mercurial yet inconsistent talents of Mesut Ozil and Sanchez with the diamonds that were Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry.

Wenger had the advantage over his rivals for a few years after bringing the benefits of sports science to bear on the English game, but his rivals have all copied his methods and caught up.

The only solution was to look for new ideas in the same way Alex Ferguson brought assistants like Carlos Quieroz and Steve McClaren to sit beside him but Wenger, whom Pat Rice shadowed for so many years, was allegedly unwilling to accept others' ideas.

This included a director of football, the norm at most clubs but absent until this season at Arsenal. In that sense, Wenger's demand for total control over transfers resembles that of Clough and traditional English gaffers more than the new continental era he supposedly ushered in.

He should not leave wholly blameless. While he was right to call time on certain English football traditions such as the pies and pints, he paid scant respect to others.

He was quite happy to source players from all over the world and often left British players on the periphery. Young English talents like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Theo Walcott and Jack Wilshere all began well under Wenger but failed to reach their expected promise and were transferred.

International football meant little to him, much less any respect for England's national team.

The F.A. Cup, the sport's oldest competition, has lost its stuffing and special character and while the Champions League's riches are largely to blame, it was the Alsatian former coach of Monaco who began the trend of fielding reserve teams in that competition, as well as in the League Cup.

Ironically it was the F.A. Cup he captured most often, seven times in total, including last season's win over Chelsea, which could prove to have been his last trophy.

While courteous to the press after a victory, too often Wenger entered wars of words with other managers and referees when game decisions or results went against him.

Notoriously he would bemoan apparent miscarriages of justice committed against his side but when roles were reversed trotted out the sheepish phrase "I did not see it so I cannot comment", a refrain which turned into something of a comic turn.

His character was that of a research scientist totally devoted to the job in hand, certain he would attain his goals with the correct application of the methods he had studied.

So when the equations failed to work and Arsenal failed to become one of Europe's greats, invariably exiting in the last eight of the Champions League, the measured and polite professor would turn into Mr Hyde, raging at the cruelty of fate.

Even yesterday at his first post-match conference following his announcement he equivocated, first apportioning blame to the supporter unrest:

"Our fans did not give the image of unity I want and that was hurtful...The image we gave from our club is not what it is," he told reporters, before adding confusingly,

"I have nothing more to say. I am not resentful with (sic) the fans...It is nothing to do with the fans."

Like Arsenal's fans, people are split on the final analysis of Wenger.

The 2006 Champions League final against Barcelona, lost 2-1 after leading and going a man down early on, remains the official high point of Wenger's Arsenal, although the superb football they played in their unbeaten season of 2004 and the following campaign, with Henry pre-eminent, will live longer in the annals.

And finally, the historic cathedral of Highbury he wasted no time in asking to leave in exchange for a new and bigger home. Inevitable perhaps, but melancholic too.

Arsenal had some golden spells under Wenger but like all great leaders, he stayed in power for too long. Change was clearly required now.

Yet he leaves as the club's greatest and most significant manager. 22 years in charge while Chelsea went though 19 coaches remains an extraordinary testament to him, as does the Emirates Stadium.

As Christopher Wren's tomb in St Paul's cathedral says,

"Si requiris monumentum, circumspice - If you are seeking my monument, look around you."

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

No comments: