As Arsène Wenger walks into the sunset after 22 years in charge, we look at his Arsenal career from the opposite corner, and get a glimpse of his immense contribution to the English game.
The best seats in a football stadium are behind the goal-posts. Large stands, like the Stretford End, the Kop, or the Sudtribune at Dortmund, have screamed and shouted and chanted their way into football folklore. Standing amongst those privileged thousands, one must feel they’re directly contributing to the outcome of the play on field.
But they come with the caveat of near-field vision. In some of the bigger stadiums, it is difficult to see what’s really happening at the other end, and as a result your focus narrows to the goal in front of you, stretching at best to the centre of the pitch. Maybe that’s why the media, a profession built on the pillars of objectivity, get seats near the centre-circle, equidistant from both goals.
Over the last week, since the news of Arsène Wenger quitting has filtered through, keyboards have clattered at a faster pace, not least from the Arsenal end of the stadium. “Nah fam, fuck him” has turned to “I know I was harsh on him, he’s a legend, but I love Arsenal”, and “Voyeur and specialist in failure” has given way to “I regret the sour episodes with Mr. Wenger”. Life comes at you fast in football. In the middle of all this outburst, it may be worthwhile to take a step back, and revisit Wenger’s legacy from the far side.
Jack Dorsey was 20, and Mark Zuckerberg was 12, when Arsenal Football Club, a team draped in illustrious legacy and success, appointed a manager from Nagoya Grampus Eight, a tiny club from Japan. It took Dorsey and Zuck a decade more to come up with Twitter and Facebook, and that was enough time for the club to take a risk on a virtual nobody to follow on from the sparkling career of George Graham. Imagine Yahiro Kazama taking over at Arsenal next season.
English football had long suffered from chronic insularity, refusing to gaze outwards and learn from the rest of the continent who were building a massive quality gap between themselves and the Premier League, despite owning comparatively lower resource banks. Ever since Wing Commander Charles Reep famously suggested that it takes three passes upfield into the opposition penalty box to give forwards the best chance of creating a scoring opportunity, the English have convinced themselves owners of statistical and tactical balance.
Entering this ecosystem as a man of charts, graphs and spreadsheets, and disrupting the entire thought-process, was Arsène Wenger’s greatest contribution to himself, Arsenal and football as a sport. In the summer of 1997, one year into Wenger’s English sojourn, Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United were coming through a five-year spell which had landed four Premier League titles and two FA Cups. Gary Pallister, a man who “looked tired in the second minute” played 27 league games in the ‘96-97 season.
The greatest leaders, much like animals of prey, thrive on fear. Ferguson, a connoisseur of bubble-gums and hair-dryers, had good reason to believe that his all-conquering side had achieved an unassailable realm by this time and the 1997-98 season was going to conclude with more garlands around his neck. He couldn’t yet smell the coffee that Wenger had brewed patiently for a year, letting every single bean melt into an aroma strong enough to wake an entire country up from a deep slumber.
Gary Pallister stepped up to 33 league games in that ‘97-98 season, and looked good to last United a few more years, before Ferguson finally woke up in cold sweat and realised the man from France was parading across London with the Premier League and FA Cup trophies. Wenger had managed to marry aesthetics and physicality at Arsenal to the most devastating effect. It was a rude body-blow to English football, and the oracle of Manchester United Football Club had rarely been more rattled, before or since. That summer, the monumental Jaap Stam replaced Gary Pallister at the centre of United’s defence, and formed the bedrock on which they would win the treble.
A good chunk of Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal lies in making English audiences see what was needed to build a durable and successful framework at the domestic and continental level, even if it didn’t always come through at his own club. He was also an economist by education, and sometimes approached the game through the eyes of one too, seeing things much before most others could imagine their existence.
Alongside the more illuminated diet and training transformations, there was the emphasis on numbers that marked Wenger as ahead of his time. As long back as 1996, a time when analyst teams were smaller than matchday squads, he was blood-thirsty for reports and graphs of player-performances every Monday. In the spring of 2016, FC Midtjylland, a Danish club founded three years after Wenger joined Arsenal, moneyballed their way to a European victory over Manchester United. Long before the advent of dime-a-dozen tactical blogs and xG metrics floating on computer screens, Arsène Wenger’s team had counter-pressed their way to a Champions League final, and three Premier League titles.
For a good part of his first decade in charge at Arsenal, he evoked awe and fear from the far end of the stadium. Even the greatest predators are at their most ferocious when they feel attacked. If as a manager, you’re getting to the nerves of Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho, you must’ve done something right.
Past the curved lanes of immediate memory, history will judge Arsène Wenger for what he brought to the game as a coach and person, and the marksheet will look bright and regal, with only a little smudge from his last half-a-decade of relentless struggle to match up to the best in England.
And therein must lie his greatest legacy and tragedy. Wenger, an economist, couldn’t show numbers for all his efforts, but left behind an era of intangible contribution to his club and the sport he holds so close to his heart. When Arsène Wenger walks away with the white shirt and red tie one last time, the entire stadium will stand up to applaud one of the greatest to have coached in England. Not everyone could’ve sent shivers down the spine of an opposite corner which was fronted by Ferguson, Mourinho and Benitez, and he had them all on the mat multiple times, even forcing them to learn a move or two.
Au revoir, Monsieur Wenger. The Premier League was richer for having you.