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Arsene Wenger’s reign at Arsenal must be remembered as much for failures as the Invincibles era

After of years of baying for his blood, it is astonishing that the ‘Wenger Out’ brigade finally has closure. To what end, one wonders? Will the departure of Arsene Wenger heal old scars or open new ones? The transition is likely to be difficult. Wenger’s legacy was the broccoli, the codified fitness regime, the fluid passing; but it was also the hand-wringing, the defensive collapses, and frustrated bottle-throwing.

The pain will be deeply felt over the summer when Arsenal take stock of the transition. The new manager will have a squad which arguably cannot do much better what it is doing right now. And yet, there is a sense that Wenger has dragged the players down. The FA Cup exit to Nottingham Forest rankled particularly. Arsenal are also set to finish with their lowest points total ever under its departing manager.

File image of Arsenal's Arsene Wenger. AFP

File image of Arsenal's Arsene Wenger. AFP

Even as we recall the wonderful accomplishments of early Wenger, the later failures grow in contrast. There was to be no late flourish. In fact, Wenger was forced to battle his ever-receding control over the project he dearly loved. The rise of FC Barcelona had moved him towards imitation; expectedly, the dream foundered.

Barcelona’s success was the result of a systemised style of play, holistically ingrained at the club within everyone. Wenger’s Arsenal, though, were defined in its heydays by blitzing, counter-attacking football. When the Frenchman, driven by aesthetic and financial considerations, shifted towards the Barcelona model, he decided to develop young players of a certain size and skill-set. Variety, however, did not make an appearance.

This flew in the face of Wenger’s past method. He had shown a willingness to adapt in his initial years at the club. When he arrived at Arsenal in 1996, the manager stuck by old-school English defenders like Nigel Winterburn and Lee Dixon — thereby ensuring his sides possessed a thick underbelly. The likes of Patrick Vieira provided more steel, allowing the touch players to do their thing.

However, post-2006, Wenger sought only the technically sound, physically slight figures. Cesc Fabregas drew a neat difference between the Invincibles of 2003-04 and the later Arsenal. “If you made a mistake, there was always someone to make it up for you,” said the now Chelsea midfielder. Fabregas knew, he had grown alongside the players who gave life to Wenger’s vision. As the frustration of successive failures piled on, he and other key players were moved to consider life away from Arsenal.

Wenger’s obstinacy did not help. When Manuel Almunia was the first-choice goalkeeper, Arsenal had a chance to upgrade by signing Shay Given. However, Wenger refused to sign the demonstrably better ‘keeper because he was an inch shorter than the prescribed height. The devil is in the details but the manager was imprisoned by them.

And then, there was the fragile mentality which has defined Wenger’s Arsenal for a long time. When the losses arrived, they arrived in plenty. The inner belief within the side was easily dismantled.

In the book Arsenal: The Making of a Modern Superclub, Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher discussed the paper-thin fortitude which became a defining characteristic of Wenger’s Arsenal. “Losing is not contemplated, and therefore everyone — players and coaches alike — are dumbfounded when it happens… There seems no fallback position from which to regroup. A collective trauma invades. It is as if they have forgotten how to react positively to a defeat, so unexpected is it. Wenger may be a master manager, but it seems that he has no solutions when the unthinkable happens, no way of countering the doubt when the infallibility is disproved.”

Arsenal did not win a league title with Wenger after the Invincibles campaign in 2003-04. Once the club was knocked off its footballing and financial pedestal, there was to be no return to the halcyon days. Although major silverware was an unlikely prospect in the years following Arsenal’s move to the Emirates, Wenger could never get his players to punch above their weight. Worryingly for him, even when the club regained its financial might, his teams frequently underperformed. To make matters worse, their failures were dotted by lack of courage in the face of adversity, as argued by Fynn and Whitcher.

Once every Premier League club had bought into the work ethic and practices pioneered by Wenger, Arsenal lost their edge. The manager dug in his feet and continued to promote his refurbished philosophy but it only led to the detriment of his club. Now that Wenger is leaving, one must applaud the conventions he broke stridently. But one cannot overlook the embittered end to the manager’s time at Arsenal. A growing majority of fans wanted him out and the club has finally taken note.

While the manager is the most dispensable target, the boardroom’s role in Arsenal’s decline cannot be overlooked. The administrators let Wenger gain total control, as he demanded, but remained passive in their running of the club. They stepped in too late, missing out on setting a succession plan in place. As long as the cash reserves stayed high, owner Stan Kroenke and his minions were happy to let the team meet just the minimum targets. The lack of ambition, stemming from the board, left a bad odour to Wenger’s later years.

But the noise grew too loud to ignore. The alarm bells should have rung for Wenger when Josh Kroenke, Stan’s son, arrived in England. It now appears he was sent to carry out the decision which his father could not bring himself to make. Wenger, of course, had always maintained that he would not countenance being sacked; so, a golden handshake was the best compromise.

The slide in the club’s fortunes had been apparent for years, but Wenger rode the storm longer than he should have. The FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015 presented the opportunity for a rosy goodbye, but both the club and the manager were driven by the illusion that better times were ahead. Clearly not.

Now that Arsenal finds themselves in danger of missing out on the Champions League for the second season running, the new manager will have to battle the many ills bequeathed by Wenger and the board. It will be remarkable if the departing manager’s project continues in his absence. For rejuvenation, Arsenal need to pursue a new direction.

Although the Gunners are unlikely to return to the top of the English football hierarchy anytime soon, Wenger’s replacement must be given time to carry out the transformation. His to-be predecessor was certainly afforded the comfort zone. It is imperative that Arsenal do not shift from that practice; a jump towards the superclub era where managers are changed with dizzying frequency will only cause more harm. As Wenger often emphasised, continuity is key.

Updated Date: Apr 22, 2018 16:43 PM

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