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Commentary

Wenger will say au revoir and deserves a dignified farewell

Stop all the clock ends, cut off the zip on that quilted coat. Arsene Wenger heads towards the exit at the Emirates Stadium, and rightly so, belatedly so after overseeing such a long, damaging, mortifying decline.

Many Arsenal fans will breathe a sigh of relief at the manager's departure and rejoice at the prospect of new blood, ideas and impetus but the dethroning of a club legend is also touched with sorrow.

This is why Wenger has to announce as spring looms that he will leave in the summer. Only then can the 67-year-old enjoy a more decorous farewell, preventing the atmosphere at the Emirates from becoming even more noxious, reuniting a footballing family torn apart and giving the board a couple of months to prepare for the most important decision it will ever take.

Invariably, respect is the first casualty of such tense times. Arsenal have always tried to conduct themselves with dignity and it would be good if the ethos of the Hill-Wood family, who provided three generations of chairmen, shaped the parting with the club's greatest manager.

This is not the moment to topple the statue outside the Emirates and beat it angrily with a shoe. The emperor of the Emirates was no tyrant. The Frenchman was an inspiring revolutionary for the first decade of his tenure, but he has become a museum piece, overtaken by the lauded likes of Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, Antonio Conte and Massimiliano Allegri, and Jorge Sampaoli and Unai Emery. The tipping point was reached in the Allianz Arena on Wednesday. No question.

It is possible to protest against Wenger, as increasing numbers of fans are now doing, while also cherishing the uplifting part he played in their lives. He has done so much for Arsenal and English football but the memory of the heights he reached, certainly with the double-winners of 1998 and then the Invincibles of 2004, merely shows how far he has fallen.

He has done so much for Arsenal and English football but the memory of the heights he reached, certainly with the double-winners of 1998 and then the Invincibles of 2004, merely shows how far he has fallen. He is the pacesetter who has been left behind.

He is the pacesetter who has been left behind. All those innovations, the radical changes to diet with broccoli and fish on the menu and sugar off it, and all that stretching made Arsenal pioneers in the Premier League. All those flowing moves between Robert Pires, Dennis Bergkamp and Thierry Henry, and that winning mix of toughness and touch in Patrick Vieira made Arsenal champions of England and champions of good football.

Wenger's perfectionism defined the building of the Emirates, the dressing-room colour schemes, sumptuous decor backstage and the quality of the food and drink. Much of what is now standard practice at leading clubs owes copyright to the man from Alsace.

He will go but his legacy is all around, in crafted bricks and designer mortar. His rise and fall offers lessons to others, something for Pro Licence students to analyse in the quest for perpetual development.

Even the greats need somebody to challenge them, as Alex Ferguson did by changing his assistants, but Wenger did not like confrontation, even if for legitimate reasons of creative enhancement.

It's like his training; he doesn't like challenges. It's why he upset Vieira by not including his Invincibles captain on his staff.

His influence on Arsenal is highlighted by the complicated process of his inevitable exit, and removal from all parts of club life. Arsenal's board has first to decide whether it wants to adopt an axis of head coach working with a director of football. Even if so, the club cannot countenance Wenger staying "upstairs" as the shadow cast would be too long.

Changing the Wenger culture will be a long, probably painful process but one that the club have to embark on. Arsenal need a clean break and they will recover. Wenger himself may take longer.

It is impossible to see him retired, sitting in a cafe on the Left Bank, debating Moliere and Sartre. He's certainly cultured, intelligent and curious about life but the fact remains that he's addicted to football. The parting will hurt him more than Arsenal but he has to go for the good of the club he loves.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 18, 2017, with the headline 'Wenger will say au revoir and deserves a dignified farewell'. Print Edition | Subscribe