Commentary

It's only right for the fading genius to step down

Announcing he was standing down this summer, rather than staying on for another troubled year, Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger has made the right decision.
Announcing he was standing down this summer, rather than staying on for another troubled year, Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger has made the right decision.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

When Arsene Wenger first graced our screens in the great drama of English football, it was like the film flicking suddenly from black and white to technicolour.

But he did more than just transform Arsenal. The Frenchman revolutionised English football.

A statue to Wenger will one day be raised outside the Emirates Stadium because he is indisputably Arsenal's finest manager and the last real emperor of management.

But over the past decade, Wenger lost his knack at astute decision-making. Not on Friday though. Announcing he was standing down this summer, rather than staying on for another troubled year, Wenger has made the right decision.

Most fans could see his race was run. Now a manager notorious for "I did not see it" has seen his decline and reacted.

It is, sadly, necessary to talk about Wenger in the past tense, as his genius, and his years of winning titles and changing the game, have long since gone.

Arsenal have been drifting for a decade, slowly losing all authority in the title race, and now scraping around Europe's B circuit like ageing musicians, hoping for a back-door pass to the Champions League.

To borrow the celebrated phrase of another manager who couldn't cope with Ferguson, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Wenger's time at Arsenal is best summed up as, 'First half good, second half not so good.'

As news flew around like a hurricane, Arsenal's box office struggled to cope with the demand to renew season tickets. Apathy disappeared in seconds. Fans returned. The civil war eased, "WengerIns" and "WengerOuts" reuniting.

Those rows of empty seats will be filled today when Arsenal host West Ham United. It's time to give Wenger the send-off the first decade of his era deserved.

For it was when Alex Ferguson started being nice to Wenger, particularly at a League Managers Association fundraiser in 2008 when the pair shared a sofa and an even cosier Q&A, that suspicions were sown that Wenger had lost his mojo, his elegant menace. Ferguson obviously did not feel that Wenger and Arsenal were a force any more.

To borrow the celebrated phrase of another manager who couldn't cope with Ferguson, Sven-Goran Eriksson, Wenger's time at Arsenal is best summed up as, "First half good, second half not so good."

And how glorious was the first half, essentially 1996 to 2004, comprising three titles and the power and the glory of the Invincibles.

Wenger had the Midas touch, eliciting electric performances from Nicolas Anelka and recruiting majestically in Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Emmanuel Petit. Arsenal exuded physical and mental robustness and technique at speed. Wenger inherited Dennis Bergkamp and made him believe, made him a winner.

Wenger made his players fitter, stronger and more supple. He introduced calisthenics and plyometrics.

He treated players like adults, not children, even though he made them drink more water, and encouraged the taking of vitamin supplements. The creatine sprinkled on breakfast cereal made some players break wind. But he was groundbreaking.

Yes, Arsenal are losing a dignified man, a class act. But it is right he has decided to stand down.

With a weak board and absentee owner, he let it drift, got overtaken by other more visionary coaches, such as Pep Guardiola, and surrounded himself with people who didn't question him enough.

He lost his touch in the transfer market, dithering over N'Golo Kante when it was clear that the Frenchman would leave Leicester City, and played silly games over the pursuit of Luis Suarez at Liverpool. One pound extra. Wenger and Arsenal just looked cornershop.

He allowed Gilberto Silva and Vieira to leave too early, depriving the side of leaders. He made players fitter, then didn't give them more than a year's contract in their thirties, questionable under employment law and again losing authority figures.

He permitted Robin van Persie to join Manchester United. He brought in the likes of Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka for substantial fees with minimal backbone qualities.

Ultimately, he delayed his departure too long. But one thing is certain. Wenger's decision has reunited Arsenal and he will get the royal send-off he deserves.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 22, 2018, with the headline 'It's only right for the fading genius to step down'. Print Edition | Subscribe