When Should Wenger Have Resigned?
By The Way - Weekly Columns
We are now, surely, reaching the end game as far as Arsene Wenger being the manager of Arsenal is concerned. I appreciate you’ll have heard this before, and any Arsenal watchers will know that the manager signed a new two-year deal in the summer. He reminds us regularly that he never walks out on a contract, and the Board have frequently offered him their support, but given the way the season has gone (title chances vanishing months ago, top four disappearing over the horizon, FA Cup defence ending in January, an unhappy dressing room, terrible performances, contract problems and more), things can’t continue as they are. So there may be some smoke and mirrors, some clever wordplay, some other manoeuvrings that’ll allow The Boss to leave with dignity, but I would be staggered if there wasn’t a new manager (or Head Coach, perhaps?) in place come August. The ‘behind the scenes’ work has been moving on apace, with appointments in recruitment and scouting, just to name a couple, and it finally seems that the club are ready to make the most significant change it’s made for twenty years. It’s going to be quite an upheaval, as the rebuilding work may (hopefully temporarily) extend the clubs underperformance as regards the league table, so some patience may be required – Arsenal fans will be hoping for a smooth transition of power to minimise this as much as possible. Wenger’s achievements at the club have guaranteed him legendary status, and once he’s left I don’t think it’ll be too long before the years of (relative) famine are pushed to one side. But as each year has passed with him still in place, the successes have become more ephemeral and overshadowed by the continued Premier League underperformance. This got me thinking – when should Wenger have left, in order to maintain a spotless legacy? I slightly surprised myself with my answer, which was earlier than expected – although of course I have the benefit of hindsight. Whatever your views on his reign, I think we can quickly agree that the period 1996 – 2005 is off limits here! During that period Arsenal had three league titles and five other seasons where they finished second. They completed the Double twice and added another couple of FA Cups as well. They also went through a league season unbeaten, a feat that even the current impressive Man City team can no longer match – not this season, at least. The performances in Europe during this period were perhaps slightly underwhelming – no semi finals in the Champions League and a very disappointing runners-up spot in the UEFA Cup (kids, ask your parents), but it would have been extremely churlish to dismiss a man after that near decade of success. Arsenal moved to the Emirates for the start of the 2006/07 season, and since then have struggled to compete at the very top end of the Premier League. In the eleven completed seasons since the move, Arsenal have finished second once, third four times and fourth five times. Last season it was a fifth-place finish, and it’s unlikely to be better than that in 2017/18. There’s some domestic mitigation, with three FA Cups in the last four seasons, but that’s been offset by European failure – 8 times during that period the round of 16 has been the limit of Arsenal’s progress, where on a couple of occasions they’ve been completely outclassed. The period 2007/08 to 2009/10, when they racked up two quarter final appearances along with a semi-final showing, seems an awfully long time ago…I should mention, of course, the influx of money that’s come in to a few clubs during this period, but Arsenal have often been a long way off the pace. They did come close, of course – 2007/08 (Birmingham, Eduardo, Gallas) and 2010/11 (4-4 Newcastle away after being 4-0 up, loss to Bolton), but all those seasons did was give Wenger another chance. Arsenal and Wenger became locked in some kind of mutual downward spiral, the manager just doing enough to want to stay, the board being happy to let him. And that’s where we are now – it would be easy to blame the new stadium for that decade of not competing, but reducing all of the Arsenal problems to financing is surely too simplistic. So, when should he have gone? Well, this may seem strange, particularly given what I said earlier, but I think summer 2006 would have been the perfect time for Wenger to move on. His team had just come within 15 minutes of being Champions League winners, having given Barcelona a run for their money whilst down to 10 men (and, by the way, what a great Champions League campaign that was for Arsenal – ten clean sheets, dispatching Real Madrid and Juventus on the way to the final). Domestically, they only finished fourth – but what a fourth, overtaking Spurs on the last day with an Henry hat trick securing the position in the last game at Highbury. Off the field, the move to the Emirates was all but complete, Highbury closing was the end of an era and so far, the club had managed the transition well, apparently on time and in budget. It would have set a successor up perfectly. Had Arsene chosen to leave then, he’d have essentially been an Earth bound deity as far as Arsenal fans were concerned, whereas now that legacy has been tarnished. As I left the ground that May day in 2006, enjoying the win and humiliation of Spurs, it would never have occurred to me how much longer I’d be waiting for Arsenal to next win the title, or indeed how it’s the North London neighbours that now look more likely. Of course, the idea of Wenger leaving at that point would have been ridiculed at the time – I daresay that’s what I would have done – but now doesn’t it look rather neat? @Ugster1
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