Arsene Wenger always puts Arsenal first - now that means walking away
Arsenal could not have wished for a more dedicated and thoughtful servant than Arsene Wenger, writes Tom Adams, but a man who always has the club's best interests at heart surely realises what he must do next.
The overwhelming sensation is one of sadness. The sight of Arsene Wenger, backed into a corner by increasingly angry and united voices, being forced to make a case for why he shouldn’t have to quit his job of two decades. No one wanted it to come to this.
It seemed pointed, deliberate. An invitation for supporters to imagine a world in which Wenger is manager of Barcelona or Paris Saint-Germain and not Arsenal. It will have excited some, but would have given others pause for thought. Despite it all, if Wenger left this summer he would take some of Arsenal’s soul with him. Arsenal would lose a man who has dedicated the best years of his life to them. It is no small thing.
Whatever you think of Wenger, it has never been about him, not really. Even approaching what could be the end, his priority is Arsenal and the good health of the club.
On Friday he told the assembled media:
" I think what is important is that the club makes the right decision for the future. I do not work here for 20 years not to care about this club, because I had many opportunities to go somewhere else during that period and I care about this club and I care about its future. It is very important that the club is always in safe hands, whether that is me or someone else, which I am sure it will be."
Wenger has always been protective of the club, treating Arsenal's money as if it was his own. It has been a failing at times, but it comes from a selfless place. Wenger could have tried to pressure the board into going beyond their means to furnish him with as many superstars as possible, but had no interest in doing so. It did not make economic sense, and it went against Wenger's sporting ideals too.
Instead, Wenger took on the task of keeping Arsenal competitive while they paid off their new stadium with intelligence and diligence. Mistakes were made, and these were exaggerated by the influx of new money from Chelsea and Manchester City which rendered Arsenal even more uncompetitive, but at the heart of it, Wenger committed himself to a long-term project of renewal which knowingly restricted his own ambitions of winning major silverware.
He turned down England, Real Madrid, Manchester City and Barcelona - along with all the job offers and enquiries we never heard about. “When we built the stadium the banks demanded I signed for five years,” he said last year. “I did it. Do you want me to tell you how many clubs I turned down during that period? I have shown I am committed.”
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger had to let many of his best players goPA Photos
At a time when Arsenal had to sell a star player every summer, Wenger could have been spending liberally to win the Spanish league and Champions League with one of the biggest clubs in the world - "If I went to Real Madrid tomorrow I would spend at all costs," he once told the Mail. But he chose something else. His strategy of relying on a core of young players was imperfect, but he guided Arsenal through a very tricky time with the required seriousness and dedication. Through that period of metamorphosis they emerged from their cocoon a very different creature.
Wenger has overseen nothing less than the total transformation of a club. He helped design the new stadium; he oversaw the construction of a new training ground; he built the scouting and coaching structures which underpin everything; he implemented a new philosophy to reinvent “boring, boring Arsenal”; he signed every single player over the past 20 years, including some of the greatest in the club’s history; and his essence can be found in every pore of the club.
Some elements of this infrastructure have not aged well, and it is a long time since Wenger’s Arsenal were seen as revolutionary or at the forefront of innovation, but there is no question that his body of work is epic in scope. He has done more than any figure in the modern history of the club, more perhaps than even Herbert Chapman, to make Arsenal what they are.
And then there is everything he hasn’t done.
He hasn’t used the club as a vehicle for self-promotion, or a platform to advance an agenda or wage wars against his enemies.
He hasn’t been distracted by outside influences or used the club to enrich himself or his friends or relatives.
He hasn’t brought scandal on the club or lashed out at his employers, supporters or his players. Loyal to a fault, perhaps, but always loyal.
Arsenal manager Arsene WengerPA Photos
Wenger may be one of the best paid managers in the world, which has grated with fans at those moments when he has been so reluctant to spend money on players, but it has never been about that. Rather, it has been a love affair over two decades, a story of commitment, hard work, reward and no little heartache too. But it has never been a financial transaction. He could have earned more elsewhere, but what would he spend it on? Wenger barely seems to have a life outside of the club. He has given Arsenal everything he has.
And yet, everything comes to an end. Speaking in 2009, in a typically intelligent and thoughtful interview, Wenger discussed the importance of football to his life, and what the end of his career might look like:
" I decided that the most important thing in your life is to have a target and to go for it. All the rest is even more stressful. It is worse to have no target. You get up in the morning you enjoy one minute, then the next minute, what do you do then? Somewhere in all of us is the desire to feel we are useful, that we have some qualities and we can demonstrate them... You would have to answer the question whether you were not good enough anymore, or is the policy you have conducted not good enough and if the answer is yes, then something else has to happen."
The great servant of Arsenal still has one last task to complete, one final moment when he has to subjugate his own needs to those of the club. It is to walk away, and hand over the club he has so carefully nurtured to the next pair of safe hands who can take it forward, just as he always knew he would have to one day.