Arsène Wenger, whose cerebral approach transformed British football, has announced his departure from Arsenal football club, bringing to a close a 22-year reign as manager.
The 68-year-old Frenchman’s decision to quit — though not unexpected in light of the team’s decline in recent seasons — shocked many in the game. Wenger is known for his stubbornness and has always insisted he would see out his contract.
The club’s majority owner, US billionaire Stan Kroenke, had only last summer given Wenger a new two-year deal and consistently placed huge faith in the manager, even when it was clear the club was struggling to compete at the top level.
Arsenal’s board had previously shown no interest in planning Wenger’s succession. But as the club’s form worsened this season, it was widely reported that Kroenke had asked his son Josh, already a non-executive director at Arsenal, for a review.
“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season,” Wenger said in a statement posted on the club’s website.
His longevity, along with that of Alex Ferguson — the former Manchester United manager who served for a quarter of a century — was a rare example of stability in a profession where managers are appointed and sacked with unseemly haste.
His durability owed much to the near-instant success he achieved at Arsenal, one of European football’s most storied clubs that in the 1980s and early 1990s had developed a reputation for functional but boring football.
His appointment as manager in September 1996 was greeted with surprise and bemusement in the English game, where the first wave of foreign managers were struggling to make an impact. Few had heard of the bespectacled outsider, who made little impact as a player and managed inconspicuous teams in France and Japan.
But in his first full season, he guided Arsenal to the “double”, winning the FA Cup and the Premier League — a rare feat in the game. He achieved it through the combination of scouting relatively unknown players from France and elsewhere and importing them at bargain prices, while revolutionising the club’s training methods and style of play.
Even the refreshing way he spoke about the game contrasted with the cliché-ridden patter of British managers and players at the time.
After the club won another “double” in 2002, the peak of his reign came two years later, when Arsenal went the entire 2003-04 Premier League season without losing a game — a feat unsurpassed in the modern game in England.
Only Preston North End had previously managed it, in the 1888/89 inaugural season of league football. Arsenal’s achievement led the media to dub Wenger’s team the “Invincibles”.
This feat brought Wenger his third and last Premier League title, and gave him another record — including games played at the end of the previous season and at the start of the following one, Arsenal went 49 games unbeaten, the longest sequence achieved in the history of top-flight English football.
That marked a high point for the club under Wenger. Its subsequent decline has become as excruciating for fans as its success was celebrated.
Although the club won the FA Cup win in 2005, Arsenal then endured almost a decade without success. After losing the final of Champions League in 2006, Arsenal did not win another trophy until the FA Cup in 2014.
Wenger went on to lift that trophy twice more: in 2015 and again in 2017. Arsenal currently hold the record for the most FA Cup wins at 13, with Wenger having won seven of them — the most by any manager.
But those successes merely papered over cracks as the club lost its competitive edge in the Premier League, while its fitful performances in the Uefa Champions League have at times verged on the embarrassing. The current season is the first under Wenger that Arsenal failed to qualify for Europe’s top club competition after 20 years in succession.
Most of this decade has seen a growing split among the “Gooners” — the nickname for the legion of Arsenal fans — between those who remained faithful to their long-serving manager and revered him for the success he brought to the club, and those who believed his methods and tactics had become tired.
It was painful for fans and commentators, as the manager who in many ways revolutionised the way English clubs approached the game — from dietary preparations and mental application to technical ability — was being overtaken by new, more dynamic methods, yet appeared incapable of changing his ways.
At the same time, the club’s owners and directors seemed unable or unwilling to change course, trusting a manager in whom they gave full rein over player transfers, wages and strategy.
Wenger had an array of epithets to describe his philosophy. Above all, he cherished the “values” that he instilled in Arsenal and in his resignation statement, he urged its fans to “take care of the values of the club”.
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