LONDON – Arsene Wenger will be given a hero’s farewell at Emirates Stadium on Sunday when Arsenal plays Burnley, though the genuine affection rightly afforded him will be matched by a sense of relief that the greatest manager in the club’s history is leaving after 22 years.
The Frenchman’s last appearance as Arsenal manager at the stadium comes in the wake of another European exit that has become all too familiar in recent years. So near yet so far, a season that promised more than it delivered — the Groundhog Day scenario post-2004 Invincibles.
“I want to finish this love story well, with Arsenal back in the Champions League,” Wenger said before the Europa League semifinal second leg against Atletico Madrid. Arsenal has the worst away form in the top-six tiers of English football when it comes to league matches, and this was replicated in Wanda Metropolitano Stadium as the home team won 1-0 to give it an aggregate 2-1 victory.
There was an air of inevitability about the scorer of Atletico’s goal. Diego Costa had battered Arsenal, sometimes too literally, during his Chelsea days and on Thursday continued where he left off during his time in England with another winner against the Gunners. The love story did not have a happy ending and once again the Europa League beckons for Arsenal next season.
The Arsenal fans’ growing frustration and empty seats at the Emirates pressurized the board to reach a mutual agreement with Wenger — effectively he was told to step down — even though he had one season to run on his contract. It is difficult to find many Arsenal supporters who disagree with the decision, however it was reached and the emotionally charged match against Burnley is a battle for sixth place — a point guarantees Arsenal that dubious distinction — not really how the man who has given the club so much wanted to bow out. After that it is away to Leicester City on Wednesday and next Sunday the grand finale at Huddersfield.
It is easy to say Arsenal was fifth when it sacked Bruce Rioch to bring in Wenger and he leaves the club in a worse position. A little perspective is needed and apart from three Premier League titles and seven F.A. Cup victories, Wenger’s astute management in the transfer market helped to finance Arsenal’s move from Highbury to Emirates, while keeping the club in the Champions League and winning a few domestic cups.
A few miles away Tottenham’s new stadium is nearing completion, yet Mauricio Pochettino has not been called upon to be a bank manager as well as a football manager, while Spurs’ trophy cabinet has had no new addition since the League Cup 10 years ago.
No football writer broke the news about Wenger’s departure. There was no scoop, no world exclusive “Wenger to quit” headline. The news leaked out on the morning of the press conference to announce his exit and questions were asked by sports editors of correspondents who follow Arsenal how, with their army of contacts,the board managed to keep what would have been an award-winning story under wraps.
On a personal note, I shall miss Wenger, the most cooperative and charismatic manager I have worked with. He has never ducked a press conference or a question on any subject and throughout the will-he won’t-he saga of his new contract a year ago he acted with a dignity that put the Wenger Out brigade to shame.
If you asked him about the war in Syria, he would probably come up with an answer more enlightening than most politicians. Yes,he could be grumpy, not see incidents his own team had committed and was a bad loser. But as former NFL head coach Vince Lombardi said: “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you a loser.”
Wenger rarely did small talk with the media after press conferences, but when he dropped his guard a little he was the most engaging of company. When asked: “If you were stuck in an elevator, would you rather be with Jose Mourinho or Sir Alex Ferguson?” he smiled and said: “Are there any stairs?”
It is rare that Wenger is stuck for words, but when questioned whether he was really aware of the passion fans have for Arsenal, he told a tale that left him speechless. He was in South Africa having breakfast when he was approached by a man who said: “Mr. Wenger, I am from Kenyan Television.”
“Pleased to meet you.”
“Arsenal has many supporters in Kenya, Mr. Wenger.”
“Yes, I know Arsenal is very popular there. That is good.”
“My cousin was a huge Arsenal supporter. He committed suicide when you lost 8-2 to Manchester United.”
As he prepares Arsenal for the last time at Emirates in his 606th and final home game, Wenger will try to put the emotion of the occasion aside — good luck with that, Arsene — he can be reasonably confident of going out with a victory. Arsenal is on a four-match winning streak at home in the league, scoring at least three goals in each of those.
Wenger will be missed, and as the supporters pay tribute to the man, it is churlish on this occasion to say he should have gone three or four years ago. His contribution to Arsenal and English football has been immense — merci, Arsene, and no doubt the football gods have already decided he will return with another club.
Rangers in talks with Gerrard
Steven Gerrard has been holding talks with Rangers about becoming their new manager. The former Liverpool captain has been the academy coach at Anfield, which is a million miles from the religious hotbed of Old Firm Glasgow.
Celtic, managed by Gerrard’s former Liverpool boss Brendan Rodgers, is head and shoulders above Rangers, which is not even the second-best team in Scotland — Aberdeen is. A dysfunctional club, Rangers need a manager with experience, not a star name. Rangers do not have the financial clout to invest in the players they need to become Scotland’s top dogs again; they sacked caretaker manager Graham Murty two weeks before the end of the season, they have not won any of the last 11 Old Firm matches while last July Rangers were beaten 2-1 in the Europe League by Progres Niederkorn of Luxembourg, which had finished fourth in its national league.
Gerrard has the qualities to be a top manager one day, but he should be wary of starting his career at a club that has become synonymous with bad news and failure.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.