For better or worse, there is no other club in world football so synonymously associated with their head coach as Arsenal. Pre-Wenger, Arsenal were a distinctly different club, a club which those of us younger than 30 have few vivid memories of. He has transformed the club in every possible sense. His two-decade tenure has brought with it unprecedented expectations – expectations of both style and success. If not for Sir Alex Ferguson, Wenger would surely stand alone amongst his modern managerial peers as the one to leave behind the greatest legacy.
When Arsenal begin their Premier League campaign on Sunday, Arsene Wenger will, not for the first time, walk out into the Emirates dugout with fewer than 12 months remaining on his existing contract. He has recently insisted he will wait to see how this season pans out before signing any kind of extension. Whether that suggests he’s more likely to sign after a poor start or a good one remains unclear. We do know if it were left up to the man himself, if recent seasons are anything to go by, it would take an almighty shortfall for him to no longer consider himself the best man for the job.
Jose Mourinho has intimated in the past that Wenger has complete job security at Arsenal. It has certainly been the case in the past that, by achieving the bare minimum required for a number of consecutive seasons, an atmosphere of lack of accountability had developed at Arsenal. That sense of comfort in familiarity continues to fade daily in Highbury and, in my opinion, the end of last season seemed to signal the beginning of the end for Wenger, and not just for the fans. My feeling is that Arsene himself has also begun to accept what is becoming more and more inevitable. Questions surrounding his plans after Arsenal have become more commonplace during interviews. He was offered the England role during the summer, a post which surely he nor the FA would have even considered realistic a few years ago.
The toxic atmosphere that had started to boil over at points of last season has calmed. A second place finish thanks to a late Spurs collapse dampened the fact that the same failures had cost the club silverware, again. But that fact hasn’t been completely glossed over this summer in the way it might have been previously. With only one notable first-team signing made as we start the domestic season, the fans expect. With only one outfield signing in the previous two windows, given the resources at Wenger’s disposal, patience is at an all time low and a failure to invest adequately in first team talent, compounded by a poor start would undoubtedly create an atmosphere too volatile to contend with for even a man with such job security.
Even with a successful window – one that leaves fans optimistic, even expectant about Arsenal’s title chances – Wenger has his critics to answer. Arsenal come under the same criticisms tactically each season. One of the more familiar gripes is a lack of leadership in the team. As I write this, Arsenal are yet to release the name of the official club captain for the season and, in my mind, not one candidate stands out with any great certainty. Other top clubs are strengthening daily. Mourinho and Guardiola have been provided the means to succeed; it will be as hard as it has ever been in 2016/17. Arsenal’s record against the other top teams in the league last year was not as bad as previous years and the side maintained a good defensive record. Arsenal have also started to play with a degree more respect for balance in the last couple of years. Wenger is far more willing now to allow other teams to play onto his, creating space at the other end of the pitch, rather than creating hours of meaningless sideways possession.
There is a feeling, to me at least, he has started to compromise on some long held beliefs of late, not only that, but started to see the benefits of doing so. My hope was that this contemporary outlook would spread to his attitude in the transfer market. My hope was that he would want to build a team, use the resources he never used, to bow out in the way we all wish he could. We have a couple of weeks left to see if my hope is validated.
Whether he goes next year or in three or in five, Wenger knows his entire Arsenal career might be defined by what happens between now and then. Success would be the perfect way to bow out. Failure, even an early exit, might leave a stain that can’t ever be removed. One would safely assume he’ll be playing a part in selecting an appropriate successor and for a man like Wenger, I reckon that process would probably take quite a long time. Having seen what happened at Man United after Ferguson left, I’m sure he’ll be keen not to have the same happen to his beloved Arsenal.
One particular question regarding his attitude towards retirement in a recent interview sparked an anecdote about that familiar old foe, Sir Alex. Arsene had asked Sir Alex whether he missed football, Sir Alex replied, “Not at all.” Wenger then said he couldn’t understand that, “It’s an emptiness in your life, especially when you’ve lived your whole life waiting for the next game and trying to win it.”
After buying Wenger’s top scorer from the previous season, Sir Alex ended his Manchester United career with a League title and was able to give his final speech to an adoring public. He was able to step down a hero, immortal. What Wenger has done at Arsenal means he is already that. His management has built a stadium, it has built a reputation and it has built a legacy. His Arsenal career started with huge success. I imagine one reason Sir Alex is able to say he doesn’t miss managing a football team is because his career ended with it too. Until Arsene Wenger can say the same he might just go on, ‘waiting for the next game and trying to win it’.