For years, Arsene Wenger must have imagined how his Arsenal farewell would go. Maybe he envisaged lifting the Premier League trophy one last time.
Or perhaps the Champions League trophy for the first time. Either way, the Frenchman’s principles would shine though forcing his critics to admit they were wrong all along. There would surely be some sort of ticker tape reception or open top bus parade through crowds of adoring fans, because that’s how great managers go out.
Just look at how Sir Alex Ferguson brought the curtain down on his career.
There was none of that for Wenger, though. In fact, the overwhelming emotion as Arsenal put on a somewhat forced farewell presentation in his final game as manager was of relief.
There was polite applause. There was respect, but not adulation, certainly not on the scale Wenger must have hoped for. This is, after all, what Arsenal fans wanted and with Wenger gone the club would move forward.
Or at least that’s what many of them thought would happen. At first, the clamour for Wenger to resign or be sacked was confined to the delirium of YouTube channels and social media echo chambers. Over time, however, this viewpoint, that Arsenal and the greatest manager in the club’s history needed to part ways, became mainstream. It became the consensus.
This isn’t to say that the depth of Arsenal’s problems were completely ignored before this season. Stan Kroenke has been a target for years, with fans consistently imploring the club’s board to spend big to keep pace with the likes of Manchester City, Manchester United and even Chelsea in the transfer market.
However, many believed Wenger to be the head of the snake, the face of the club’s descent into mediocrity. Once the head was cut off, they thought, Arsenal would become an entirely different animal. So much of Wenger’s character as a coach and a person had seeped into Arsenal, the opinion was held that once he left, the club’s identity would change.
So far, though, it hasn’t. Not really. Arsenal are currently battling for a top four place in the Premier League table, with the Europa League potentially offering them their most realistic route back into the Champions League. Their attacking freedom has been undermined by defensive vulnerability, lacking the mental strength to get results against their top six rivals. Sound familiar?
If Arsenal fans expected a glorious new era to start the moment Wenger left and Unai Emery arrived as his replacement, they have been left disappointed. What they are seeing now is eerily similar to what was served up over the past few years.
Of course, it was naive to think Wenger’s exit alone would get Arsenal back on the straight and narrow. Arsenal’s problems are weaved into the very fabric of the club. It is true that Wenger made mistakes, that there were certain instances when the finger could have been pointed at him, but the manager can only do so much to mask the fundamental fractures that exist at the Emirates Stadium.
In Kroenke, Arsenal have an owner who will only spend when it is absolutely necessary. As owner of the NFL franchise the LA Rams, for instance, he bankrolled a number of big money moves for star players. This was down to the need to attract new fans from the notoriously tough to please Los Angeles sports market to his newly relocated team. With Kroenke’s millions behind them, the Rams made the Super Bowl this year.
There is no need for Kroenke to do similar with Arsenal, though. Despite guffawing over the odd empty seat, the Gunners still regularly sell out the Emirates. Cruelly, it is the Arsenal fanbase’s loyalty that prevents Kroenke from sanctioning the sort of transfers and spending the sort of money the club needs to return to the top.
Indeed, the purse strings have been pulled so tight in recent times it has raised questions over whether there is any ambition at boardroom level to return Arsenal to the top table of the sport. In January, for instance, only loan signings were sanctioned. While four signings might have been made in the summer, only £60 million in total was spent. For context, City, already reigning champions with the best squad in the country, spent that on just one player.
It’s understandable, admirable even, that Arsenal wish to implement a smarter, shrewder transfer strategy than many of their rivals, but they cannot do that while under the current constraints. Some may point to the job Mauricio Pochettino has done at Spurs, but he stands as an exceptional case. It’s unfair to expect Emery to perform similar miracles.
Not every problem that Arsenal face right now is rooted in money, though. The club has become a political battleground over the past decade, with Kroenke and Alisher Usmanov fighting for control. Back in August, Usmanov agreed to sell his shares to Kroenke, but so much time has been lost. The two men wanted to pull the club in two different directions and so, like in a tug-of-war, the force on both sides resulted in Arsenal heading nowhere. They stood still as others passed them by.
This has resulted in a rather muddled front office approach perhaps best encapsulated in the saga that saw Sven Mislintat leave the club at the start of February. The German was promised that he would move into a Director of Football role, but was told following the departure of chief executive Ivan Gazidis that this would no longer be happening.
Even the appointment of Emery is now starting to look out of sync. In many ways, Emery is the antithesis of Wenger. While some Arsenal players leaked complaints of Wenger’s tactically light approach, Emery is renowned for saddling his squad with more instructions than an NFL offensive coordinator. The Spaniard brings a certain intensity, particularly in the way he gestures and gurns on the touchline, while Wenger never gave away much through his body language.
Arsenal don’t appear to have a squad that can deal with this sort of information overload, though, Just like is the case at Chelsea right now, there is a disconnect between the identity of the dressing room at the Emirates and that of the manager, or head coach as is now technically accurate. And with Arsenal unwilling to spend big to correct this, that is unlikely to change any time soon.
Nobody was quite sure what would materialise in the post-Wenger age, but at the very least some change was expected. The more things look different, though, the more they look the same. Wenger might not have got the golden vindication he must have secretly desired in his farewell, but he is getting it in his absence.