Arsene Wenger and the Art of Leaving the Party at the Right Time

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistFebruary 17, 2017

Arsene Wenger endured one of the toughest nights of his career on Wednesday against Bayern Munich.
Arsene Wenger endured one of the toughest nights of his career on Wednesday against Bayern Munich.Matthias Schrader/Associated Press

"Let's not unman each other—part at once;
All farewells should be sudden, when forever,
Else they make an eternity of moments,
And clog the last sad sands of life with tears."

Neither Arsene Wenger nor Arsenal is a master of spontaneity. It's unlikely to be sudden. There will be tears, though, with relief and gratitude often expressed in the same way.

Arsenal's fanbase seems split. People either want him to leave a little or a lot. It seems they share Lord Byron's sentiments more readily than Wenger. The Frenchman's split with Arsenal looks like it could be a drawn-out affair, like a husband who tells his wife he doesn't think it's working on the first day of a three-month cruise.

Over the 13 years since Arsenal last won the title, conjecture over Wenger's future in north London has spawned more red herrings than the average Raymond Chandler hard-boiled novel. It doesn't take the detective skills of Philip Marlowe, however, to deduce Wednesday night's desperate 5-1 defeat to Bayern Munich felt seismic.

The ghostly pallor that afflicted Arsenal's players in a second-half collapse enveloped the face of Wenger at full-time. A post-match press conference comprising just three questions, over two minutes and 57 seconds, seemed like an audience with a man increasingly aware of his own fallibility.

By the time his press officer led him away, Wenger must have felt he had caught a glimpse of his obituary being written. That's because he had. 

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Wenger is as stubborn as he is erudite, but with Arsenal 10 points off Chelsea at the Premier League summit and almost certain to exit at the first knockout stage of the Champions League for a seventh consecutive season, there is little doubt he is seriously mulling over his future. A parting of ways is a real possibility.

The much-vaunted suggestion he should announce his retirement now in order for the rest of the season to be turned into a jolly procession, rather than be rooted in the reality of the situation, seems horribly patronising. Bayern Munich, not Barnsley, battered them. Wenger will get over it. He always does.

Equally pious is the idea Wenger is somehow morally bound to step down for the good of the club. If Arsenal's board doesn't have the necessary minerals to get rid of him, it's not up to Wenger to fall on his own sword. And why would he? He gets paid £8 million per year to do a job he loves.

There's no little irony about nodding in agreement about calls for him to go for being a bit jaded in his job while reading opinion pieces about it on someone else's time and dime at work.

The Frenchman, who turns 68 in October, remains in a minority of one, though, in being a Premier League manager largely in charge of his own fate. A widely reported contract extension for when his existing deal expires in the summer is likely to still be on the table.

The club's lawyers may surreptitiously be adding the odd get-out clause, but there are relatively few murmurs of any of Arsenal's board members being willing to tell Wenger his time has run out. Nobody at the Emirates Stadium wants to be the cruel-to-be-kind vet who informs the dog it has finally had its day.

The late Brian Clough said he always regretted not retiring after the 1991 FA Cup final, which his Nottingham Forest side lost to Tottenham Hotspur in a game often remembered as being the beginning of the end for Paul Gascoigne. It definitely was for Clough. He stayed on another two years at Forest, and signed off one of the greatest managerial careers of them all by watching his side get relegated. He still managed a lap of honour, with both Forest and Sheffield United supporters chanting the name of one of English football's most remarkable characters. 

The longer Wenger stays on at Arsenal, the more it feels his swansong will similarly be a celebration of the past rather than what he is residing over in the present. He'd never admit it, but like Clough, he may live to regret not calling time on his own career after either of Arsenal's FA Cup successes in 2014 and 2015. He would have bowed out a winner instead of holding an imaginary shield for finishing fourth. On the flip side, he'd be at least £8 million worse off. It's a cross most would be willing to bear.

By his own admission, Arsenal's majority shareholder, Stan Kroenke, has no working knowledge of top-level world football, while chief executive Ivan Gazidis tends to focus on business rather than balls. The 20 top-four finishes Wenger has achieved in as many seasons make him just about the safest pair of hands available to oversee a football club run as a business first and foremost.

Supporters argue an endemic complacency at the club stems from a manager whose once revolutionary ideologies and methodologies are flabby and out of touch with the modern game. Against Bayern, the only thing that seemed to be pressing was a need for change.

The elephant in the room when it comes to those who champion continuity is Antonio Conte and Chelsea. In 25 Premier League games, he has overseen a 30-point positive swing since the same stage last season. Chelsea's culture is different to Arsenal's, but if he can do such a radical transformative job in west London in such a short space of time, it seems more than feasible he could have titivated Wenger's legacy and just as quickly come up with a winning formula in the north of the city. 

If, as expected, Chelsea win the title this season, it will be a fifth time since Arsenal last did it under Wenger in 2003/04. Jose Mourinho over two different spells, Carlo Ancelotti and Roberto Di Matteo all demonstrated you don't have to have laid the first brick to build on a club's previous successes.

Should Wenger leave at the end of the campaign, whoever takes over won't inherit half of the personnel issues Conte has had to navigate at Stamford Bridge. Though it's better to have the problem of finding out how to manage a character like Diego Costa than not have any characters at all.

The idea continuity is king in football sadly seems no less quaint than jumpers for goalposts. Looking at Champions League-winning managers since Arsenal made the final in 2005/06, it seems around that period there was a shift in when sides peaked under their respective coaches.

Arsenal lost to Frank Rijkaard's Barcelona in the Dutchman's third season at the helm at the Camp Nou. The following season, AC Milan won it in Ancelotti's sixth (they also won it in his second). In 2007/08, Manchester United beat Chelsea on penalties in what was Sir Alex Ferguson's 22nd season in charge. Thereafter, though, it's remarkable how early in a club's cycle under a new manager success is delivered.

Pep Guardiola marked his first and third seasons at Barcelona by winning Europe's top prize, in 2008/09 and 2010/11, sandwiching Mourinho's surprise win with Inter Milan in 2009/10, his second campaign in Italy.

Four of the next five Champions League-winning managers were in their first season at new clubs: Di Matteo (Chelsea in 2011/12), Ancelotti (Real Madrid in 2013/14), Luis Enrique (Barcelona in 2014/15) and Zinedine Zidane (Real Madrid in 2015/16). Jupp Heynckes was the anomaly when he won it with Bayern Munich  in 2012/13, the second campaign of his second permanent spell in Bavaria.

Notwithstanding the fact these are all elite clubs and any manager of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich would have at least half a chance of winning the Champions League, what it demonstrates is there doesn't have to be a frenzied period of quivering incertitude in the immediate aftermath of appointing a new manager.

In terms of a manager's shelf life, the indications are they go off quicker than lettuce. The legendary Hungarian coach Bela Guttmann lived by the maxim that the "third season is fatal," which is quite the feat considering his career in the dugout spanned over four decades, 23 clubs and 12 different countries.

The only time he veered from his modus operandi was in the three seasons he spent at Benfica between 1959 and 1962. That in the one spell he was at a club for more than two years he won consecutive European Cups somewhat undermines his theory. Upon leaving Benfica after they turned down what seems like a reasonable request for a pay rise, he purportedly cursed the club by declaring: "Not in 100 years from now will Benfica ever be European champion."

The club has lost all eight of its European finals since. One can only imagine what fate awaits Chelsea after they sacked Mourinho a second time.

In the modern era, Manchester City boss Guardiola has similarly maintained he has no intention of becoming institutionalised by any one club.

"Twenty years at one club is now impossible," he said in October 2015, per Darren Lewis of the Mirror. He continued:

Nobody has that energy any more! It can get boring for the people. Arsenal is an exception, like Sir Alex Ferguson was. Wenger is not only a manager, he is a sporting director. He changed the whole club. They played defensively before he came. Wenger is more than just a manager for this club. He is almost ­everything. He can be at a club for that long. Me? No!

Walking away from Barcelona after winning 14 trophies in four seasons and then calling time at Bayern Munich after three seasons and seven pieces of silverware is a pretty emphatic way of making your point.

Still, given the only club to have had a manager with anything like the same longevity as Wenger is Manchester United, it's perhaps understandable why Arsenal are looking at the post-Ferguson years and concluding it's perhaps better the devil you know.

Wenger's detractors would probably prefer Arsenal being worse than staying the same. There's good reason why Bill Murray tries to top himself in Groundhog Day.

Ferguson's retirement is a fascinating case study, one Wenger may well ponder over the next few days. He left the party at just the right time in 2013, bidding farewell to Old Trafford on the back of a record 13th Premier League title. His harshest critics argue the squad he left behind was akin to finishing off the best of the booze before leaving all the tidying up the day after to the host. The image of David Moyes in a pinafore seems strangely apt.

In February 2002, Ferguson made a dramatic U-turn on his public decision to retire at the end of that season, describing his thought process at the time as an "absolute disaster," per The Independent

What's often forgotten about Ferguson's tenure is a period between his "retirements," during the 2005/06 season (United won the League Cup and finished second) and over the previous summer, when the Scot was fending off accusations of having taken his eye off the ball. Ferguson's dispute with United shareholders John Magnier and J.P. McManus over the ownership of the racehorse Rock of Gibraltar was a peculiar story that just wouldn't go away.

Add in the Glazers' acquisition of the club in May 2005, Roy Keane's dramatic departure the following November and Ruud van Nistelrooy's exit at the end of a campaign in which United finished eight points behind runaway winners Chelsea, and the mood in Manchester was no chirpier than what is currently frothing over the pan in the capital.

The Guardian's Rob Smyth is undisputedly one of the best writers in the business, but his scathing polemic on Ferguson and Manchester United from July 2006 is so acidic, it's advised that protective gloves be worn before you open up the link. Headlined "Shredding his legacy at every turn," it could just have easily been published on Thursday morning and concerned Wenger and Arsenal.

Here are a couple of sample sentences: "Arsenal United finished second last season, but that says as much about the deficiency of the Premiership as their own quality. ...

"It is an increasingly inescapable conclusion that, unwittingly or otherwise, Wenger Ferguson is winding down, a prizefighter who no longer has the stomach or the wit for an admittedly enormous challenge which, once upon a time, he would have fervently inhaled." 

Ahem: "Wenger Ferguson, an essentially honourable man, is partly suffering because of the impossibly high standards he set, and he carries the fatigued incomprehension of a man who is out of time."

Those are the gentle bits.

Manchester United won the Premier League the next season at a canter, never relinquishing top spot from the moment they were 10 games in. Ferguson shredded his legacy at the club by winning five more league titles, the Champions League for a second time and a couple of League Cups.

While even in his most indulgent moments Wenger would never count on achieving anything similar to what Ferguson managed in the 11 years that followed his U-turn, he will draw strength from having witnessed a peer enjoy prolonged success having stepped back from the precipice.

Make no mistake: That's where Wenger is standing.

Even if he decides to step off, though, he'll be fine. As Albert Camus said, "idleness is fatal only to the mediocre."

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