They say all political careers end in failure, perhaps the same could be said of football managers.
The obsession to stay on another year in the face of insurmountable odds is a theme we’ve seen all too often, when legendary figures of such stature depart the stage. Arsene Wenger will long be remembered as the consummate football lover.
His obsession began in the little town of Duttlenheim, where his family ran the local bar, where he was surrounded by football talk and a haze of smoke in those days, and he ended up as a coaching heavyweight who transformed the country which so often claims to be the birthplace of the game. His innovation of his team’s preparation is well known.
He turned a squad largely inherited from George Graham’s tenure from a boozing group of resolute players into a forward thinking and ambitious team, while revolutionising their style of play from the days of “Boring, Boring Arsenal” to a swashbuckling team of versatility.
Perhaps the emblematic moment of realisation was found in Tony Adams’ goal in a 4-0 romp against Everton at Highbury before they went on to complete the double in 1998. For the rugged and stoic defensive talent of Adams’ feeling free to make a run of that audacity as a centre-half, really symbolised the freedom under which Arsenal played.
A group of ageing pros and a manager who “looked like a school teacher” according to Ian Wright, had confounded those who wondered about the sensibility of employing a man whose previous job was in Japan at Nagoya Grampus Eight. In the aftermath of that double victory, Wenger would go on to build a new team rife with attacking talents, unearthing such stars as Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Martin Keown and Kolo Touré.
Winning 26 and drawing 12 of a 38 game league season in 2004 was arguably a greater achievement than either of the two double wins for Wenger, the idealist. Arsenal’s unbeaten record of 49 games before succumbing to Manchester United 2-0 resonated so much because it was done in a style that would have been gratifying to the previous manager to lead his team to that record, in Brian Clough and Nottingham Forest’s 42 games.
However, the rise of Ferguson and United eventually stunted the progress of Wenger and his club.
The 2005 FA Cup final was the last trophy before a long famine, the day was full of a dark foreboding, as Arsenal were played off the park for 120 minutes before winning luckily on penalties. Over the next nine years, Arsenal would move into a new home at the Emirates, reach a Champions League final and launch numerous title bids that were scuppered after the turn of the calendar year.
At this time, Wenger’s demeanour and financial prudence slowly grated with the fans, and around this time, he was praised by the former GM of the Oakland A’s baseball team, Billy Beane, for being one of his “heroes”. Beane is a figure who single-handedly revolutionised baseball through economics, although never winning the World Series. His endorsement was something of a double-edged sword.
Three FA Cups over the last five seasons while spending significantly more money has done little to mollify a fan base who believe Wenger lost his touch, prioritising silky technique over a rugged determination he inherited from Graham’s squad 22 years ago.
Last year signified the end of Arsenal’s continued involvement in the Champions League after a run of groundhog day-like seasons of mediocre achievement of last-sixteen football.
This year has been even worse, as the away form has crumbled and the team in danger of finishing 7th behind an unfashionable Burnley side performing far above where their budget dictates they should be. Labour leader and Arsenal fan, Jeremy Corbyn has eulogised the end of the Wenger tenure, paying tribute to “a wonderful decent man and he’s put up with the most appalling abuse over the past few months particularly and he’s stood it with dignity and stoicism.”
Mr. Corbyn might pay heed as to how rigid determination to ideology impacts on your popularity.