Results aren’t everything. Let’s also remember Arsène’s personal contribution to the club. By Nick Bugeja.
Like most fans, Arsène Wenger’s announcement that he will depart Arsenal at the end of the season has given me pause for thought. Over the years, my expectations in terms of trophies and results for the club have gradually diminished. For a while a top four spot on the table was guaranteed. That was until last season, when we finished a disappointing fifth. Since then, the once deified Wenger has been mercilessly criticised and disparaged. For many fans his authority and strategic nous had faded long ago. Though when I heard his announcement, I felt a strong less of loss. It wasn’t because of the sub-par results we’d become accustomed to. It wasn’t due to a general aversion to change: Alexis Sanchez’s and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s respective departures didn’t bother me a great deal. It was something else.
I soon realised what I’ll miss about Arsène is his unquestionable character, the way he has modestly dedicated himself to the pursuits of the club. If anyone personifies Arsenal, it is Arsène. He’s shaped the club’s modern era and instilled it with values – growing academy players, playing beautiful football, respecting opponents – that will outlast both him and us.
In a footballing climate where the concept of loyalty is made a mockery of, Arsène’s one of its last disciples. He’s rebuffed offers from some of the biggest clubs on the planet to remain at Arsenal: Real Madrid, Paris-Saint Germain and his own national French team. Compare this to the players he brought to the international scene – Robin Van Persie, Ashley Cole and Samir Nasri. They didn’t just leave the club, but left it for rival teams at particularly crucial moments.
Even in the difficult times he’s never wavered in his commitment to the club; when the Emirates was being built and the board failed to supply the requisite funds for the club to compete in the transfer market. Before 2004/05 season, we invested less than 5 million in new recruits. Chelsea spent 89 million, and Manchester United 40 million. Despite the faults of the board and at times, the players, Wenger’s almost always absorbed our complaints without fuss, whether they were fair or not.
Wenger’s players have nothing but respect for him. There’s been an enormous amount of tributes and messages of thanks, as Arsène quipped when he said “I don’t need to die, I’ve seen my funeral”. A common theme found in the messages were players – both current and former – likening him to a ‘father’. Jack Wilshere, Van Persie and Cesc Fàbregas did. It’s one thing to be a great coach, but it’s clear Wenger has been much more than that to the many players that have come through the Arsenal doors. He’s been a mentor, a sounding board, a friend and role model.
Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho and Roberto Mancini may have won the Premier League more recently than Arsène, but there’s no way they’d be hailed in such a personal and heartfelt way. He’s also admired by other past and former coaches. Jurgen Klopp and Pep Guardiola didn’t just pay him a polite, official farewell, but fairly personal salutes. He’s clearly had an impact on them, too.
Putting results aside (both the good and the disappointing), it’s been a privilege to have a thoroughly decent and principled man helm our club for 22 years. I tend to agree with Arsène when he said in his latest press conference that “there is a lot of money in the game but above that is more than money, more than results. It is the way a club is perceived and the example a club gives all over the world”.
It’s easy to get caught up in week-to-week failures and frustrations. Especially when you know the club is capable of much more. Let’s hope our next manager can deliver impressive results, but also maintain the level of esteem, respect and character of Arsenal that Arsène has helped cultivate.