So Arsene Wenger is leaving, and a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders. For many years now we Arsenal fans have lived through an almost comically repetitive situation in which we never quite bought the players we needed in the positions that needed to be improved, and when it came to the performances on the pitch, late-period Wenger’s Arsenal found new ways to embarrass themselves with one calamitously inept defeat after another, season after season. Sure there were the FA Cup triumphs, which were lovely fleeting moments, but the bigger picture is that the club has been going in the wrong direction for many seasons now, to the point where we’re now fighting Burnley for sixth place in the League.
Divisions among the fans got so ridiculous in recent seasons that there were regular actual physical fights in the crowd between the extreme A4-banner-wielding wing of the Wenger Out brigade and the staunch, pro-Arsene fundamentalists for whom the great man could do no wrong. When he signed that contract at the end of last season, after months of deeply damaging speculation during yet another deeply tedious league campaign, it felt to me like he’d have to be physically removed, kicking and screaming, fingers clinging to his desk as Ivan Gazidis tried to wrench him away, if we were ever to see the end of his reign.
But now, finally, almost unbelievably, Wenger and the club have done the right thing, so we can all come together and celebrate Arsene’s extraordinary achievements and fundamental decency as a human being. Indeed, the real sadness of these last years of palpable under-achievement, has been that they threatened to besmirch the memory of all the incredible accomplishments of the Wenger glory years. Those of us old enough to experience his FA Cup and League Championship doubles, the unprecedented and never-to-be-repeated Invincibles feat, and just the sheer giddy thrill of our fast, powerful attacking football when the manager was at the height of his powers, will always have the utmost admiration, respect and love for Wenger. When we started our podcast seven years ago, I thought it would be nice to call it ‘Footballistically Arsenal’, after a famous Arsene Wenger coinage (“Theo Walcott has improved footballistically”). And footballistically speaking, he’s been a legend.
That’s not to gloss over the frustrations of recent times, when even Wenger’s famously attacking brand of football has felt laboured and pedestrian, while the club has continued to charge among the highest ticket prices in world football. The vast swathes of empty seats in recent months are the ultimate testament to how uninspiring current Arsenal really are. This season in particular, the mood among the fans seems to have changed from righteous fury to a mass shrug of indifference. Meanwhile Wenger himself has come across as oddly detached in post-match interviews, as if the team’s frequent uselessness has nothing to do with him. Arsenal have been so mystifyingly weak and psychologically flawed for so long now, the frequency with which Wenger utters the phrase “mental strength” has come across as some kind of bizarre, twisted joke.
Now, though, we can at last look forward to someone new taking charge, and that alone is intrinsically exciting. I feel a tad guilty for being on the same “#WengerOut” side as bloody Piers Morgan for the last few years, but equally, I’m confident that the “be careful what you wish for” crowd will have to acknowledge Wenger couldn’t have gone on much longer, and that a fresh voice with at least some new ideas has been desperately needed for quite a while. I look at Liverpool with Klopp, Man City with Pep, even Spurs with Pochettino and feel jealous at these younger thrusting coaching talents. My dream is for Arsenal to somehow convince someone like Allegri, a mere 50 years old, to abandon his world-class team, and take on the challenge of working out how to fit Aubameyang, Ozil, Lazazette and Mkhitaryan into the same team, and find a proper commanding central defender who doesn’t lose concentration at key moments every game, and a defensive midfielder who won’t make Stoke look like worldies. Above all, I hope we find someone to manage the team who is as intelligent, eloquent and civilised as Arsene.
Boyd Hilton is host of the Footballistically Arsenal podcast and appears on the GQ Strike football podcast every week.