Arsene Wenger Was Too Beautiful to Last
Wenger’s Arsenal felt right in a soccer world even a relative newcomer like me could see had gone completely off the rails with money and graft.
Kelley L. Cox-USA TODAY Sports
I did not come by my crippling addiction to Arsenal honestly.
I’ve written about it before, but I only watch soccer at all because of a video game. Soccer was weird and effete when I was a kid, the domain of preppies and future Rotary Club boosters. It was a rich kid’s sport in a poor kid’s town and I had no time for it, right up until the moment I did. Well after it was feasible to establish any nascent sense of soccer aesthetics in me, I fell for the game, hard, after the 2010 World Cup.
You have to follow a team, but if you’re stuck in the soccer hinterlands of the United States and you’re starved for the sport, you have to pick one. And, no disrespect to my local minor league team, Europe was where the best was played.
The English Premier League was there and available, so I scoured the teams, looking for some club which had the obscure criteria I wanted. Didn’t want to be a frontrunner, because I’d grown up with fans who moved from the Cowboys to the Patriots with an ease which made me feel queasy. No weird money doping. Attacking, beautiful football ("beautiful soccer" doesn’t have the same ring, so I say neither out loud, for fear of sounding too affected).
Arsenal would fit the bill, but what really drew me in, what made me the drooling addict I am today with hundreds of dollars of shirts and an impulsive trip to New York to see them play live, was Arsene Wenger.
One of the first things which struck me when I was casting about for a team was just how repulsive the average football manager was. The EPL managerial fraternity was a sea of oafs, men like Sam Allardyce and ‘Arry Redknapp. Worse were men like Jose Mourinho (who wasn’t at Chelsea when I arrived, but who I quickly became familiar with), genuine sociopaths who were inexplicably egged on by an English press which dwelled on “mindgames,” as if this handful of awful coaches were actually just putting people on and not deeply fucked up.
But the Arsenal manager, now, he was different. Even his physical presence was markedly different from his peers. He seemed impossibly tall and thin, his limbs coming to sharp angles like a screwed up trapezoid made human. His French accent was gravelly and phlegmy, and he would pause before he spoke, making a famous “Look, uhhhhhhhhh” when he was searching for a word which would draw out forever in a sort of hypnotizing chant. Arsene Wenger seemed like some sort of delicate alien sent to Earth to teach people the delights of what soccer could be, a Martian philosopher-king in a puffy coat who could figure out how to turn Thierry Henry into a striker but who was flummoxed by the concept of the zipper.
I never got the Invincibles, the Double, or 1989. I claimed them later, well after I’d already done my duty as a plastic fan and picked my team. What I got, what my Arsenal was and is, was scraping for fourth on the last day of the season with a bunch of kids. It was the 8-2 and coming back with Per Mertesacker and Mikel Arteta, middling names who righted the ship when everyone said that they—we—sucked. It was laughing at Tottenham when St. Totteringham’s Day was still a thing, because it was actually way more fun when Arsenal sort of sucked, too, so the last day of the season meant huge stakes in that tradition. It was never getting into the quarterfinals in the Champion’s League but always getting out of the group stage, a sort of warped callback to my childhood UNC basketball fandom, where we didn’t win a ton of titles but we by God always got to the Sweet 16.
This was Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal. Don’t spend too much, work on the philosophy of the game, and let these young men express themselves. That was the thing: we know he’s not a Pep Guardiola tactics obsessive, so the fact that these guys actually did sort it out for themselves on the pitch was and is amazing. It’s not the Invincibles, but in retrospect, those times the world sneered at the “fourth place is like a trophy” sound bites and the teams which prompted them are some of the most memorable of his tenure. Wenger’s way was the right way. It felt right in a soccer world even a relative naif like me could see had gone completely off the rails with money and graft.
Expectations changed the second Mesut Ozil, one of my favorite players, arrived. The FA Cups came, too, but everything else seemed to stand still. What had been overachieving became, objectively, underachieving once the oft-cited financial shackles were off. Because a team with players like Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Aaron Ramsey, Laurent Koscielny, and all the rest (yes, even Olivier Giroud) should be challenging for the title. Really challenging, not creeping up to second and then collapsing in a heap when the weather is slightly too cold or the fixtures slightly too close together.
A couple of years ago, on an episode of the Arsecast, the Irish Times’ Ken Early said (paraphrasing) that sensation isn’t a feeling, but a change in feeling, that you can only feel anything in relation to some other, different one. That Arsenal fans suffer from a lack of sensation because nothing really changes. Every season seems the same as the last, even with the Cup wins.
He was right. For every good thing the post-Ozil, supposedly financially-free Wenger accomplished, there was some opposite event neutralizing the good feeling from it. We won the FA Cup; we kept losing in the Round of 16 in the Champion’s League. We got some good wins; we kept losing to the rest of the top six.
Fans of smaller clubs, mired in midtable or worse, get annoyed by what they see as Arsenal fans’ sense of entitlement. It’s not really that. It’s this endless grey Limbo of sameness, where even the third FA Cup win, over hated Chelsea, felt rote. It was, again paraphrasing Early, like placing a finger on the same spot of skin and just leaving it there. We felt nothing.
Arsene began to sound tired. What had been wit with an elfin smile started to feel like entitlement, the interviews of a man who, on some level, knew he could crack wise or really say whatever he wanted because he was never, ever leaving. He started to look hapless on the pitch, a man devoid of ideas when his greatest notions were hidden behind locker room doors and training pitch codes. The optimist’s view was that tactics had evolved but he hadn’t; the pessimist’s was that you couldn’t send players out to sort it out in real time because they were too stupid, too drilled, and too pampered to handle it.
Regardless, he was a man out of time. Most people knew that it was time to slowly close the door on the funny, smart, strange Arsene Wenger, but each person had an individual moment where there was no coming back. For me, it was at Old Trafford the season Leicester City won the title. Louis Van Gaal sent out a bunch of kids and retreads and Manchester United proceeded to kick Arsenal’s ass. I remember Alexis Sanchez’s face as he shrugged his shoulders in disbelief, the title gone in a season where everyone else in the traditional top tier of English soccer sucked. It was time.
It’s hurt to watch Wenger cut an increasingly harried figure, not least because I’ve resented how it’s caused me to question so much of what I love about him. I even came to dislike him a little, which I hated so much there were days I had to get my mind off of it after a game.
Laurent Koscielny is a perfect microcosm of Wenger’s late career. He was plucked from relative obscurity on the cheap, which is a cool example of Wenger’s ability to grab young, usually French talent. He wasn’t great to start with, but he grew to become a really, really good defender. Wenger trusted him, year after year, and he formed a tragically underrated partnership with Mertesacker in those FA Cup winning seasons.
But what would’ve happened if Wenger had gone after the finished product, instead of Koscielny? Would it have been 3rd instead of 4th? Does the League Cup loss to Birmingham happen? What if he’d been less stubborn about buying a defensive midfielder? Is Koscielny better regarded if he doesn’t spend a career in an isolated defense?
The sight of Koscielny on the ground in the Europa League semi-final, screaming for help as he clutched a ruptured Achilles tendon, brought me to tears. Not just because I was watching a man’s career end, but because it was so easily avoided. He’d been in pain for a couple of years now and he should’ve been a backup. Instead, Wenger refused to buy another starting centerback, driven by some combination of faith, stubbornness, cheapness, and infatuation.
All of it rankled, in the end. It rankled for Koscielny, for Wenger, for me. It was time. But when Wenger finally accepted it was time, somewhere around his lap of appreciation after his final home game as Arsenal manager, it felt good. It went away. The fans chanted his name and he said, simply, that he would miss us. It was the first time it truly felt like he’d let go of all of this, and that we could, too.
I’m going to miss him so desperately, more than any other sports figure in my life. More than Dean Smith, even, and oh you have no idea what a big deal that is. This funny, odd man who told people to eat their vegetables and, above all else, to be beautiful. The game has changed. Maybe it’s not for the better that that simple foundation for everything else isn’t enough anymore, but that changes nothing. Arsenal will continue, and Wenger will, too, somewhere else. But part of him will always be with the club and with me, until I give up on this maddening, thrilling, beautiful sport. Merci, Arsene, nous t'aimons.