Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger announced Friday that he would step down from the job he has held, astonishingly, since September 1996.
In some ways, Wenger simply decided to jump before being pushed, as Arsenal’s uneven season led to repeated calls for his ouster.
Wenger’s decision to announce his departure before the season ends gives Arsenal fans and Premier League opponents a chance to pay him the proper tributes. He is the last great figurehead of a bygone age of English soccer.
The new breed of Premier League manager is simply a fleeting caretaker, destined to get results quickly or be out of a job. Wenger, who overhauled everything about Arsenal — from the cafeteria to the practice facilities to the very stadium itself — will be the last to build a club on his own.
The team’s style might have been his biggest change of all. When Wenger arrived at Arsenal, it was known for being boring, defensive and difficult. Built on 1-0 victories, it was known as “Boring Arsenal.” Under Wenger, Arsenal became soccer’s Harlem Globetrotters, an offensive juggernaut that held on to the ball and sliced teams to death with a thousand passes. At its apex, Arsenal was the best attacking team in the world.
His tenure will rightly be remembered as a golden age for Arsenal, with three Premier League trophies and seven FA Cups added to the team’s trophy case. The 2003-2004 “Invincibles” squad, which won the Premier League title without losing a game, is one of the greatest English soccer teams ever.
Emirates Stadium, a modern, 60,000-seat replacement for the club’s historic, cramped Highbury home, is itself a testament to his contribution. It was Wenger who pulled the club forward from the past into the future.
Even as he is lauded, though, the plaudits will carry undertones of disappointment. Arsenal hasn’t won a Premier League title since that 2004 season. As the club stumbles to a sixth-place finish this year, prospects for another league title seem distant. Despite a record-breaking run of consecutive Champions League appearances, Wenger never won a European Cup, and only reached one final and one semifinal in all his time.
He leaves with a lingering sense that Arsenal, for being the biggest club in Europe’s biggest city, never quite accomplished enough.
Perhaps the greatest contrast between Wenger and his rivals was his firm, almost quaint, commitment to fiscal responsibility.
Even as Arsenal scraped together its pennies to build its new stadium, the commercial might of Manchester United and the oil-soaked cash that flowed into Chelsea and Manchester City swamped Wenger’s financial conservatism. His careful, considered approach to Arsenal positioned the team’s pocketbook well. But when the big money came in, he seemed ill-equipped to change his mind-set — and his team suffered for it.
Ultimately, Wenger is the last of his kind. He is the last great manager, responsible for everything at a single club. Arsenal might be great again someday, but it will never be the same.
• This match won’t appear in the watch guide, but find a way to watch Juventus play Napoli (1:45 p.m. Sunday). It’s on beIN Sports Ch. 4, if you get the extended beIN Sports channel lineup. Or just find a local establishment that’s showing the game. It’s no less than the most important game of the Italian Serie A season. If Napoli can win, it will move within one point of Juventus in the title race. If Juventus wins, its latest Italian title will be sealed.
• Toronto FC’s 2-1 home loss to Chivas in the CONCACAF Champions League finals was a huge disappointment. The loss means Toronto will have to score at least twice on the road in the second leg Wednesday evening to have a chance to take home the trophy. Chivas already has defeated Seattle (3-0) and New York (1-0) at home in this competition, and now is hugely favored to take home another title for Liga MX. Toronto is the best team in MLS history, while Chivas is struggling. It seems that MLS may never win this competition.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
FA Cup: Manchester United vs. Tottenham, 11:15 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 9. A top-four place is all but locked up for both Spurs and the Red Devils, leaving only the FA Cup left to play for. Manchester United wants a trophy to lessen the sting of a second-place finish. Tottenham hasn’t won the league since 1961 or the FA Cup since 1991.
Bundesliga: Bayer Leverkusen at Borussia Dortmund, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Both squads are tied for third in the Champions League, but the two are just four points ahead of fifth-place RB Leipzig. With four games to go in the German season, staying in those top-four spots is most important for both teams.
Copa del Rey: Sevilla vs. Barcelona, 2:30 p.m. Saturday, ESPNNews. Barcelona hasn’t lost a league game this season and is aiming to keep its run of three consecutive Cup wins going by defeating Sevilla. It’s fair to say that Barcelona is disappointed in any season when it doesn’t win the Champions League, but a league and cup double would be a nice consolation.
FA Cup: Chelsea vs. Southampton, 9 a.m. Sunday, FS1. The other FA Cup semifinal also matches two teams with not much left to lose. Chelsea will finish fifth and likely will fire manager Antonio Conte. Southampton is all but relegated from the Premier League, and recently-hired manager Mark Hughes probably won’t last either.