Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal legacy is a tale of two halves
The most durable case for a uniquely Wenger-ian legacy at Arsenal is to be found not in cabinets, cash or concrete but the in club's footballing philosophy
When Arsenal beat an out-of-sorts AC Milan at the San Siro last week, there was almost a sense of relieved anti-climax for fans of the London club. Most supporters, barring perhaps the most fanatic, had expected Arsene Wenger’s men to lose to an Italian team that was experiencing something of a mini-renaissance itself. Milan hadn’t conceded a goal in some 100 minutes of play leading up to the Europa League tie, before Henrikh Mkhitaryan and then Aaron Ramsey scored in quick succession to give Arsenal a sorely needed victory.
It has been a wretched season for the North London club. And surely we are now witnessing what must be Wenger’s last season as Arsenal manager. More than any season before it, this season Wenger’s management has appeared inadequate in both relative and absolute terms. If back-to-back defeats to Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City exposed how far other managers had overtaken Wenger in footballing nous, the poor home performance against Sweden’s Ostersunds in late February helped to show how Wenger was struggling to eke out even the basics from his team on the pitch. It was a dreadful outing by a team that appeared to play with neither heart nor head.
Surely, then, his time is up. But then how is one to talk of Wenger’s exit without talking of Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal? For several months, pundits, fans, Arsenal podcasters and bloggers have all made much of the idea that with each passing day, Wenger’s presence at the club threatens to undermine the glorious legacy that he has built at the club over the last 22 years.
But what exactly is this legacy? More broadly speaking, what exactly does “legacy" mean in the context of a football club? Asking these questions through the “Wenger" prism raises some interesting questions.
Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal is seen as a combination of four things: infrastructure in the form of the Emirates Stadium and London Colney training centre, revenue, trophies, and, finally, a particular footballing philosophy. At first glance, taking these four aspects together, it is easy to see why Wenger’s tenure is considered an epoch. If Wenger were to leave tomorrow, he would leave the club with a world-class stadium and training complex, the sixth highest revenue in club football, a glittering collection of trophies, and a brand of beautiful, sometimes “invincible" football.
However, when you take into account the strides by other clubs in the Premier League, this legacy is perhaps not as lustrous as it seems. Yes, Arsenal have excellent infrastructure, but so do several other teams in the league, many of whom have managed to do this without managers enjoying long tenures. There is a similar case to be made for revenue as well. An astounding 10 of the top 20 teams in the latest Deloitte Football Money League play in the Premier League. In 2016-17, Southampton, on the verge of relegation this season, had slightly more revenue than Napoli, currently at No.2 in Italy’s Serie A.
In other words, it is not exceptional for reasonably well-managed clubs in English football to accumulate substantial revenue and invest that into stadia and state-of-the-art facilities. Wenger’s Arsenal may have managed this years before teams such as, say, Tottenham Hotspur. But in 2018, Arsenal’s relative lead over other clubs is not as significant as it may have seemed 10 years ago.
In the trophy cabinet, too, Wenger’s legacy is a story of two halves. A stellar first half, and an underwhelming second, salvaged by some recent cup victories. Regardless of these FA Cup successes, Arsenal’s recent seasons compare quite unfavourably with a whole host of other teams in the top echelons of English football.
The most durable case for a uniquely Wenger-ian legacy at Arsenal, then, is to be found not in cabinets, cash or concrete but in the club’s footballing philosophy. Irrespective of the huge upheavals that have taken place around them in club football—oligarchs, petrodollars, Leicester City—Wenger’s Arsenal have continued to play, or tried to play, a unique brand of flowing football. This approach has not always been easy to implement. And when it has worked, it has not always yielded consistent results. Yet, of all the aspects of his reign at Arsenal, the one thing that makes the most reliable claim for an “Arsene Wenger legacy" is his unwavering commitment to entertaining football.
As Wenger’s tenure slowly comes to a close, critics may point out that the Frenchman leaves the club in a position not all that different from when he took over. When Wenger took over in 1996, Arsenal were, much like today, a wealthy, top club that had not won the league in several years. The one great difference is that in 2018, North Londoners are no longer boring, boring Arsenal. That exciting, capricious, often exasperating football is Wenger’s real legacy.
Arsenal will soon have to choose which Wenger legacy they seek to perpetuate. They can either appoint a manager who will keep the cash registers ringing, the commercials chugging along, and the Champions League qualifications reaping TV revenue. Or they can appoint a manager who upholds Wenger’s commitment to entertaining football.
That this choice exists, and that it is such a difficult one, highlights both the best and worst aspects of Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal legacy.