Behold, the age of Arsène. The past few years of Arsène Wenger’s extended Arsenal farewell have brought something new, a gradual piling up of gongs and garlands that have little to do with trophies won or goals scored but speak instead to his extreme, unyielding longevity.
Longest-serving Arsenal manager. Longest-serving manager in Europe. As Wenger ticks these marks off like some stately old slugger gamely rounding the bases, tipping his cap to the bleachers, there is a feeling of end times about this.
In July Wenger edged past Sir Alex Ferguson as the longest-serving manager in Premier League history, reeling in the Scot’s tally of 7,582 days. And now, five months on, he is back to finish the job. When Arsenal travel to West Bromwich Albion on New Year’s Eve Wenger will take charge of his 811th league game as the Arsenal manager, overhauling Ferguson again to take top spot on games managed and stand alone at the head of the field in the modern era.
If some pockets of the Premier League were initially rather hostile towards this gangling outsider in the double-breasted suit jacket, with his yoga stretches, distrust of beer and chocolate bars, then 21 years down the line it must once again doff its cap in supplication. Although it is in its own way a perfect Wenger record – at once hugely impressive but also oddly hard to gauge, a candidate for constant revisionist debate on the scale of such an achievement.
This is a Premier League-era record. It makes some sense to measure the last quarter of a century as a self-contained matrix given the top league’s violent, all-consuming transformation in that time. But if we accept football did not actually begin in 1992, then Ferguson still has another six years on Wenger and 500 more games managed in British football.
Look a little further afield and the records of Guy Roux, who managed Auxerre for 44 years – not to mention Fred Everiss who was the secretary‑manager at West Bromwich Albion for 46 seasons – are out of sight, albeit Wenger is yet to specifically rule out managing Arsenal until he is 93.
As ever, though, the noise around Arsenal will be dominated by that endlessly revised debate over the true achievements of two decades of Wenger‑ism, an argument that goes beyond matches won and into aspects of a club and a footballing culture that have been redefined under that unblinking gaze.
“Is it too much to hope Wenger will usher in a new age of reason in English football as a whole and not merely at Highbury?” David Lacey wrote in these pages with remarkable prescience when Wenger was first unveiled. Never mind the cobwebs flushed out, the shiny new practices, not to mention the sheer will required to keep on pushing the machine along across two decades. It turns out Lacey was right. This has been one of the great transformative English football careers.
There are still a few laps to run. This is not yet the moment for a full-blown Wenger retrospective, the chance to slice and dice the transition from booze‑soaked pre-modernity, through the white heat of the grilled broccoli years to the shining, moneyed, oddly baffling present.
The real issue as Wenger enters his own extended Fergie‑time is how he sets about managing his departure, the process of laying down for a post-Wenger universe. It is here the significance of that record starts to creep in.
Ferguson was able to sign off in grand fashion, spending games 772 to 810 hoovering up a final league title, the eighth in his last 13 seasons – compared with Wenger’s zero – and earning the right to proclaim with overbearing certainty his own legacy from the Old Trafford centre-circle.
Rightly so, too. Ferguson’s gift to United was a lasting glaze of success that has kept the money rolling in, the intimate wipes partners (Asia and surrounding territories) still lining up to feed the machine. But if he still has something to teach Wenger’s Arsenal it is that transition is a hugely difficult process, that there will naturally be a falling away, a crunching of the gears when an 800-game control freak finally vacates the premises.
Like all institutions football clubs shape themselves to the most dominant presence. This takes place at every level. Manchester United still have eight first-team players and hundreds of club employees for whom a defining part of their professional and personal lives will always be Fergie flavoured.
The same goes for Arsenal now, perhaps even to a greater degree. The stadium is practically Wenger-shaped, its pillars and columns and looming concrete facades coloured an austere Wenger grey. Squint a little and the Emirates Stadium even looks a bit like Wenger, the swoop of the cantilevered roof, the gleaming glass facade seeming to conceal some memory of that distinctive grey sweep of hair, that hawk-like frown.
Like Ferguson, Wenger has been an enabler for an ownership regime seemingly intent on sucking the cash out of its investment. Throughout his own endgame Ferguson was the Glazer family’s winning ticket, a dream of frugal, orderly success, so firmly entrenched he could spend the last few years playing a game of big-ticket moneyball. Wenger has also been able to spend less than Chelsea, Liverpool and the two Manchester clubs while maintaining a constant elite level income.
There are some parallels on the pitch, not least in the playing personnel. For all its glories there was still a dwindling in the late Fergie years. United took that last title as a pared-back winning machine, propelled by the goalscoring brilliance of Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, getting by on a good enough squad. Three managers down the line vast, destabilising transfer funds have been splurged. But this is a succession that is still burning through its own baggage, still wobbling about trying to find a fresh equilibrium.
There are similarities with Arsenal’s playing personnel at the same stage. Wenger’s best attackers and defenders are all ageing together. The seasickness over Wenger’s gallingly familiar methods, the same cycle of hope, the same baffled looks as the same flaws appear, have come to dominate. The absence from the Champions League this year, and probably next, will hurt. But it is the lack of a real sense of direction at the heart of this team, the lack of urgency and quality in the playing staff that will hurt his successor most.
As it stands Arsenal have three ways to go from here. The first is the easiest, simply hiring the biggest name available and hoping it sticks. There are choices within this. Plenty of long-term Arsène observers would get a hair-shirt pleasure out of hurling some fuming disciplinarian at this current crop of players, slinging, say, Diego Simeone in through the doors, cracking his knuckles. But the effects could also be disastrous. Carlo Ancelotti usually gets a mention here. The past two years have taken a little off his gloss, so much so that Arsenal may even be able to get him. On the other hand Ancelotti is 58 and has been a manager for 22 years. Beyond him and the usual mess of methods and styles makes up the betting. Massimo Allegri, Joachim Löw and Leonardo Jardim have little in common beyond a certain pedigree and the fact none look as though they have spent that long dreaming of managing a post-Wenger Arsenal. Would they want it? Would it work?
At which point the second option starts to look appealing, the idea of hiring another version of Wenger from the Thin White Duke era, scouring Europe for the hippest young tactician available – the latest fidgety, professorial German. Some brooding Portuguese with an entire unspent store of ambition and energy and state of the art ideas to throw at the post-Arsène void.
Set against this is the high probability of failure. Thomas Tuchel is the bookies’ favourite but he has already been burnt a little. At the same age Jürgen Klopp had won the Bundesliga twice. Meanwhile, and lest we forget, André Villas-Boas is currently preparing to compete in the Dakar Rally. If Wenger’s 800 league games tell us anything it is that Arsenal’s ownership is powerfully risk-averse. Old Wenger may have dished up the perfect blend of prolonged commercial stability. Young Wenger would not get a look in now.
All of which leaves the final option of fudged stability, some big name from the club’s recent past with the will and energy and enough dutiful good sense to keep the ship chugging on while learning on the job: Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp, Mikel Arteta, who has been around some pretty decent coaches. But it does feel a little far off.
Hence the state of extended dithering. Hence those 800 games, the latest in an ever-lengthening roster of landmarks. With two more seasons to run this record speaks more to board-level uncertainty than sure-footed planning, of an endgame being played out right to the last.
What does seem certain is that from here succession is all. And more broadly the Wenger supremacy has been an oddity, a glorious blip, a deviation from the curve so extreme it seems fair to say his final mark will never be passed.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010