The comparison with Manchester United is tempting but Sir Alex Ferguson left a club at the top while Arsene Wenger has presided over a sad decline from his glorious peak
At his peak, Arsene Wenger built Arsenal teams who dominated the English game, destroying the opposition with football whose quality, speed and artistry had never been seen before. Last week, in his curtailed final press conference before announcing his departure, Wenger said of course he hoped his Arsenal team would finish ahead of Burnley.
That speaks to the sad drop in standards and expectations at Arsenal in recent years, just as much as the insipid atmosphere at the Emirates recently. If last season was a season of protest and anger from fans who wanted Wenger to go, this year has been one of sullen resignation that he had not. Until now.
But while the mood at the final home games will now be transformed, from resentment to reverence, the bigger question is where this will leave Arsenal, now that the man who built the club in its modern form is going. And amid all the dizziness, it is difficult not to feel optimistic: that after years of drift and decay, that the only way is up. Surely a positive new manager, handed this squad, this stadium, this global profile, would not be trying to hang on to sixth place.
Of course there will be worries from those who point to the nearest thing to a precedent, the state of Manchester United after Sir Alex Ferguson retired in 2013. Then, with David Gill quitting as chief executive too, United became a vacuum of leadership experience, one that they have still not truly filled. Despite spending hundreds of millions of pounds on players over the last five years, United have not won the Premier League since, or even come close. They are still floundering around for direction and strategy, and have been left behind by the more precise planning of Manchester City.
But what does that mean for Arsenal? That change should be put off forever, even as it becomes more painful to contemplate? Or that it should it just needs to be managed, so that all the foundations are not removed at the same time?
For one, there is a marked difference between the Ferguson of 2013 and the Wenger of 2018. Ferguson had just won the Premier League title back from Manchester City, having won it with one of his weakest ever teams in 2010-11 too. His glorious late peak, the 2006-09 team, three consecutive titles, one Champions League final and another defeat, was within very recent memory. Had Ferguson stayed at United, there is no reason to believe he would not have kept on winning.
Wenger has been far past his peak for some time. The team have not put together a serious title challenge since 2007-08, and have been getting ever further away from the top. Even in seasons when the title was potentially there for them – 2010-11, 2013-14, 2015-16 – they have fallen away. The modern game, more aggressive, organised and rigorous, as coached by the likes of Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Jurgen Klopp, Mauricio Pochettino and Max Allegri, is obviously very different from the football that Arsenal play.
This is why Arsenal do not need to worry about any post-Wenger dip when the teams loses direction: they have been in that dip for years. This is not the time for a Carlo Ancelotti appointment, someone to keep things ticking over. But someone to reenergise, rebuild and regenerate a team that has gone stale. But once they have that, as they will do soon, there is so much more to come from this squad.
The other reason to be optimistic is that Ivan Gazidis has made sure that this will not be comparable to United 2013, when the two most important men at the club left at the same time, leaving nothing in their place. The appointments of Sven Mislintat, Huss Fahmy and Raul Sanllehi have given Arsenal a modern management structure, ensuring that there is secure football expertise in place in precisely these circumstances. These are the appointments that United should have made before Ferguson went, but did not, and they have been paying the price ever since.
Wenger is the last of his generation of omnipotent Premier League managers, who want to oversee everything that happened at his football club. When it worked, it was unlike anything we had seen before, but you can only be a revolutionary once in your life, and Wenger’s time had passed. Now Arsenal have a chance to relaunch themselves into modern football, a chance they should have taken in 2017 or even 2014. It will be uncomfortable, of course, but it was uncomfortable for many when Wenger arrived in 1996. And thanks to him, there is far more positive potential at the club now than there was then.