Arsene Wenger will go down as one of the Premier League’s best managers, no question. He has led Arsenal to three league titles, six FA Cup titles and a Champions League final since taking charge of the Gunners in October 1996. He has pioneered a style of football admired across the continent, as evidenced particularly in ‘The Invincibles’ team of 2003-04 and has demonstrated an incredibly astute sense of the transfer market, signing legendary striker Thierry Henry for £11 million in 1999 and future international stalwarts Alex Song and Aaron Ramsey for pocket change. Sure, there have been some misses; Abou Diaby, Denilson and Nicklas Bendtner never made the grade and Wenger will lament having failed to adequately replace Gilberto Silva after he left in 2008, but the club and the league have unarguably benefitted from his presence.
But for all the eulogising, Wenger appears to have come to the end of the road. With the recent comments by Ian Wright, Wenger seems to have come to a self-realisation that it’s time to move on. He will never be forgotten by an Arsenal faithful forever grateful for his stewardship of the club, but the team has stagnated on the field and, in the boardroom, no longer fears for its financial future having successfully made the long-term transition from Highbury to the Emirates. With multi-billionaire Stan Kroenke holding the controlling stake in the club, there is also no fear that Wenger’s departure would see the team fall down the table. Indeed, at present, Arsenal are holding their ground (which is commendable in such a competitive league), but aren’t fulfilling their potential of competing at the very top.
Wenger, at the age of 67 is also heading into the twilight of his professional life. For a man, so meticulous, but not given to radical tactical overhauls or the innovative training approaches that have been pioneered in other sports, he may feel that the football business has altered sufficiently to justify retiring. It is not that he has become a bad coach, but the goalposts have shifted, the corporate emphasis taking on more significance and the injection of billions into the English game undermining the public love for the game. The continuous questions about his status are also likely to have worn his patience thin.
What cannot be denied is that Wenger will have to leave eventually. He still has a great number of supporters at the Emirates, nowhere more so than in the boardroom, but the club owes more to him than the other way around and if Wenger believes it is time to leave there can be no question he has reached the tipping point. Amongst his possible successors, Diego Simeone has been tipped on the back of his recent successful Champions League form with Atletico Madrid, and Arsenal supporters would likely warm to a manager who displays more overt passion than the often-stoic Frenchman. Other names on the list would be Eddie Howe and Leonardo Jardim, but the latter will be targeting the England job in the middle distance and appears settled at Bournemouth, whereas Jardim is hardly well known in England (in common with Wenger before he arrived) and hasn’t won a league title since taking over in the Principality. There isn’t an obvious candidate, but then Arsenal can never be accused of taking the easy option.