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Wenger passes the torch as Arsenal face up to his formidable legacy

20 April 2018 19:23

Among all the nostalgic emotions that swirled on Friday when Arsene Wenger called time on one of the most definitive eras experienced by any modern European football club, the strongest feeling in terms of the here and now was relief.

Relief the fan protests against a man who revolutionised football in England around the turn of the century would be no more; relief the sad spectacle of him presiding over a sparsely populated Emirates Stadium would cease; relief Wenger had made his Arsenal exit – just – on his own terms.

The idea anyone other than the 68-year-old Frenchman - the mastermind of three Premier League triumphs, leader of the 'Invincibles' and winner of a record seven FA Cups - would have the decisive say on when his 22-year tenure in north London came to a close seemed fanciful until very recently.

But as this season ambled into a grimly predictable slog, the truce brought about by last May's scintillating FA Cup final win over Chelsea long forgotten as Arsenal fumbled points across a bleak English winter, the prospect of Wenger being saved from himself became realistic.

A growing behind the scenes team at Emirates Stadium, featuring head of recruitment Sven Mislintat, head of football relations Raul Sanllehi and contract negotiator Huss Fahmy, demonstrated a declining sphere of influence for Wenger and a club ready to move on.

Wenger's departure being announced by the man himself felt like one of those little things in football that matter a great deal. Of course, a combination of relentless hunger for his work and no little stubbornness mean he missed more suitable moments to ride off into the sunset.

The comeback win against Hull City in the 2014 FA Cup final to end a nine-year trophy drought was one, while signing a two-year contract extension last May instead of walking away in glory after denying Chelsea the double always looked like the mistake subsequent events have proved it to be.

Maybe there is one last hurrah to come in the Europa League, although Diego Simeone's hard-edged Atletico Madrid represent the kind of semi-final foe who are all sorts of wrong for the flashy, finessed but flaky displays that typify Arsenal today.

"I feel a responsibility. You can't be 20 years somewhere and not care, so I'm more conscious now about what Arsenal is all about, and I feel the weight of keeping people happy," Wenger said poignantly after a season-altering 3-0 win against Antonio Conte's Chelsea in September 2016, shortly before his 20th anniversary in the post.

Conte responding to that shellacking with a tactical switch to 3-4-2-1 that would see Chelsea romp to the title seemed to encapsulate the futility of Wenger's later years, when even impressive triumphs were more often than not undermined.

But it also succinctly summarised his impact on top-flight football in England. The Premier League would not be the high-end competition so devilishly hard to win as it is today without the lessons everyone has learned from Arsene Wenger.

Aside from Chelsea player-manager Ruud Gullit, all his Premier League counterparts in 1996 were British or Irish. Gerry Francis, Joe Kinnear, Ron Atkinson, Frank Clark and Harry Redknapp were no-nonsense men of the old-school. Pints and percentages, not pressing and philosophy.

Wenger changed things for all of them and their predecessors – even his great rival Alex Ferguson, who already had one of the great British footballing dynasties in operation.

Ferguson's domineering 1990s Manchester United were from the lineage of Shankly and Clough – inspired tactical sharpness, fearsome motivational skill and a keen nose for the moments that win matches.

Nevertheless, he would probably never have dreamed of signing Juan Sebastian Veron to play as a floating number 10 in European matches without first marvelling at the fluid brilliance of an Arsenal side pioneeringly and rigorously prepared by Wenger.

Veron was a stellar import who failed, but by that stage at the start of the 21st century there were always plenty more on the way on and off the pitch.

Amid the raft of plaudits sent Wenger's way after news of his departure broke, even old foe Jose Mourinho parked the animosity in a sincere acknowledgement of an esteemed colleague.

Mourinho also probably counts among the misfortunes Wenger has wrought upon himself. Before 1996, when the self-styled 'Special One' was on the staff at Barcelona, it is safe to assume few Camp Nou coaches would have viewed a job in England as a step up from Porto.

It turns out it was and it still is because Wenger convinced the cream of international coaching talent to try and emulate his Premier League feats, while persuading chairmen and owners they were worth a punt.

As Pep Guardiola's Manchester City weaved pretty patterns all around a forlorn Arsenal for back-to-back 3-0 wins in the EFL Cup final and the Premier League a couple of months ago, Wenger would probably not have welcomed the observation he was ultimately responsible for the man in the opposite dugout being there.

He raised the bar indisputably in his glory days. Perhaps he should have stopped grasping upwards for it some time ago, but the Premier League will be a long time in Arsene Wenger's debt.

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