To use the mantra that Sven Goran Eriksson would employ to describe England friendly matches, “first half good, second half not so good” is an apt description of Arsenal’s Arsene Wenger years.
Wenger, the football revolutionary who let the game grow around him and eventually lost his touch, finds himself edged into a reluctant retirement by Arsenal’s executives.
The tributes were warm and no doubt heartfelt from majority owner Stan Kroenke and CEO Ivan Gazidis, but Arsenal’s great change was carried out coldly.
While Gazidis, speaking on Friday afternoon, gushed on about “a great manager and a great man”, Wenger’s departure was a business decision driven by football failings and an emptying Emirates.
This season, Arsenal spent £100m on two strikers in Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and Alexandre Lacazette, swapped Henrikh Mkhitaryan for Alexis Sanchez, and bumped Mesut Ozil’s wages up to £350,000 a week and yet lie sixth in the Premier League, a position lower than Bruce Rioch, Wenger’s predecessor, was sacked for finishing in 1996.
Wenger was wreathed in praise on Friday. Labour leader and the Emirates’ local MP Jeremy Corbyn led the tributes, and Sir Alex Ferguson was perhaps warmest of all.
“I am proud to have been a rival, a colleague and a friend to such a great man,” Ferguson said, a far cry from the spitting fury the pair used to aim at each other from almost as soon as Wenger flew in from Japan 22 years ago.
Should Wenger flick through UK TV channels on Monday evening, he will be confronted by an uncomfortable vision of how things used to be.
Channel 5’s “Fergie v Wenger: The Feud” recollects when he and Ferguson duked it out to be England’s top dog. Wenger had his victories, from the Double he collected in his first full, 1997-98, season to securing the Premier League title at Old Trafford in 2002, the Invincible season of 2003-4 and, in 2005, beating Manchester United in the FA Cup final in Cardiff on penalties.
Patrick Vieira’s decisive spot-kick is where the decline began, starting with the captain’s departure that summer to Juventus.
Arsenal would not collect another trophy until the FA Cup final of 2014, by which point the old competition was no longer such a grand prize. Collecting three FA Cups in four years, as Wenger managed by winning last season’s competition, would once have made a manager legendary, but it was not nearly enough to stop Kroenke and Gazidis deciding the time had come to kill off Bambi.
Arsenal’s matches with Ferguson’s United, the greatest pitched battles of the Premier League era during those peak years, eventually lost their zest. It was barely a fair fight by the end.
Where Wenger brought changes in practice to the English game, it turned out the granite Glaswegian was far more adaptable than the urbane, multilingual man from Alsace-Lorraine.
When a new threat had appeared over the horizon, Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea, Ferguson the street fighter was initially driven back by Jose Mourinho’s muscular, team but eventually prevailed.
Wenger, by contrast, floundered. The warmth the two men now share almost certainly owes much to ceasing to be a threat to each other. And in Wenger’s case, not being a threat to Ferguson happened far earlier than the Scot’s retirement in 2013.
Wenger was much the more autocratic control freak, with his backroom staff hardly altering, and training practices barely evolving from those he had shown off on arrival to the likes of David Seaman and Tony Adams.
Ferguson’s bench evolved through the years, as assistants like Brian Kidd, Steve McClaren and the technocratic Carlos Queiroz came and went, and he moved way beyond the pasta and broccoli regime that Wenger brought to England.
In considering the greatest moments and players of Wenger’s reign, the imbalance between the early and later years is striking, pitifully so at times.
Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole moved on from Arsenal in 2006 and the club has never since boasted a world-class defender. Instead, Wenger chose to stockpile his squad with skilful playmakers like Alexander Hleb, Tomas Rosicky and Andrey Arshavin, good on their day but unsuited to the archetypal test of a wet Wednesday night at Stoke.
And Wenger lost his ability to nurture hidden gems into world stars in the fashion he did with Vieira, Thierry Henry and Robin van Persie.
He could not retain starlets like Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri for long enough and one of the key indicators of Arsenal’s fading cachet was that 2012 day when he had to field a call from Ferguson informing him that United wanted to buy Van Persie.
There were mitigating circumstances for Wenger, from the rise of petrodollar-flush Chelsea and Manchester City and the handicap of having to pay off the costs of building the Emirates, but Ferguson was concurrently working with the Glazer family keeping a tight hold of the Old Trafford purse while still hauling in silverware.
Friday’s announcement allowed Wenger to be recalled for the good times, yet sadly, most of them lie in a distant past.