For the best part of a decade, Arsenal’s Wenger Out brigade lobbied to get the most successful manager in the club’s history the sack. A distinct wing of the Gunners’ supporters argued that the achievements in the first half of Arsène Wenger’s reign in north London – three Premier League titles including the 2003-04 “Invincibles” crown that was won unbeaten, and four FA Cups – were followed by a sustained period of underachievement. In the second half of those 22 years, the club admittedly dropped out of Champions League contention, but still won three more FA Cups.
The Wenger Out movement, though, always insisted that it did not lack perspective; Arsenal were simply bigger and better-resourced than other clubs that had experienced far steeper falls from grace. All the same, it was perhaps puzzling to outsiders as to why mass protests were staged ahead of Europa League ties, rather than relegation scraps, or why critics of Wenger would claim they’d “had enough Robbie” but still continue to attend games and produce YouTube meltdown videos as the club finished in the top flight’s top six.
Whether the Arsenal board’s reluctance to sack Wenger in the last ten years was a sign of loyalty or timidity is, of course, open to debate. Whether or not Wenger’s decision to resign with a year left to run on his contract was influenced by the division caused by his continued presence in the dugout is less uncertain.
Towards the end of Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal, some of the blood-baying, particularly on social media, had become so extreme that it seems fair to say that his stepping down represented the best option for both parties. An old man could enjoy the retirement he deserved, and fans, whether Wenger In (a section of Arsenal’s supporters given decidedly less air time) or Wenger Out, could finally look forward to a change in approach.
But Wenger leaving Arsenal does not signal an immediate end to infighting. Some of the candidates initially tipped to replace him – his former players Patrick Vieira and Mikel Arteta – were quickly derided by the Wenger Out camp as “inexperienced”, as they craved a more high-profile appointment to compete in the Champions League.
And in the end, that’s what they’ve got. Wenger is succeeded by Unai Emery, who has previously managed the likes of Valencia, Sevilla and Paris Saint-Germain. When Wenger was appointed as Arsenal boss in 1996, the London Evening Standard ran a mischievous headline: “Arsène Who?” Emery’s haul of ten major honours as a manager, including a Ligue 1 title and three successive Europa League crowns, has spared him any such insult.
But a glittering CV is not a guaranteed formula for success, as Luiz Felipe Scolari learned at Chelsea. The Brazilian, who coached his national side to World Cup glory in 2002, found himself sacked by the Blues after just 25 league games in 2009. Ronald Koeman, meanwhile, had won three Eredivisie titles with Ajax and PSV, as well as the Copa del Rey with Valencia, but was sacked by Everton after 16 months and with the club in the relegation zone when he left. So Emery, while less of a risk than the untried Arteta, is certainly not a risk-free appointment. But no manager is, which the Wenger Out camp would do well to realise.
Still, for someone who describes his own English as “not the very best”, Emery has chosen his words wisely so far. In his first press conference as Arsenal manager, the 46-year-old described getting the job as a “dream come true”. He added: “The target is to be a candidate and to challenge for the title. It is very important for the club, after two years outside the Champions League, to work this way, to be the best club, the best team in the Premier League and also in the world.”
The ambition shown by Emery is admirable – and it’s exactly what those who campaigned for Wenger Out want to hear – but he inherits an in-tray at Arsenal that is far from empty. How does he finish in the top one with a squad that is so obviously top six? How does he offset the fact that Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City are, in terms of tactics and skill, so far ahead of any other team in the Premier League?
Patience is vital for Emery in the early days of his reign. When Wenger came to Arsenal, he delivered near-instant success, winning the domestic double in his first full season. Should Emery fail to deliver something similar, the question could be asked: will those who demanded Wenger Out understand the need for a transition period? The indignant response from some Arsenal fans to the prospect of Arteta taking charge of the club sows a seed of doubt.
But the broadcaster and Arsenal fan Piers Morgan, one of Wenger’s most vociferous critics over the years, is adamant that Emery will be afforded time to find his feet. He told me: “I think he [Emery] is entitled to spend at least two years building his own team that plays the way he wants them to play. After that he should be judged in the same way as any other ‘Big Club’ manager once they have been bedded in.”
If Morgan is right, this could be the start of a new era at Arsenal, with a manager free to experiment tactically and in the transfer market without facing constant criticism from the stands. If Morgan is wrong, Emery will be doing his job with his hands tied, held up against impossibly high standards and plagued by short-termism.
Wenger is not blameless in Arsenal’s slip from being perennial title challengers to battling Burnley for a spot in the top six: his tactics often lacked a plan B, his attitude towards transfers was stubborn and he was perhaps not strict enough with underperforming players. But, ultimately, nothing in his time at the club warranted the vitriol directed his way by the militants within the Wenger Out brigade. They owe it to Wenger, then, to give Emery time, even if takes a little bit longer than they’d hope, to get it right.