Arsene Wenger is out. I woke up this morning to the news that Arsenal’s manager for the last two decades is resigning at the end of the season, bringing to a close a tenure surpassed in length only by the great Alex Ferguson at Manchester United.
But while Fergie had the benefit of stepping away from the game with dignity, and his reputation as the one of the best managers the top flight has ever seen fully intact, Arsene is leaving with his legacy in tatters, and the sense that he should’ve left the club years ago. Not so much leaving as being shoved out, with half of Arsenal’s fan base celebrating and half in mourning.
I struggled a little bit with whether I should even address this on Cartilage Free Captain. After all, we’re a Tottenham Hotspur blog. Arsene has been the enemy for much longer than I’ve been a Tottenham fan, and has been manager at Arsenal longer than some fans have been alive. What could I possibly say about this man that wouldn’t be considered as condescending at best, and trolling at worst?
For a great many Tottenham supporters, their fandom has been as much defined by the relationship to Arsenal as to Spurs. How could it not? They are Tottenham’s closest rivals, with stadiums separated by mere miles, but until recently by huge gulf in quality. And a major part of that comes down to the amazing job done by Arsene while in charge.
You don’t have to like Wenger or Arsenal to have a grudging bit of respect for the job that he did over his 21 seasons in north London. He presided over an Arsenal club that at its peak represented (at least to neutral fans) swashbuckling, beautiful football that included of the best names in the history of the game. The Invincibles of 2003-04 did something that may never be repeated in the Premier League. Names like Henry, Bergkamp, Adams, Wright, Seaman, Viera... they were names that Spurs fans only wished they could have on their side.
But even if your football tribalism doesn’t allow you to respect the things Wenger has done, it’s fair to at least say this: he was the perfect enemy. He was the manager of Tottenham’s fiercest rivals, and he embraced the role of enemy commander very well. Wenger could be infuriatingly dismissive of Spurs and its’ (many, many) managers, tossing off quips and pointing out the gulf in quality between the sides in his thick French accent, driving all of us crazy.
And he was brilliant at his job, which made it all the more irritating. There were years in there that were utterly dark, where Spurs felt utterly resigned to mediocrity, where the distance between the two sides was so vast that North London Derbies felt depressingly like a foregone conclusion.
That’s as much due to Wenger as it is to anything Spurs did as a club. It’s why Spurs celebrated wins and draws over Wenger’s Arsenal so ecstatically. It’s also why we took advantage of every opportunity to make fun of him. We watched that .gif of him throwing the water bottle over and over. We’d make fun of his puffy coats and his failure to find his zipper, his strange fascination with Francis Coquelin, and how he never seemed to see ze eencident. He was a magnet for our disdain, even as he built a dynasty at Arsenal and came to be known as one of the best managers in Europe. We hated him. I think we also secretly admired him.
I don’t mean to turn this into a tribute. If anything, Tottenham’s rise under Mauricio Pochettino to the cusp of European elite status is all the more enjoyable because it comes at the expense of Wenger and Arsenal, who despite their money and their talent are stagnating and looking defeated. There’s a hell of a lot of schadenfreude in seeing a outstanding manager like Wenger falter and fall from the pinnacle of the game. Wenger’s decline has perfectly coincided with Tottenham’s rise. There’s poetry in that: the tide has changed, north London is white, there’s a new sheriff in town.
And yet, there’s something about a good rivalry: even though you loathe the other side and anything it stands for, the mutual hatred on occasion wraps around to a strange sort of respect, and rivalries are better when both teams are strong. Before the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1995, fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers, their fiercest rivals, wore brown armbands in support — they were mourning the loss of their foes as acutely as Cleveland were mourning the loss of their team. (Even after the Browns reformed a few years later, that rivalry has never really been the same since, mostly because the Browns are terrible)
But unlike the Browns and Steelers in ‘95, the rivalry between Spurs and Arsenal will continue next season, with a new manager at the helm at the Emirates for the first time since 1996. That’ll take some getting used to: Mauricio Pochettino is now the third longest tenured manager in the Premier League, which feels weird. In the current, win-at-all-costs, poach-your-rivals-of-talent culture of football, it’s possible that we’ll never see a long-tenured manager like Arsene in the league again.
I wouldn’t presume to tell you how to feel about Arsene Wenger. I’ll just tell you how I feel: as Wenger gets ready to ride off into the sunset after a long and mostly successful career at Arsenal, I tip my hat to him. Wenger gave me some of my worst — and best — moments as a Spurs fan. I hated him and respected the hell out of him at the same time. And strangely, I think I’m going to miss him.