Cape Town - There is likely to be a lump in the throat of Arsène Wenger when he leads Arsenal out for the final time at Old Trafford today, facing a Manchester United side for the 60th time in a memorable rivalry stretching back to his appointment in 1996.
When he arrived at Highbury in October that year, popular culture remembers the London Evening Standard ran a backpage headline that read “Arsène who?” as the Frenchman arrived as a relative unknown from a spell coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan.
Nevertheless, his impact at the Gunners was immediate as he stamped out the drinking culture at the club and promoted radical dietary changes. Utilising his knowledge of football in France, world-class bargains such as Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Thierry Henry soon arrived.
The introduction of proper recovery training, such as pilates and yoga, helped extend the longevity of arguably one of the best back fours in English football history – Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould and Nigel Winterburn. Success followed and in 1998 Arsenal won the double with beautiful, high-paced football, but at its core a physical and mental toughness.
Today’s clash in Greater Manchester isn’t really about seeing Alexis Sánchez face his old club, or comparing notes as to whose record is better between José Mourinho and Wenger; it’s a chance for United fans to give a warm ovation to an old foe who, in his elegant way, used to give Alex Ferguson a run for his money.
Truth be told, the match itself has little real significance, as the Red Devils seemed to have secured second, and fifth-place seems out of reach for the visitors. If anything, it will perhaps underline why the 68-year-old has lost touch with the formula which brought him so much success.
Instead of building teams in later years that were as hard as they were as beautiful to watch, Wenger’s insistence of signing players who were blessed with wonderful technical ability, but little stomach for a fight, became his downfall. It became all about the aesthetics and even former stars such as Ian Wright, Adams and Dixon expressed contempt for his failings.
Indeed, the football world has been waiting a long time for his departure, as evidence of the decline was clear. It was the old campaigner fighting on when his wits and skills were no longer pioneering and powerful. It was similar to old and shaking Muhammad Ali being pummeled by Trevor Berbick in 1981 in his last fight, when he was no longer “champion of the world”.
Wenger eats, drinks and sleeps the game. Asked on his 60th birthday how he would celebrate, he said he would be watching that evening’s mid-table Bundesliga match with a lighted candle. There were the early title wins and the majesty of his invincibles, but the stagnation thereafter has been steady.
Four FA Cup wins aside in recent years, in a competition which perhaps is no longer as significant in the lights of the Uefa Champions League chase, Wenger has failed to lead Arsenal to a major honour since the unbeaten 2003/04 Premier League campaign. Even so, he still deserves his place among the greatest of all time in the Premier League. He was the first really successful foreign manager and changed thinking about diet and recovery.
Today’s match is a chance to say goodbye and thank you. English football owes him an enormous debt.
Elsewhere, Manchester City will look to close in on Chelsea’s record of 95 Premier League points when they visit West Ham United at London Stadium. Pep Guardiola’s charges sit on 90 with four games left. The Hammers look set to remain in the top flight.