Arsene Wenger was first officially introduced as Arsenal manager at a Highbury press conference on September 22, 1996.
I was there and afterwards conducted a vox-pop outside the ground which elicited the immortal answer ‘Arsene Who?’
Now, nearly 21 years later, I am mentally preparing to attend Wenger’s final farewell. But when will the Frenchman be brave enough to set a date?
Personally and professionally, I like the man. I admire him. So, it is not easy to see his powers diminish and his legacy potentially tainted.
With a new two-year contract on the table, the Arsenal board have made their mind up and Wenger is briefing that he will not make a decision until the season is over.
That is his usual practice, but the time has already come for the proud Frenchman to reveal his hand if he is to protect his legacy and not be hounded out.
Two recent FA Cup successes did not sate him and he desperately wants to go out with another league title. That means he could stay for another year or two and manage his increasingly inevitable handover, but the inescapable feeling is that the time has come to act.
Only two people matter here, though, and they are Wenger and owner Stan Kroenke. Silent Stan will not wield the axe and the rest of the club’s hierarchy fear they do not know who to appoint to preserve their status at the top table of European football.
The name of Diego Simeone is the one being most talked about among the club’s supporters, who believe the Atletico Madrid coach has the steel to put some muscle into Arsenal’s increasingly soft belly.
There was a time when Le Boss did just that, with players such as the imperious Patrick Vieira typifying his approach to the game.
The professorial coach told us at that first press conference he had come to Arsenal as he loved English football and liked the spirit and potential he saw in Arsenal.
He realised that potential like no other Arsenal manager as a Champions League final, two doubles and three Premier League titles, including the Invincibles, followed in the ensuing decade.
But now the spirit seems to have been sapped from both manager and players alike.
Possibly only Alex Ferguson stands above Wenger in the pantheon of great managers in English football and it now seems inevitable he must step aside if he is to retain that status.
Even Wenger’s most loyal supporters are losing faith this year. Not in an angry way, but it is manifesting itself in feelings of frustration with an affection for a man who was once peerless in the game, certainly at Arsenal.
A 13th consecutive season without a league title is understandable as the club has had far longer barren periods in its history. But the manner of this season’s capitulation and Wednesday night’s 5-1 humiliation at Bayern Munich proved the team is now going backwards.
A loyal man of principle, it has long been a Wenger fault to stand by players simply not equipped for the job. I could not argue with a text I received from a former Arsenal player post-match. It said that Arsenal needed a new team and explained how player recruitment in recent seasons has been a disaster.
The man who recruited Wenger for Arsenal was chief executive David Dein. The pair were soon joined at the hip, and still regularly dine together.
Before his acrimonious departure a decade ago, Dein told the Daily Telegraph: “Arsene’s a miracle worker. He’s revolutionised the club. He’s turned players into world-class players. Since he has been here, we have seen football from another planet.”
Dein was ousted after a power struggle in April 2007, but still attends games as a fan. His absence in the board room, however, cannot be underestimated among the causes of Wenger’s slow painful death if only because their transfer market success has never been matched since.
The move to an expensive new stadium put the handbrake on too, but now the funds are there, they are either not being spent or are being squandered in dramatic fashion.
Would Dein have allowed Chelsea to snatch the Premier League’s best midfielder, N’Golo Kante, from their clutches?
We will never know, but it is clear Arsenal have very few players of genuine quality compared to the Wenger heyday when Vieira ruled the roost with Tony Adams, Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Co.
Wenger recently stated his current forwards are the best he has ever assembled, but the claim rings hollow.
Never one for confrontation, he now seems wary of handling the big players with authority.
Antonio Conte showed how it can be done at Chelsea when he axed star striker Diego Costa in January amid doubts over the Spanish international’s commitment to the cause. I was told Wenger chucked things around the dressing room at half-time in the recent home defeat by Watford, but he did not drop anyone of note afterwards.
It is hard to believe a manager as ruthless as Conte, or even Wenger’s arch-nemesis Jose Mourinho, would have played club record signing Mesut Ozil in Munich. He is off form and a luxury player.
He needed to play the more workmanlike Mohammed Elneny as they were always going to be overrun in midfield by the brilliant German champions.
It was a poor and now all too predictable tactical set-up. As impressive as Bayern Munich were, the goals were largely inexcusable.
Arjen Robben was allowed the freedom of the Allianz Arena before his spectacular opener and Wenger’s most expensive ever defender Shkodran Mustafi was comprehensively out-jumped by Robert Lewandowski for Bayern’s second, before turning away from play before Thiago scored the crucial third.
Mustafi, who cost €40m, is a decent player with a good attitude, but he is no Martin Keown, Sol Campbell or Tony Adams. He is not even in the class of ex-central defender Steve Bould, a rock at the heart of two title-winning Arsenal teams, who now sits alongside Wenger as his assistant.
Former Wenger No. 2 Pat Rice recently told me the coaching staff are encouraged to and do challenge the Frenchman in their post-match briefings.
But it is clear that one man ultimately calls the shots at Arsenal and he is increasingly making the wrong calls.
Perhaps he should have left on the high of the 2014 FA Cup final victory, but he felt greater things were within his grasp and had every right to stay on.
Arsenal have no divine right to be successful, but they do have a responsibility to look after the best manager they have ever had.
Conte is Chelsea’s 17th boss during Wenger’s tenure and the same number of coaches have run the show down the road at White Hart Lane in the same period.
Only ‘Arsene Knows’ if his number is finally up, or will he suffer the indignity of someone having to tell him?
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