Usually in this kind of situation the first question many ask is “why now?”
But almost unanimously the response when Arsene Wenger announced Friday that he will be leaving Arsenal at the end of the season was simply: “The time is now.”
[ MORE: Who will take over from Wenger? ]
Wenger, 68, has spent almost 22 years not only leading Arsenal to 10 major trophies but also reshaping the way English soccer developed. The Frenchman arrived in the Premier League in 1996 and revolutionized the game with his methods on and off the pitch as he created some of the greatest teams the PL, and the game, has ever seen with the “Invincibles” and all of the fantastic players who arrived in his first 10 years in charge.
[ MORE: Wenger’s Departure ]
But now feels like the right time for Wenger to move on. It is fitting that the end of an era will be as classy as the man himself. I’ve been lucky enough to talk to him and ask him questions over the years and he is someone who loves the game dearly and speaks with passion and intellect about so many things.
But, above all else, he loves Arsenal.
After leading Arsenal to 20-straight seasons in the top four and 19 in the UEFA Champions League, that run ended last season and the Gunners have now had their two worst seasons under Wenger back-to-back. They have regressed and even Wenger, a man who transformed Arsenal into a team admired around the world for their attacking play, knew his time was up.
With Wenger announcing his decision to step down with one year left on his current contract, it shows that he realizes fresh impetus is needed and the job of rebuilding Arsenal is not for him to lead.
Following two years of “Wenger Out” and empty seats starting to appear at the Emirates Stadium on a regular basis, this was what had to happen for Arsenal to move on from a legendary figure who kept winning FA Cups in recent seasons (three in the last five campaigns) to keep his success ticking over.
Wenger was totally committed to the club and put his own success to one side to help Arsenal negotiate the move from Highbury to the new stadium as players were sold and he turned down some of Europe’s biggest clubs. As he said in his statement, Arsenal will have Wenger’s “love and support forever” and he should have the stadium named after him and a statue in his honor.
He will now get the sendoff he deserves in the next few weeks as English soccer pays its respects to Wenger in the final five games of the Premier League campaign before it all ends on the final day of the season at Huddersfield Town on May 13.
Hanging over all of this is the chance for Wenger to ride off into the sunset and put Arsenal back in the Champions League for next season.
With a UEFA Europa League semifinal first leg against Atletico Madrid coming up next week and the return leg on May 3, Wenger has the chance to reach a major final in Lyon on May 16 to see out his incredible time at Arsenal.
But then what?
There is talk that Wenger may remain at Arsenal in a different role and go upstairs and help the directors — he is particularly close with majority owner Stan Kroenke — but in the past he has shared his belief that he could well manage elsewhere when he left the Gunners.
The French national team? Paris Saint-Germain? Both seem like sensible options for Wenger, with perhaps the former the best fit for him. If a talented crop of players don’t deliver for Didier Deschamps this summer at the World Cup, you’d think that French Football Federation may make a managerial change.
Wenger’s legacy will be intact at Arsenal no matter what he does in the future and no matter what happens in the final weeks of this season. The sight of him struggling with a zipper on the sidelines, berating an official or smiling as he applauds another fine team goal are almost over.
The time was now for him to move on. And Wenger now leaves Arsenal in a much better place than when he took over almost 22 years ago as the Gunners will aim to get back into the top four and the Premier League title conversation with a new man at the helm.
Arsene Wenger and Arsenal will always be inextricably intertwined but he has made the right call at the right time. His class remains.