‘Its not how you start, it’s how you finish’, is more than just the title for The Hours hit album, it is also a pretty apt description for Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal tenure. Swanning into English football and radically altering the landscape counts for little in the modern day when the club finds itself mired deeper and deeper in mediocrity.
As the game has evolved Wenger has looked increasingly prehistoric. Where he should be seen as a footballing deity, he has appeared more like a doddering grandfather. Equally befuddled by opposition tactics as he would be, were his grandson to ask him to play iPhone slots.
Teams at the elite level mirror their manager; Manchester City are as meticulous as Guardiola, Liverpool as bombastic as Klopp, Manchester United as curmudgeonly as Mourinho. Arsenal are no different. The last few years Arsenal’s players have performed in a manner that compares to their manager’s weakest aspects; indecisive, frail and bereft of ruthlessness.
Things have degenerated so much that Wenger was in very real danger of allowing the environment around the club to become so toxic, that his legacy would be poisoned. Fortunately, Wenger has given himself the opportunity to leave the Emirates Stadium with his head held high.
This week sees the Gunners take on Atletico Madrid in the semi-finals of the Europa League. Having lost to Galatasaray in the Uefa Cup final in 2000 and to Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League final, this is the last golden chance for Wenger to add a European title to his CV. A continental title would be enough to melt even the most ardent anti-Wenger Arsenal supporter’s heart and ensure a fond farewell is forthcoming.
To reach May’s final in Lyon, Arsenal will require 180 minutes of footballing perfection to overcome Diego Simeone’s brilliant Atletico side. Already in this competition Atletico have brushed aside Copenhagen, Lokomotiv Moscow and Sporting Lisbon, scoring an absurd 15 goals and conceding just 3.
Arsenal on the other hand have beaten Östersunds FK, AC Milan and CSKA Moscow, matching Atletico’s 15 goals scored, but letting-in twice as many. Such a porous defence will need to calcify hugely before lining up against the likes of Diego Costa, Antoine Griezmann, Kevin Gameiro, Angel Correa and Fernando Torres.
Games at the sharp end of tournament football are often decided in the midfield, and this contest looks no different. For Arsenal to succeed they will have to match the grit, determination, composure, technical grace and controlled aggression so of displayed by Simeone’s men. Gabi, Koke, Niguez, Vitolo and Partey are all experienced warriors with a litany of games under their belt at the highest level. Whether the likes of Ramsay, Wilshire, Elneny and Xhaka can rise to the occasion and out play such illustrious opponents remains to be seen.
With either Marseilles or RB Salzburg awaiting in the final, Arsenal can consider themselves huge favourites if they can find a way to successfully navigate the semi-final.
It will require a level of concentration and dedication that has been absent from Arsenal’s recent games, but if Wenger can find a way to channel the wisdom of his younger self and win the Europa League, it will be the best way to collectively say goodbye to a legend of the modern game, an Au Revoir to the most important manager in Arsenal’s history.