After 20 years as the manager of Arsenal, you’d think that Arsene Wenger would be afforded the comfortable status of legend. Instead, he is being pushed towards an exit door and painted as an faded old man who just doesn’t know when to give up.
When Wenger arrived at Arsenal, he was a hugely unknown quantity in England. In reality, though, this was a man who had just steered Monaco to one of the most successful spells in their history, including a Ligue 1 title, a Coupe de France, and a Cup Winners’ Cup final. The fact Wenger had come from Japan did him no favours in England at first, but few noted that he’d only left France in the first place because of the corruption and bribery for which Marseille were stripped of their title in 1993.
His CV is as impressive as any other manager in the game and to have stayed at the top as long as he has deserves credit.
It’s no surprise, then, that he has been touted with a move to Barcelona. In fact, it makes perfect sense.
Wenger is the only manager in football to have lost all three major European club finals: the Cup Winners’ Cup with Monaco in 1992, the UEFA Cup in 2000, and the Champions League in 2006. Perhaps that’s the sort of record that Jose Mourinho was referring to when he called Wenger a specialist in failure, but in reality, few other managers can boast a record of coming so close, and over such a long period of time. If multiple reaching European finals is failure, then only a very select few succeed.
Barcelona, though, is a club which is synonymous with success these days. It wasn’t always like that. They have always been a massive football club, sure, but it took until 1992 for Barcelona to win their first European cup – ironically enough, the year Wenger lost his first European title. The fact that Barcelona have won the Cup Winners’ Cup and the Fairs Cup more times than any other team, whilst their bitter rivals Real Madrid have won the European Cup more than anyone else speaks to Barcelona’s historical position: a club with the all the setup for success, but who had never managed it on the biggest scale until very recently.
In fact, when you look at the history, Barcelona and Wenger share a spirit. It’s all about winning – what else would football be about? But it’s also about something greater than that. They say that Barcelona, the club, is a representation of Barcelona, the city. And they say that the capital of Catalonia is a representation of the nation of Catalonia. The club, they say, is more than a club.
Johan Cruyff’s arrival at Camp Nou took the team to new heights, before his return as a manager established a way of playing that brought success at home and abroad. But again, it was more than that. The success of Cruyff wasn’t fleeting, it would lead directly to the era of Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique when the club twice won the treble.
With all of that recent success, it sounds as though a manager of Arsene Wenger’s recent record of two FA Cups in over a decade doesn’t really fit. And yet the success isn’t the most impressive part of the Barcelona story, it’s the fact that the foundations have been there for so long.
One of the criticisms levelled at both Guardiola and Enrique is that anyone could have done their jobs: that the team was so strong that a monkey with a laser pointer could have won the treble. But if it seems as though the job is easy, it’s only because the club have spent decades creating the right foundations. It’s also what Wenger has been doing at Arsenal, under particularly trying financial conditions up until just a few years ago.
And so Barcelona, when they do look for a new manager to take over from Enrique, will be in a situation where they will need to find someone to deliver both continuity and regeneration.
Whilst it’s clear that the Spanish giants aren’t in the greatest of shape this season compared to what they’re used to, they still find themselves in the final of the Copa del Rey and in pole position in La Liga – albeit having played a game more than Real. If they do manage to beat PSG and go through to the Champions League quarter-finals, that would be a miracle, but if that’s the only reason Barcelona are underachieving, then there’s really only one answer: you surely can’t win every trophy every season.
There is a rebuilding job on the next manager’s hands, but it’s already been started: Samuel Umtiti, Andre Gomes, Denis Suarez and Paco Alcacer seem to have been identified as the future of the club in defence, defensive midfield, attacking midfield and attack respectively. And if Wenger needs any more incentive to join a club of Barcelona’s stature, the quality of the players and the ability to manage the transition from one team of superstars to the next must be tempting. The idea of knocking Arsenal out of the Champions League in the last 16 is a tempting idea for any Wenger apologist who isn’t of an Arsenal persuasion. What better revenge on the ungrateful hordes on FanTV stations could Wenger wish for? Blind with rage already, would the more irate of the regulars even be able to articulate a proper thought?
None of this means that Barcelona will want Wenger in charge, nor does it mean that Wenger would even want to go, if offered.
But it would give him a chance to leave Arsenal and ride off into the sunset – and with a squad like Barcelona’s at his disposal, would he still look like a specialist in failure by the end of his contract?