At the end of the season, Arsene Wenger will ride off into the sunset having given football more than it has given him in return.
We will remember Wenger 1.0 and Wenger 2.0 differently. It is impossible to erase the last decade, when Arsenal fans were shown the dark side of the moon they conquered during the first period of the Frenchman’s reign. His audacity was to be his constant frustration in the years to come.
Arriving at Highbury in 1996, his loyalty and nobility were plain to see from the beginning. A progressive manager in France, Wenger left Monaco in disgust with the corrupt excesses of 1990s Ligue 1: the best team at the time, Marseille, had been stripped of their title and relegated in a match-fixing scandal. Wenger was the clean cyclist battling vainly for the yellow jersey against a doped-up foe he had no chance of beating.
He exiled himself to Japan, and when Arsenal did eventually come calling, Wenger did not simply pack it all in and join one of the biggest clubs in the Premier League: he waited to see out his contract at the end of the J-League season, only joining up with his new club months into the English campaign.
His revolutionary contribution from there on in is known by all: how he changed the dressing room culture; the fluid football his teams began to play; the young boys, unknown to an English audience, plucked from obscurity for a minimal fee and moulded into men by a calm and thoughtful professor.
Revolutionaries are remembered for their achievements, cast in bronze in town squares. Wenger will have his place in footballing history, but his fatal mistake was thinking that he could change the English game twice.
In 2003, Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea and the revolution that Wenger had led in the half-decade before then was about to be hit on the counter-attack. The money the Russian Oligarch injected into the club allowed the Stamford Bridge side to join the elite in a game which was becoming more and more commercial and in a league swept along by globalisation.
Having changed the game once before, Wenger saddled up for the fight a second time. Few men can forge a lightning bolt of revolution like the Arsenal manager did 20 years ago, but fewer still can make it strike twice.
To call it his downfall would be a mischaracterisation. Wenger didn’t fall, nor did he decline. The Frenchman continued to fight the good fight but it became increasingly harder to do so. First, Manchester United adapted to challenge Chelsea, then Manchester City came along. Barcelona and Real Madrid began the age of the super clubs and Paris Saint-Germain added insult to Wenger’s injury.
But money wasn’t the only revolution. The Arsenal manager’s unshakeable belief in a noble idealism off the pitch shackled him to outdated notions of what should happen on it: it wasn’t cash that beat Wenger, it was a new breed of football.
Wenger’s sides played with a 4-2-3-1 formation for most of his time in England. His two holding midfielders have played behind a pacey striker with the intention of pulling the opposition’s midfield forward and scaring their defence into sitting deep. The aim has always been to create space for a maestro in the middle: from Dennis Bergkamp to Mesut Ozil, the theory has stayed the same.
And yet for all the money that Chelsea spent and all the heartache this caused Wenger, it wasn’t a shiny new signing that did it for Arsenal: it was Claude Makelele who drove the first nail into Wenger’s footballing coffin.
Sitting in the very space Wenger’s creator wanted to occupy, the Makelele role was the revolution he didn’t foresee, nor was it one he acknowledged. Perhaps he saw the two as one in the same: the good versus the bad; the money versus the idea; the team who play to the strengths of their most attractive players versus the team who live only to spoil it for the opposition.
Either way, that’s the moment when Wenger 2.0 arrived.
There was to be a swansong – an initial fightback which saw the Frenchman dig in and double down on his ideals. He put together a team who went unbeaten over an entire Premier League season and one which reached the final of the Champions League. But the boat was taking on water and it never recovered.
When Arsene Wenger retires from football management – be that at the end of the season or years into the future – he will remain the only man to have lost in the final of all three European club competitions. He is a man who will be remembered for his revolutionary spirit, but who will also be known as one who allowed his ideals to shoot down whatever chance his club had of success.
He will leave the club in the position he found it – in the top half of a Premier League on the cusp of a new era, but with better teams above it. But he will leave it 20 years older, two decades wiser, and with stories to tell.