LONDON (AP) — Arsene Wenger is leaving Arsenal after more than 21 years, ending a revolutionary reign that saw him introduce new methods to the Premier League and become the club’s most successful manager.
While the 68-year-old Frenchman was able to announce his own departure plans on Friday, the tenure of English soccer’s longest-serving manager will finish at the end of the season against a backdrop of mounting dissent as the London club’s competitiveness in the Premier League has waned.
Arsenal has failed to win the Premier League since 2004, but that feat represented the highpoint of Wenger’s career as he became only the second manager to go through an English league season unbeaten.
The “Invincibles” season, his third Premier League title, helped shield Wenger against the critics. But Wenger’s power appeared to drain over the last year as executives trying to shape the future direction of the team were brought in.
The new two-year contract that Wenger signed after winning the FA Cup for a record seventh time last May will now not be completed.
“After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season,” Wenger said. “I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years. I managed the club with full commitment and integrity.
“I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high. To all the Arsenal lovers take care of the values of the club. My love and support for ever.”
Wenger gathered his players on Friday morning to tell them he was leaving.
“It’s been emotional and there will be time to digest it but it’s a sad feeling right now,” Arsenal captain Per Mertesacker said. “He’s the major figure for this club, more than 20 years, it’s been so impressive.”
Midfielder Jack Wilshere knows that better than most players after first entering the club academy 17 years ago.
“We didn’t see (his departure) coming because … he had another year left on his contract,” the 26-year-old Wilshere said. “Ever since I’ve known about Arsenal, Arsene has been there.
“I’m sad. I’m a little bit disappointed that we couldn’t give him the season he wanted, but we’ve still got a chance to win something so he can leave on a high.”
Even though Arsenal is sixth in the Premier League, there can still be a successful conclusion to the season with the team in contention to win the Europa League.
“We need to win it for him really and get behind him in these last few games to give him the sendoff he deserves,” Wilshere said.
Arsenal’s appearance in Europe’s second-tier competition is a sign of the recent demise under Wenger. Arsenal became accustomed to qualifying for the Champions League before missing out for the first time in two decades after finishing fifth last season.
Winning the Europa League is now Arsenal’s only realistic way of Wenger bequeathing his successor a place next season in the more illustrious Champions League.
SEARCH FOR A SUCCESSOR
With Wenger’s footprints all over the Emirates Stadium, finding a coach to step into the dugout after a dynastic reign is a challenge. Arsenal owner Stan Kroenke only has to look at the problems that have afflicted Manchester United since Alex Ferguson retired in 2013 after more than 26 years in charge. United is on its third manger since Ferguson left after winning a record-extending 20th English title and has not finished higher than fourth.
Ferguson, who experienced a heated rivalry with Wenger on the touchline, can now fondly recall their duels for trophies.
“In an era where football managers sometimes only last one or two seasons, it shows what an achievement it is to serve that length of time at a club the size of Arsenal,” Ferguson said. “I am pleased that he has announced he is leaving at this stage of the season, as he can now have the send-off that he truly deserves.”
Among the early contenders to succeed Wenger are two Germans: Thomas Tuchel, who left Borussia Dortmund last year, and Germany coach Joachim Loew.
A popular appointment among Arsenal fans could be Patrick Vieira, who has been gaining coaching experience in Major League Soccer at New York City FC. The midfielder was one of Wenger’s first signings in 1996 and featured in all three Premier League title-winning sides.
Wenger took over in October 1996 as Arsenal’s first foreign manager on the back of successes at Monaco and a stint in charge of Japanese club Grampus Eight. He was a relative unknown but quickly gained respect for helping to modernize English soccer in the early years of the Premier League, eradicating Arsenal’s drinking culture and introducing new sports science methods.
Adding Vieira and French players Nicolas Anelka, Emmanuel Petit and Thierry Henry helped to establish Arsenal as an English soccer power until Wenger was shackled by the financial constraints of the move from Highbury into the new Emirates Stadium in 2006. It coincided with the rise of foreign investment in rival clubs, with Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich transforming Chelsea and Abu Dhabi’s Sheikh Mansour raising the stakes by lavishing even more cash on players at Manchester City.
KROENKE’S BIG DECISION
While Arsenal was taken over by Kroenke in 2011, the American sports tycoon operated in a parsimonious financial environment that irritated many supporters.
Now Kroenke, who told The Associated Press in 2016 that he was “very high on Arsene,” has the tough task of replacing Wenger.
“This is one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport,” Kroenke said. “One of the main reasons we got involved with Arsenal was because of what Arsene has brought to the club on and off the pitch. His longevity and consistency over such a sustained period at the highest level of the game will never be matched.
“Arsene has unparalleled class and we will always be grateful to him. Everyone who loves Arsenal and everyone who loves football owes him a debt of gratitude.”
Arsenal said it will make an appointment “as soon as possible.”
“We have high ambitions to build on Arsene’s remarkable tenure and to honor his vision by ensuring that Arsenal competes for and wins the biggest and most important prizes in the game,” Kroenke said. “We must now focus on making a strong finish to the season and ask our millions of fans around the world to join us in paying appropriate tribute to one of the greats of Arsenal’s history and one of the greats of the game.”
Rob Harris is at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports