By Clint Smith
I’ve been a follower of Arsenal Football Club since I was ten years old. So often our sporting allegiances are shaped by family tradition, passed down like heirlooms. That is not how I fell in love with Arsenal. My mother often tells the story of how, at the end of a trip to London, she got into a cab on her way to the airport. Wanting to bring home a memento for her eldest son, she asked the driver for the name of London’s soccer team. After laughing at her term for the game that he and almost everyone else knew as football, he turned around and said, “Miss, there’s only one team in London, and that’s Arsenal.”
This, of course, was not at all true. European football does not operate under the same pretenses as American sports, in which there are one or two teams that represent a specific city. In London, there are a dozen teams situated within the city’s limits. When the cabbie said, “there’s only one team in London,” he meant that “there is only one team worth supporting in London.” My mother did not know that this is what he meant. She did not know that she was in a place where fandom is not simply a hobby but the planet around which every other facet of life orbits. So she stopped in a store, bought an Arsenal jersey, and brought it back, across the Atlantic, for her son.
Arsenal has traditionally been one of the top clubs in England and, historically, among the top teams in the world. In 2003-2004, the club went undefeated throughout the entire English Premier League season. Only one team had done this before—Preston North End, in 1889—and many had considered it to be impossible in modern English football, in which each Premier League team plays thirty-eight matches in the course of a nine-month season. During Arsenal’s undefeated season, I was a sophomore in high school, and I was beginning to convince myself that I might be able to extend my own playing career beyond graduation. I modelled my game after that of the Arsenal striker Thierry Henry—the swift, elegant Parisian with roots in the French Antilles, who could transform a game in a matter of seconds.
Watching Henry sprint and pirouette through defenders was breathtaking. But it wasn’t just him—the entire Arsenal team was spilling over with talent. Consider a sequence from a mild April night, in a match against Leeds United, in which Arsenal’s left back, Ashley Cole, headed the ball forward over the halfway line. The ball took a single bounce before the mercurial Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp, with his back to goal, carefully nodded the ball toward Brazilian midfielder Gilberto Silva. Silva, a hard-nosed, defense-oriented player, used the inside of his foot to direct the ball to the French forward Sylvain Wiltord, who, in a single motion, spun his body around while also playing the ball back to Bergkamp. Bergkamp then threaded a perfect pass, through two defenders, onto the path of the long-haired Frenchman Robert Pirès, who curled the ball past the Leeds goalkeeper, from about twenty yards away. It was an astonishing display of technique, emblematic of the precise, team-oriented style that led the club to an entire season without a loss.
That season was also the last time Arsenal won the Premier League. Since then, the club has experienced an unsettling decline, and the team that now takes the field at the Emirates Stadium, in North London, is a fading shadow of what it was a decade ago. After not qualifying for the Champions League—Europe’s preëminent international competition—for the first time in nineteen years, Arsenal currently sit at sixth place in the Premier League standings (the top four teams qualify for the European competition). Increasingly, it looks like they could miss out on qualifying again, and not only for the Champions League but also for the second-tier competition, known as the Europa League.
My relationship with Arsenal has been a long-distance love affair, strained by the limitations of a seven-hour time difference, and I cannot always track the contours of its spiral from joy into disillusionment. But at the center of both the club’s finest moments and its recent struggles is its longtime manager, Arsène Wenger. Wenger, a Frenchman with off-gray hair, a deeply furrowed brow, and a professorial demeanor, has been the team’s manager since 1996, a run of nearly twenty-two years. In Premier League history, his tenure is second in length only to Sir Alex Ferguson, who led Manchester United for twenty-six years. The difference is that Ferguson won an astonishing thirty-eight trophies while leading the Red Devils, including an unprecedented thirteen Premier League titles. He averaged a championship title every other year. And, although Wenger won three league titles and four FA Cups during his first decade as manager, his early success has been largely overshadowed by Arsenal not winning a Premier League title in thirteen years. It is difficult to imagine another manager keeping his job for this long, especially without a title; recent research shows that, on average, most last with a Premier League club for only a little more than a year and a half.
Meanwhile, the decline continues. Arsenal’s best player over the past several years, the Chilean forward Alexis Sánchez, was recently transferred to the rival team Manchester United, at his own request. It was a devastating loss, but one slightly mitigated by the signing, that same week, of Henrikh Mkhitaryan, the captain of the Armenian national team, and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, the Gabonese international, who was the leading scorer in Germany’s top league last season. The results since their arrival have been inconsistent at best. Each has shown flashes of the brilliance that made their signings so invigorating, but, at other times, they’ve completely disappeared from games. The team’s won only four of its last nine matches, a record more reflective of a mid-table club, happy just to be in the league, than one that has historically had title-chasing aspirations.
But to be an Arsenal fan is to convince yourself that you can no longer support a team that disappoints you, only to be drawn back in by the ever-flickering promise of something better. Just last week, Arsenal lost to Brighton & Hove Albion, a team that wasn’t even in the Premier League last year, only to defeat A.C. Milan, one of the top clubs in Europe, at their historic home stadium, four days later, in Europa League play (Arsenal qualified for the tournament based on its Premier League performance last year). On Sunday, the team defeated Watford, securing a back-to-back Premier League victory for only the second time in the past sixteen games. But it was an underwhelming victory, and one that will do little to impress supporters who are unwilling to be lured by glimmers of hope. This was most evident in the thousands of empty seats during the game.
Even if Arsenal defeat A.C. Milan again, in the second leg of their matchup, in London, this week, and even if Arsenal makes it to and wins the Europa League final, it will provide only temporary relief for a systemic problem. For years now, Wenger has been unable to pull the best from his players. Too often, they look uninspired. Even when they play well, it’s often as islands of individuals rather than as a cohesive unit. Wenger is and will be remembered as one of the best managers in Premier League history, but with every passing week his legacy becomes clouded by his inability to see that the club he helped build would be better served by another’s stewardship. I love Arsenal, and I love what Wenger has done for the team for more than two decades. But every great coach must also know when it’s time to step aside. For Wenger, that time is now.
Clint Smith is a writer, a Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University, and the author of “Counting Descent.”