If we get ready for the bad retrospectives now, they’ll hurt less when published
The end is near for Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. I’m not here to give you the exact date of his retirement—that’s a job best left to soothsayers and Robbie Savage—but Wenger is clearly much closer to the end of his career than its beginning. His end, of course, has been nearing for some time. Therein lies the problem: having been cursed with so much time to ruminate, soccer writers and fans are uniquely unprepared to write Arsène Wenger’s obituary.
As with Ernest Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy in The Sun Also Rises, the end for a football manager comes “gradually and then suddenly.” The fickle nature of the Premier League usually ensures that gradually and suddenly are not actually that far apart in time. In practice, this means that there is only one story to most managerial firings. In Wenger’s case, however, the gradually measures a decade and the suddenly, at most, a matter of months. Those two stories and will not easily be reconciled.
When the end comes for Arsène Wenger, it will be the end of an era. That era may not have been wholly satisfying, but it will have embodied qualities soccer no longer allows for: patience, moderation, financial prudence, and long-term planning. The challenge, then, is extolling these virtues while recognizing that they did not always produce the ideal results.
Writing about Arsène Wenger, more than any of his fellow managers, easily becomes more about the writer than the subject. To praise Wenger for his patience is, in most cases, to call for more of that quality in the world. It is a normative expression of one’s preferences that says little about Wenger’s actual tenure. Arguing that the world could use more of these qualities is a tribute to the man, but it is one that requires few actual references to his career. In this sort of tribute, the subject is just an excuse to write a paean for a lost time.
What of that time? The first decade was rather glorious, a series of innovations in English football culminating with the Invincibles. The second decade birthed a stadium and a series of Champions League appearances that never went much farther than the group stages. Throw in a couple cup wins and failure to pip Leicester City to the league title and you have the late Wenger era. The losses and could-have-beens that peppered this period were not wholly shameful, but that does not make them noble victories.
The danger, to be blunt, is that Wenger tributes come out a lot like Jonathan Chait’s Audacity: How Barack Obama Defied His Critics and Created a Legacy That Will Prevail. The book is only about the former president in a theoretical sense. In order to sell his overcooked premise [see the part of the title after the colon or, if you’re feeling petty, the bit before] Chait builds up every moderate achievement into an accomplishment for the ages. The book cannot conceive a reader who found Obama decent and impressive, but also occasionally disappointing, a reader who chafed at the self-imposed gradualism of his presidency. In Chait’s artless hands, Obama simply becomes a cypher for the author’s preferred values. What a waste.
We don’t know how to talk about moderation, its attendant values and frustrations. Arsène Wenger is a noble figure who accomplished a great deal but might also have done a bit more. To focus purely on the former is to forget that a doctrinaire approach has its costs. The good needn’t be artificially sainted in this manner. When the gradual and sudden aspects of an ending are so far apart, however, years are not preparation enough for reconciling these stories.