Arsene Wenger looked alone. He often has in recent years, buffeted by criticism, targeted by some of his own supporters, single-handedly trying to stop the tides of change, left as the lone representative of his generation aiming to fend off younger rivals
This was different. Wenger was isolated in idolisation, stood in the centre circle, waving to each stand in turn. Where there had been acrimony, there was adulation. Where there had been rancour, there was respect. Where there had been irritation, there was appreciation. Wenger seemed affected by the magnitude of it all.
The message at the Emirates Stadium on Sunday was "Merci Arsene" but it was also "Au revoir, Arsene". Goodbye after 22 years, a reign so long that some of his former players are nearer 60 than 50. Goodbye to the last remnant of the 20th century. Wenger has two away games to go, but a man who makes a point of honouring his contracts could be forgiven for walking away from Arsenal a week early after a 5-0 win and the sort of outpouring of emotion he has not experienced for years.
His work is done, and for all the imperfections of the last decade, it is a remarkable body of work that brought deserved tributes. Now there is a finality, memories of the Arsenal civil war, of defensive mishaps, some big-game embarrassments, annual last-16 Uefa Champions League exits and arguments if fourth place does constitute a trophy should fade. They are not irrelevant when assessing a career, but they need to be placed into context.
Wenger stood for something, for values, integrity, a belief in players and people and a fondness for the beauty in the beautiful game. He brought dignity – not in his reaction to some defeats, but normally – plus articulacy and eloquence, ideas and innovation, intelligence and hints of humour.
He offered vision. His best teams elevated the game to another level. The others were at least invariably watchable. He redefined, reinvented, rehoused and rejuvenated Arsenal.
Alex Ferguson apart, no manager in the Premier League era has left a bigger legacy at one club; Wenger’s impact stretched across the entire division, to every club that hired a foreign manager and adopted a policy of buying abroad. It extends far beyond the three league titles, the record seven FA Cups and the ultimately doomed attempts to conquer Europe his way. England’s multinational top flight, where its top teams are expected to entertain, is partly Wenger’s creation.
His departure is given an added sadness but the reality it is not of his choosing and an extra poignancy by the fact Ferguson is in hospital after a brain haemorrhage. Given the fate of an enemy turned friend, it is obviously an exaggeration to say that Wenger has given his life to Arsenal.
Team of the week: Arsenal players give Wenger perfect send-off
Alex Ferguson: Adored by his players, loved by the fans
But nor was it just a job. Wenger’s commitment to Arsenal was colossal, his emotional investment huge. His was an all-encompassing role and football is a business that can take a toll: sometimes physical, often mental. It necessitates anti-social hours. It is played out in public. Mistakes are broadcast, opposition fomented, everything amplified. It is draining and addictive, for the last few of those 22 years, Wenger has been fighting to retain his prominence.
There can be a relief when something finally ends, even though it creates a void. The struggle is finally over. But whatever Wenger does next will not mean as much and his pledge to be an Arsenal fan was, quietly, one of the most moving aspects of his farewell. Because even as he was applauded by many who had urged him to go, Arsene Wenger must have felt alone, staring into the abyss of his future.