Arsenal-Huddersfield Town Preview
The time has come, at long last, to say "Au revoir," to Arsene Wenger.
There is nothing at stake for both the Gunners and Huddersfield Town in the Frenchman's final match in 22 seasons in charge of Arsenal aside from the hope of going out a winner in Sunday's contest at Kirklees Stadium.
Wenger's final season in charge of the London club will result in a sixth-place finish, the worst of his career and the worst for Arsenal (18-6-13) since placing seventh in the First Division in 1986. The Gunners will return to Europa League in 2018-19, the second straight season it will be in Europe's second-tier club tournament after 20 consecutive Champions League campaigns.
His recent shortcomings outside of the FA Cup, which he won three times in the previous four seasons before this campaign, Wenger does leave a winner's legacy. His seven overall FA Cup titles are the most of any manager in English football, and he lifted the Premier League trophy three times.
"Le Professeur" will forever be linked to the 2003-04 "Invincibles" side who remain the only team in the Premier League era to get through an entire season without a loss, and while he never brought back the Champions League title to London, Wenger did guide Arsenal to the 2006 final.
The past three weeks have been a tortured good-bye of sorts since Wenger announced he would not return despite having a year left on his contract, with Arsenal playing well in spurts but falling short of the elite level supporters have known for nearly a generation.
The Gunners were eliminated in the semifinals of the Europa League by Atletico Madrid, their last venue of returning to the Champions League closed off in an all-too familiar fashion of having everything right but the final touch to put the ball in the net.
A spellbinding performance in Wenger's home finale last weekend, a 5-0 thrashing of Burnley, was followed with a tepid 3-1 midweek defeat at Leicester City in which the Gunners played with 10 men for 75 minutes after central defender Konstantinos Mavropanos was given a straight red card for hauling down Foxes forward Kelechi Iheanacho.
Leicester's reliable duo of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez then condemned Wagner to his first loss to the Midlands side in 23 matches with goals in the final quarter-hour as Arsenal dropped their seventh straight league match on the road, their longest such slide domestically in 52 years.
Wenger's final press conference Thursday was a mix of nostalgia for the past and advice for his successor, which has reportedly been whittled down to five names. Juventus manager Max Allegri is considered the frontrunner and former Arsenal club captains Mikael Arteta and Patrick Vieira are being strongly considered.
Arteta has served as an assistant under Pep Guardiola at Manchester City the last two seasons while Vieira also has ties to City as manager of New York City FC in Major League Soccer in the United States. When asked what his advice would be to his successor, Wenger opined it would be best to be his own individual while understanding the philosophy of the club he helped shape.
"The advice I'd give to him is to give his best and respect the values of the club," Wenger said. "This club is respected all over the world and I would just like him to bring his own ideas.
"It will be a different speech, a different way to see the game. It's a chance for the players to see something different. As well, on the other hand, I'd say respect what has been built here and what people care about as well."
For their finale, Arsenal will have a makeshift backline as Mavropanos will serve his red-card ban and Laurent Koscielny is out with an Achilles injury suffered in the loss to Atletico Madrid. Shkodran Mustafi likely will fill the spot in central defence if Wenger opts for a three-man back line, though it is also possible Per Mertesacker will make an appearance in his final game before heading up Arsenal's youth academy going forward.
Huddersfield Town (9-10-18) earned their spot for a second consecutive season in the top flight with back-to-back draws at champions Manchester City and Chelsea, getting a point following a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday to mark the third time in the Premier League era all three promoted sides found safety.
Laurent Depoitre staked the Terriers to a lead on 50 minutes before Marcos Alonso equalised for the home side, and then it was desperate defending for more than a half-hour by Huddersfield Town, highlighted by keeper Jonas Lossl's late fingertip save on a shot by Andreas Christensen that pushed the ball onto the post to preserve the point.
Raucous celebrations followed in front of the visitors fan section, of which actor Sir Patrick Stewart was a part of as a Town supporter. The players tossed manager David Wagner into the area and then stayed in London to celebrate their survival after a mix-up with their coach return left them in the capital, with social media showing bleary-eyed but happy players on the train back to Huddersfield on Thursday morning.
"This is an absolute overachievement," a beaming Wagner told The Times. "It's a bigger achievement than the promotion last season. Last year we were predicted to be relegated and we got promoted. This season we were predicted to be a team relegated by miles, and I understand it. It's an incredible achievement for us. It feels like another trophy. I am so unbelievably proud."
With success, however, comes the call of potential greener pastures. Reports have widely circulated that Leicester City are interested in Wagner's services despite Claude Puel guaranteeing the Foxes a finish of no worse than ninth. Wagner was considered a potential replacement when Leicester sacked Craig Shakespeare earlier this season, but he does have a contract with Huddersfield Town through 2019.
Arsenal put the Terriers to the sword in the reverse fixture, strolling to a 5-0 victory at the Emirates on Nov. 29 as the since-departed Olivier Giroud had a second-half brace while Mesut Ozil had a goal and two assists.
Alexandre Lacazette and Alexis Sanchez had the other two goals for Arsenal, with Lacazette and Wednesday's goal-scorer Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang expected to lead the attack in front of Ozil for the Gunners going forward, but not before they have one last tribute to the past in trying to send Wenger out a winner.
Updated May 10, 2018