Arsenal's Emirates Stadium lacks 'special spirit' of Highbury - Arsene Wenger
LONDON -- Arsene Wenger has admitted that Arsenal never managed to recreate the "special spirit" of Highbury, more than a decade after moving into the Emirates Stadium.
When Wenger ends his 22-year reign as Arsenal boss this weekend, he can look back on two distinct separate chapters -- the Highbury years and the Emirates years.
There's no doubt that the first decade, before switching stadiums in 2006, was more successful. But the Emirates will stand as a large part of Wenger's legacy as he was instrumental in helping the club build their shiny new 60,000-seater home.
Even he, though, will admit that things just haven't been the same since the move.
"I believe Highbury had a special spirit. It's a cathedral, a church. You could smell the soul of every guy that played there," Wenger said. "So it was special. It will always be special for me. The Emirates for me was like buying a new house. It took us a while to feel at home there.
"It's a fantastic stadium -- but there was something special at Highbury that you could never recreate when you build something new."
The club's decision to move from their legendary home came to define the second half of Wenger's reign, as the financial burden of paying off debts on the stadium crippled his ability to buy -- or keep hold of -- top players for many years. And in the final couple of seasons, the thousands of empty seats at many home games at the Emirates came to symbolise the growing divide between Wenger and the Gunners' fan base.
But Wenger insisted the decision to move was the correct one.
"We had to do it. There is no club that can turn people who wanted to attend the game down. At the time I thought we were a bit too ambitious with 60,000 but at the end of the day it worked," he said.
These days the club aren't weighed down by the debt anymore, but they still find themselves struggling to compete financially with clubs like Manchester City. And Wenger acknowledged that the idea that the Emirates would let Arsenal compete financially with all their rivals "has not really happened because other clubs have used outside resources."
"We had a double handicap. We had to pay back the debt and had to face the competition where clubs have even more resources than they usually have," the Frenchman said.
Now it's North London rivals Tottenham's turn to move into a new home next season and possibly face the same financial burdens. But Wenger said the inflated transfer market could help Spurs pay off the stadium -- if they decide to sell their biggest stars like Harry Kane.
"There are some things that have changed [since 2006]. The impact of the transfers has increased a lot. The prices have gone up. And if the prices for the stadium have doubled, the transfers of the players have tripled or quadrupled. A £10 million player when we built the stadium was huge. Today a guy like Kane, I don't know for [how] much they can sell him for, £100 million? So they might get more supply. But they have to face it."
For whoever replaces Wenger, though, the Emirates will be a massive benefit as he won't have either the memories of Highbury or the financial restraints of the debt to deal with.
"It's all there. The financial situation, we have good players, the stadium -- it's all there," Wenger said.
For Wenger, London will always be considered his home. But he admitted has navigation of the city still leaves a lot to be desired.
Wenger's life has centred around Arsenal's training ground for the last two decades, and so aside from the drive between his home and London Colney, he apparently hasn't done much sightseeing.
"When you say I like London, I honestly don't know how you get to the centre," he said. "You have to teach me that because in 22 years basically I've never been, unless with a driver. My way was Totteridge to London Colney. I don't know where is London. It's not far, but..."
He'll have plenty of time to figure that out after his final game as Arsenal boss at Huddersfield on Sunday. Although he could soon be moving abroad as well, having said that he'd still like another job in management before retiring.
But even if he does move temporarily, there's no doubt about where he considers home.
"Here," he said. "I lived here for 22 years, my daughter has spent her whole life here, she is going to university here. I feel at home here."
Mattias is ESPN FC's Arsenal correspondent. Follow him on Twitter: @MattiasKaren.