By Alan Baldwin
LONDON (Reuters) - Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger is to stand down at the end of the season after a reign of almost 22 years during which he redefined the Premier League club and became their most successful boss.
The longest-serving current manager in English soccer, with 1228 games in charge, had faced increasing criticism from fans, however, for the Gunners' failure to sustain a serious title challenge in recent seasons.
"After careful consideration and following discussions with the club, I feel it is the right time for me to step down at the end of the season," the 68-year-old Frenchman said in a statement issued by the club on Friday.
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"I am grateful for having had the privilege to serve the club for so many memorable years. I managed the club with full commitment and integrity," added Wenger, who urged the fans to stand behind the team and end the season on a high.
Wenger signed a two-year contract extension in 2017 and had said he planned to see it out despite calls for him to be replaced.
"My personal situation is not so much my worry at the moment," he had told reporters on Thursday when asked about his future.
"My worry is to transform a season with many disappointments away from home into a success, and that’s what matters to me."
The Gunners are a distant sixth in the league, 14 points adrift of fourth-placed North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur with five games remaining.
They are also in the semi-finals of the Europa League, a tournament which represents their only realistic route to the lucrative Champions League next season.
The club said a successor would be appointed as soon as possible with German Thomas Tuchel, out of work since leaving Borussia Dortmund almost a year ago, installed as one of the early bookmakers' favorites.
Arsenal's majority owner Stan Kroenke said it was "one of the most difficult days we have ever had in all our years in sport."
"One of the main reasons we got involved with Arsenal was because of what Arsene has brought to the club on and off the pitch," he said.
"His longevity and consistency over such a sustained period at the highest level of the game will never be matched."
Wenger was virtually unknown to many fans when he arrived from Japan's Nagoya Grampus Eight to take charge at the old Highbury ground at a time when foreign managers were still a rarity.
"Arsene Who?," read one banner.
They soon found out who he was and what he stood for -- with diets, training methods and playing style all overhauled and a new ethos installed.
The chants of 'boring, boring Arsenal', heard as much from frustrated Arsenal fans as rival supporters in the early 1990s, became ironic and Wenger was hailed as a 'miracle worker' and visionary.
Together, they won three Premier League titles -- including in 2003-04 when his 'Invincibles' went unbeaten for an entire season -- and seven FA Cups. He took Arsenal into the Champions League for 20 years in a row.
They won the league and FA cup double in 1998 and 2002.
News of his decision drew a flood of tributes and reaction from throughout the game.
"He is above Herbert Chapman and all of the guys who won trophies," former goalkeeper Bob Wilson told the BBC, adding that he was "shell-shocked" by the news.
"Arsene is not only the greatest manager in Arsenal's history, he has personally changed the face of the game in this country."
Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho, who once derided Wenger as "a specialist in failure", paid tribute to his old rival and said he hoped he stayed in football.
Liverpool manager Juergen Klopp said he respected the decision and hailed Wenger as an "outstanding personality" and hugely influential.
"He was there for so long, 22 years is a long time. Maybe in the last few months not everybody was happy with this result or that... he was the dominating guy in the mid 1990s, 2000s."
Former Arsenal goalkeeper David Seaman said it was a sad day: "Can we now give him the send off/respect he deserves," he asked on Twitter.
(Reporting by Alan Baldwin; Editing by Toby Davis)