Innovative, “invincible”, imperfect
IN OCTOBER 1996, when Arsenal football club’s latest manager began his tenure, fans of “The Gunners” could be forgiven for grumbling. Apart from his name, there was little about Arsène Wenger to suggest that he would be a good fit. Only three foreigners had ever managed in the Premier League before then. Mr Wenger, a cerebral Frenchman with a degree in economics and a modest playing background, had almost nothing in common with his grizzled British peers, most notably Sir Alex Ferguson. He had guided Monaco to a French league title in 1988, but had spent the previous two years in the footballing wilderness of Japan. The Arsenal squad that he inherited were a notorious bunch of alcoholics and drug addicts. The British press scorned his appointment and immediately labelled him “Le Professeur”.
20 years on from that day and nobody will say they expected him to survive that first winter. In his time at helm of the gunners, Mr Wenger has become Arsenal’s most successful manager, the third-longest serving coach in English footballing history, and arguably the Premier League’s most important innovator. His reforms at Arsenal were immediate. He turned a diet of pills and booze into one of protein and broccoli. He transformed a side known for turgid defence into one feared for its swashbuckling attack, by supplementing an experienced British core with flamboyant European youngsters.
Success came quickly. Arsenal interrupted Manchester United’s monopoly of English football and completed a rare domestic “double” in 1998, winning both the league and the FA Cup, England’s main knockout competition. They repeated that feat in 2002 and collected the FA Cup in 2003 and 2005.
The pinnacle of Mr Wenger’s achievements came in 2004, when Arsenal’s “Invincibles” won the league title without losing a single game—a feat only equalled in English history by Preston North End in 1889.
But though the first half of Mr Wenger’s tenure was remarkable for his accumulation of silverware, the second half has been notable for a lack of it. Between 2005 and 2014 Arsenal did not win a single major trophy, the club’s worst drought since the 1960s. The chief cause was economic. In 2001 the club announced its intention to leave its Highbury home (capacity: 38,400) and build a modern stadium with 60,000 seats, costing £400m ($500m). A group of banks purchased bonds worth £260m from the Gunners—on the condition that Mr Wenger would stay for five more years, with “pennies”, if you consider how much others in the football market had to spend on recruiting players. In most cases during that time Wenger spend between nothing to 20 million pounds per season only in the transfer window.
In 2009 UEFA, which governs football in Europe, announced that teams would be punished for spending more than they earned. With no handouts from the boardroom, Mr Wenger had to finance the stadium by auctioning his squad of “Invincibles” to the highest bidders and sold four consecutive club captains. Between 2007 and 2013 he earned £253m (in 2016 prices) from transfers and spent just £207m, creating a surplus of £46m (see chart).
The Frenchman fought for scraps on the second-hand market and relied heavily on young players poached from other teams. Wenger was, and to a large extent still regarded as the greatest Chief Scout football has ever seen. Some of the greatest names in the games’ history were first spotted by him and his team of scouts, but the ones he personally nurtured turned out to be quite special apprentices (look no further than Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas and Laurent Koscielny. These makeshift squads he patched together rarely challenged for titles and struggled to cope with the new defensive rigour imported by Chelsea manager José Mourinho during his first stint at Stamford Bridge. They clung onto a top-four position each season, which secured them a place in the Champions League (Europe’s major knockout tournament) and much-needed television revenue.
While many will say that football is a results-based game, for Wenger, that is a shallow definition of the sport that he immersed himself in for so many years. The Arsenal manager has seen football as more than just winning and losing, rather, it is an escape and an opportunity to better the lives of those around him. Wenger was the trailblazer, he led the way – dare I say it – for the likes of Jose Mourinho and the rest of the notable foreign managers and ex-top players to come to English football and manage. The Arsenal manager’s remarkable success made every other club want to bring in a foreign manager.
Wenger won the Double in 1998 and again in 2002. The Invincibles season was incredible in 2003/04 as winning the title unbeaten was a unique achievement in the Premier League era. He brought a cool and calm rather than hard tough love approach to Arsenal. Two decades of Arsène Wenger’s football philosophy and everything has changed in north london – it worked wonders. You can, however, split Wenger’s reign into two halves. The first ten years was laden with trophies, great players like Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, and wonderful football.
The next ten years have been very different as Wenger has been accountant as well as football manager. And, to my mind, his achievement of keeping the club in the top four while on a tight budget because of the stadium move never gets enough credit.
Wenger has now moved into a third era with Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez and Granit Xhaka among the big money deals who have blended into the team which at the moment is playing dazzling, fast and free flowing football.
Arsene Wenger Legacy Will Be Culture Not Cups
Yes, Wenger has his faults, most notably by being far too cautious in the transfer market. Sir Alex Ferguson has been a better manager in the Premier League. Arguably Mourinho as well. But Wenger is among the greats.
His legacy goes beyond winning trophies for Arsenal and providing great memories. The stadium and training ground are part of an incredible legacy he will leave behind whenever he goes. Time and time again, Wenger signed obscure, unknown talents and turned them into world beaters. The likes of Kolo Toure, Emmanuel Adebayor and Robin Van Persie all have Wenger to thank for their long and prosperous careers. The coaching, development and stubborn loyalty that Wenger afforded many of his players has been the primary reason for their success.
But more than just being a great manager for Arsenal, he has been a revolutionary for English football and his 20 year so far deserves proper respect from fans and peers the world over for he is truly one of the best managers of all time. He his the last emperor of football. Even if you believe that Arsene Wenger has failed to meet expectations over his last decade, it was only his own magnificence that raised Arsenal’s glass ceiling, thus altering the perception of what they could achieve. Even if you accuse him of failing to adapt as English football changed around him, you must acknowledge that he led the same race throughout a decade of great change and commercialization. For ten years, the rest of English football took its lessons from “Le Professeur”, the french philosopher.