“Arsene who?” –that was how the British media reacted when the Frenchman replaced Bruce Rioch as Arsenal manager in the year 1996. Both players and fans were sceptical with his appointment. With bookmakers tipping Barcelona star and Dutch legend Johan Cryuff as successor, disappointment undoubtedly masked the entry of ‘Le Professor’.
“At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George [Graham]. Does he even speak English properly?” – Tony Adams , former Arsenal captain.
Arsene Wenger silenced his critics by guiding the club to their second league win and FA Cup double in his first full season in charge. He went on to win 4 FA Cups and 3 Premier League titles becoming the most successful manager in the history of the club.
Wenger scoured the French market bringing in the likes of Henry, Viera , Pires and Anelka. None were proven players at the time and Wenger was questioned again. It was not known if these French players could handle the physicality of the Premier League. He changed the style of football the club played. Quick one touch passing ensued and the technical genius of the players could be seen. Every time they played they cut open opposition defences. Moments of magic from Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp dazzled the Highbury faithful. It was poetry in motion. Wengerball took the league by storm.
It was during this time that Wenger prophesied that he could see his team go a whole season unbeaten. The very next season the Arsenal team went on to win the league without losing a single game. As Thierry Henry put it , that season they WERE unbeatable.
The glory Wenger brought to Arsenal was beyond belief. He transformed the likes of Henry, Viera and Bergkamp into footballing Gods. Moreover, he brought the clubs great dividends by showing brilliant dexterity in the transfer market. Buying Nicolas Anelka for peanuts, he sold him to Real Madrid for more than 20 million pounds. Winning trophies and hauling in profits – he seemed to be the dream man for the job. However, everything changed when the Club decided to move from Highbury into a bigger stadium to generate more revenue.
For many fans, there ended Arsenal, the football club, and began Arsenal, the business model. The move to the Emirates Stadium in 2006 was overseen by the new captain, Thierry Henry. However, unlike his predecessor, Henry was unable to bring in a trophy for the Gunners and he bade farewell the following summer.
The departure of Henry signalled the end of an era and Arsene Wenger began building a new team. With the entry into a new stadium, transfer funds were hard to come by. Moreover, the stadium debt had to be kept in mind. So, Arsene Wenger began his youth project. Wenger uncovered gems like Cesc Fabregas , Mathieus Flamini and Alexander Hleb. The youth project was supposed to be a part of a ten year plan with the current crop acting as seniors to young talents coming into the club 5 or 6 years down the line. A sense of equality was also spread by players earning almost equal wages. It was believed that these players would have a sense of attachment to the club as they had been part of it since a young age. They would be loyal to the cause. However this is where Wenger, the idealist, failed.
After an impressive season with the Gunners, contract talks began with Flamini. Disputes began over wages with Arsenal refusing to pay Flamini the wage he demanded. Sensing a breakdown in relations, AC Milan started showing interest in the midfielder. Arsenal were in a spot of bother as Flamini had only one year left on his contract and they did not want him to leave on a free transfer. Hence the club sold Flamini to the Italian outfit. Little did the club know that the sale of Flamini would trigger an avalanche of players leaving the club. Soon after, Hleb left for Barcelona for more or less the same reason – more money. Wenger was left to build a new attacking core. Samir Nasri was brought in but had a quiet first season. Wenger started building a team around Fabregas and emulated the Spanish style of tiki-taka football. Arsenal again became a force to be reckoned with and lead the league table in 2008 by 6 points till Eduardo’s horrific leg break derailed their season. Arsenal ended the season in 4th place.
Arsenal’s attack was shaping up to be quite phenomenal and was buoyed by the entry of Andrey Arshavin. The little Russian set the league on fire with his four goals against Liverpool. However, as good as the attack was, the Arsenal defence let them down on more than one occasion. Treacherous defending at moments cost them dear and ended up being the difference between them and the league champions. On more than one occasion, Arsenal had to outscore their opponents to win matches.
The lack of trophies since the glorious days of the Invincibles started to make some sections of the fans unhappy. However, they were quickly silenced as the majority could not bear to hear anything against their beloved manager. They still loved him. They still believed he would win them a trophy. They still felt he was the right man for the job.
They sat up to laugh at the naysayers when Arsenal reached the finals of the Carling Cup. An Arsenal win was on the cards as they were facing Birmingham. The trophy drought was set to end. However, that night, it all went wrong for the Gunners. A mix up between Koscielny and Szczesny in the 90th minute left Obafemi Martins to put the ball into an empty net. The team was shell-shocked. Wilshere was seen crying on the pitch. The Gunners faithful could not believe what they had just witnessed. The trophy drought continued.
Even as the fans thought the worst was over, the nightmare was set to continue. Cesc Fabregas, the Arsenal captain, came out and announced how he wished to return to his boyhood club, Barcelona. Almost inevitably, Barcelona came out saying Fabregas had “Barcelona DNA” in him and how he should return “home”. The Catalans started to unsettle the player and after Spain won the Euro Cup , he was forcefully made to wear a Barcelona jersey. Fabregas continued to flirt with Barcelona till he was sold in the summer of 2010 .The loss of Fabregas was coupled with the departure of Samir Nasri. The French playmaker left for Manchester City which had risen to power after being bought by the Abu Dhabi royal family. He said he left because he wanted to win trophies in his career; however, the truth was that he wanted to pocket a bigger pay check. The attacking core was again broken and the team was in complete disarray. The heart of the team was gone and Arsenal was mauled 8-2 at Old Trafford by a ruthless Manchester United attack. Bookmakers wrote off Arsenal and some felt they would be in the battle for relegation. Wenger made a few signings in the dying minutes of the transfer window and he was left with a completely new team with a full season ahead of him.
But then stepped in Robin van Persie. The new Arsenal captain led by example. “Scoring whenever he wanted”, he pulled the team to an unexpected 3rd place, a position seemingly unachievable after the team’s worst start to the Premier League. Van Persie was truly Arsenal’s messiah. He seemed to be taking up the role of Thierry Henry. However, Arsenal fans were set for yet heartbreak. Van Persie left for Manchester United as he believed the club lacked ambition. Fans branded their hero of last season as a traitor and some went as far as to burn his jersey. Former players thought Van Persie had done the unthinkable of going over to the enemy. Wenger was once again left to create a new team.
As Arsenal keep on losing their star players to rival clubs, the trophy drought enters into its 7th year. Wenger is left with a new team yet again and an array of young talent is yet to prove themselves. Arsenal remains in transition even after seven years have passed by since the Emirates faithful saw a trophy being added to their cabinet. Some fans feel that Wenger has lost the plot and others feel that it is stubbornness on the manager’s part to still stick with his youth policy. The club has to keep their transfer targets a secret in fear of getting outbid by their rivals. The inability of Wenger to spend big on transfers led him to take a gamble almost everytime he replaced proven stars with unheard names. More often than not, it backfired with the likes of Park being sold off only after spending one year with the club. Fans are calling for Wenger’s head. However I feel Wenger still has the power to rebuild Arsenal again.