Arsenal and Wenger: 20 years of class by ‘Le Professeur’
For all of Arsenal's recent shortcomings, it is Arsene Wenger who made the club what it is today. And we would do well to remember that.
Arsene Wenger's tenure at Arsenal FC is coming to an end after an eventful two decades. And while the excitement over his departure grows, it would serve us well to remember just how much Arsenal and its fans owe him.
Arsenal had a turbulent start to the 1996-1997 Premier League season. The then manager, Bruce Rioch, had fallen out of favour with the board of directors at Arsenal and the club were in dire need of a stable replacement. Dein, the Vice-Chairman at the time, suggested a manager from the Japanese League who was steadily gaining acknowledgement in the football world for his managerial abilities.
The board accepted the proposal and Arsene Wenger was unveiled as the new Arsenal FC manager on 1st October 1996. Wenger went on to become Arsenal's longest serving manager, completing 20 years this year. And it is Arsene Wenger whom we have to thank for the football club that Arsenal FC is today.
Arsene Wenger's arrival at Highbury baffled the English footballing world as this virtual unknown was handed the reins of one of the biggest clubs in the country. With only the experience of managing smaller clubs like AS Nancy, AS Monaco, and Nagoya Grampus Eight under his belt, not much was expected of Wenger when he began his tenure at Arsenal FC in 1996.
While his first season in charge of the club saw Arsenal finish a respectable third in the league, it was the 1997-1998 Premier League season that gave a clear indication of Wenger's managerial prowess. Arsenal won both the Premier League and FA Cup titles in 1998, a prestigious feat referred to as doing "the Double". Wenger was the first foreign manager to achieve this success and he repeated it four years later in the 2001-2002 season.
Wenger brought with him a style of management that focused on the holistic development of players. He entrusted them to make their own decisions and gave them the creative freedom that he believed was necessary for a player to improve his game. His aim was to create a sense of identity within Arsenal.
"I felt it would be an interesting experiment to see players grow together with these qualities, and with a love for the club. It was an idealistic vision of the world of football."
He had a keen eye when it came to signing new players for the club. Instead of spending large amounts of money on established players, he opted for promising young players whom he felt could be honed to be a perfect fit in the Arsenal squad. Patrick Vieira, Marc Overmars, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry, and Cesc Fabregas were among his best early signings.
The team he built in the early stages of his career has been immortalised in the upper echelons of English football as 'The Invincibles': The team won the 2003-2004 Premier League title without losing a single match; a feat that wasn't achieved for over a century before, and hasn't been since.
After that, though, Wenger has been subject to constant mockery by the club's detractors as well as neutrals, while the fans of Arsenal themselves are split into those who still support him and those who want him gone. And as his contract is about to expire at the end of this season it begs the question: 'Should Arsenal finally let him go? And if they do, can they honestly find someone better suited for the job?'
Wenger under Fire:
The shifting of home base from Highbury to the Emirates stadium heralded a period of a drought of trophies for Arsenal FC, the longest under the stewardship of Wenger. After winning the FA Cup in 2005, Arsenal only won their next trophy in 2014, with the FA Cup once again finding place in the London club's sparsely occupied trophy cabinet.
It was this period which saw the start of the anti-Wenger brigade. While it is hard to argue against their reasons of Arsenal losing its claim as one of Europe's dominant clubs, it would serve us well to remember the conditions prevalent at Arsenal FC at the time.
The cost of a new stadium in London was not a cheap affair and the financial burden on the club prevented any bountiful transfers from taking place during the latter half of Wenger's already frugal era. Wenger always treated the club's money as his own and was wary of spending money of big-name transfers.
The unexpected departures and chronic injuries suffered by the club's prominent players didn't help matters either. With the likes of Eduardo, Ramsey, Wilshere, and Diaby, the club's most promising young players, dealing with long-term injury problems, the squad strength was considerably depleted.
Also, the transfers of players like Nasri, Fabregas, Song, and Persie created gaps in the dwindling squad that was in already in dire need of replenishment and this further dented the already waning chances of Arsenal securing the Premier League title.
Wenger also had the misfortune of competing against the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea, and Manchester City at the heights of their dominance. Manchester United were a formidable club under the stewardship of Sir Alex Ferguson and the deep pockets of Chelsea and Manchester City's owners boosted them to comfortable spots on the table.
All through this period, the Arsenal faithful had to watch their club fall short when it mattered time and again, both at home and elsewhere in Europe. But while Arsenal hasn't won the prestigious UEFA Champions League (UCL) yet, they happen to be only team of the traditional top four (Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea) to constantly qualify for the UCL.
The Wenger Way
Ensuring that Arsenal never finished below fourth place in the league, is a commendable feat and one that Wenger should be lauded for rather than mocked as he is now. We all witnessed the grand fashion in which Manchester United, Chelsea, and Liverpool fell out of grace with Europe's elite club competition. The volatility of the past few seasons for these clubs demonstrates the risks of changing management, and one can only wonder about Arsenal's fate when Wenger finally departs.
Wenger has also created Arsenal FC's core philosophy: A fluid game, rife with quick one-twos, slick passes, and flair which, when it clicks, is the most beautiful thing to watch in football. It's not only the first team, but the youth and reserve squads as well that enjoy Le Professeur's teachings. Wenger instils this innovative playing style in players from the beginning which has resulted in the graduation of some fine young talent in Arsenal's youth academy.
Wenger's skills as a mentor have also been vital to Arsenal. The club's players have always held him in high regard and attribute much of their success to him. And while Wenger is criticised for not making the most of transfer windows, he does deserve credit for pulling off a few near-impossible acquisitions.
It was faith in having Wenger as their manager that lured world-class players like Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez to Arsenal when they had multiple, and definitely more lucrative, offers. His work in discovering and developing young talent is evident in the likes of Aaron Ramsey, Theo Walcott, Alex Iwobi, and Hector Bellerin.
Despite all this, people choose only to see that Wenger who has struggled to bring Arsenal back to the top of English football, and not the one who put them there in the first place. They forget his sacrifices, his loyalty, and his devotion to the club, and all his successes with it and they blame him for all the recent failures and shortcomings instead.
So ultimately, should Wenger stay or leave? I honestly can’t say. But one thing is for sure: It's not derision that Wenger deserves, but gratitude beyond measure. Because through all the financial turmoil, all the players who arrived at Arsenal and departed it, the crucial victories and the painful losses, the one thing that hasn't changed about the club is the way they play the beautiful game. And it is Arsene Wenger, whom we have to thank for this.