Arsenal without Arsene: Dawn of a new era in North London
"You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain."
This can be the perfect way to describe Arsene Wenger's time in London with the Gunners. The lanky Frenchman came in as an unknown figure from Japan to Highbury and it proved to be a turning point in English football. "Le Professeur" introduced a daring and beautiful type of football which the Premier League had never witnessed before.
Even though many questioned him at the time of his appointment, Wenger took the Premier League by storm and the dominance Manchester United had over the EPL until then came to an abrupt end. He surprised everyone by leading Arsenal to third place and a place in the Champions League in his maiden season.
It was before the beginning of the 1999-00 season that Thierry Henry moved to Arsenal from Juventus. This was one of the most important signings in the history of the club and he brought in the laurels for Arsenal over the following seasons. Also, in 2005, Henry became Arsenal's all-time top scorer with 228 goals surpassing Ian Wright's tally of 185.
There were more path-breaking signings to follow including the signings of Robert Pires and the Sol Campbell, who was captain of arch-rivals Tottenham followed at the dawn of the new century.
The Invincibles' era
Wenger strengthened the team from core to core and started to usher in a dominant era in which Arsenal reached the pinnacle of football glory which culminated with the 2003-04 Invincibles season. Unfortunately, this was the last Premier League title Wenger won as he failed to lead Arsenal to a league title in the next 14 years he was in charge.
From Jens Lehmann to Thierry Henry, Wenger is the sole cause of the development of a plethora of legendary footballers who flourished under him. Not even the most diehard Arsenal fan would have dreamt of winning a double in the 1997-98 season.
Even though the Gunners had a steady start to the season, it seemed inevitable that Sir Alex Ferguson and his boys would retain the title. But somehow Arsenal managed to limit the points gap and win the race to lift the Premier League title. Along with this, they defeated Newcastle to clinch the FA Cup which was the first of Wenger's seven. The Arsene Wenger show had just started and there was more to follow.
Not losing a single league match in a whole season is a stupendous achievement. Arsenal not only managed to accomplish it but did it in style. Only 2 clubs had managed to go undefeated the whole season before Arsenal and only 2 clubs achieved it after them. Preston North End did it way back in the 19th century and AC Milan became the Invincibles under Fabio Capello in 1992 while Antonio Conte and Brendan Rodgers went unbeaten a season with Juventus and Celtic respectively.
The Premier League commissioned Arsenal a special golden trophy as a tribute to the splendid season they had. It was Arsene Wenger at the peak of his powers. He was undoubtedly the best manager in the world at that moment. The Gunners went on a 49-match unbeaten streak which was controversially broken by Manchester United in the "Battle of the Buffet".
The rise of Chelsea
The next two seasons, neighbours Chelsea hogged the limelight after the club was bought by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich who appointed a certain big-mouthed Portuguese as their manager."The Special One" had arrived and Chelsea had big ambitions for the season.
Under Jose Mourinho, Chelsea went from strength to strength and won the Premier League with a-then record 96 points. The Blues slowly started to eclipse Arsenal as the premier club of London. But the North Londoners were optimistic for the 2005-06 season. There were new promising players in the team. The rise of Cesc Fabregas and his promising displays consolidated Patrick Vieira's move to Juventus.
That season, Wenger took his young and inexperienced side to the Champions League final but was unable to go one step forward as Barcelona proved to be too much for them. Yet, even with the CL heartbreak, Arsenal managed to have a solid season. Also, Arsenal was going through a period of transition as it was their last season at Highbury - they planned for a new home stadium the following season onwards.
Switch to the Emirates
The move to the Emirates was supposed to be the one that helped the Gunners to reach greater heights. However, the club had misread the finances and expense needed for the new stadium and to cope up with the financial responsibilities; they had to sell some of their most important and best players which included Robert Pires, Sol Campbell and introduced many young prospects such as Alex Song and Theo Walcott.
Also, a season after their transfer to the Emirates, their captain Thierry Henry moved to Catalonia. The following seasons, it became certain that Arsenal's standard had dropped and they were a shadow of the team that became the Invincibles five or six seasons before.
Gone were the days of prodigious signings, gone were the days of winning title after title and most importantly, gone were the days of happiness. Things got even worse around 2010 and pressure started to mount on Wenger. Also, it was around this time that the infamous "Wenger Out" banter emerged.
Also, the following season, United gave the Gunners the humiliation of a lifetime as they defeated them 8-2. It was the biggest defeat Arsenal had suffered since 1896! From Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira, the squad went to Andrei Arshavin and Nicklas Bendtner. This was simply not enough for a club with Arsenal's stature. The Gunners had started their descent into gloom. Slowly, the Gooners started to turn against the gaffer.
Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger are probably the two greatest managers in the history of English football. At their peaks, watching both their teams gave the fans absolute joy and when these two giants of the Premier League locked horns, it was always a fierce and competitive affair.
However, there are striking differences between these two personalities. Sir Alex Ferguson was a master tactician and he knew how to adapt to the changing environment and squad of his teams and changed his football accordingly. Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, was still in his glory dreamland while times were tough for Arsenal.
He never tried to adapt and even when his Arsenal squad became bang average in his later years, he didn't change his methods or football. This is why the former was able to achieve long-term success with his club while the latter was unable to do the same.
It was in the 2010s that Arsene Wenger's popularity among the Gooners declined to a new low. The fans were sick and tired of "Players Wenger almost signed" or bizarre deadline day deals which made no sense. The gaffer was past his glory days and instead of leaving with his head held high, he stayed on for years and years.
Arsene Wenger had lost his Midas touch and was tarnishing his own legacy. After 2016, the Gooners were not even able to celebrate St Totteringham's Day as for the first time under Wenger's tenure, Tottenham finished above Arsenal in the league.
On 20th April 2018, Arsene Wenger confirmed that he would leave Arsenal at the end of the season. Although this was what most Arsenal fans were waiting for, even the most hardcore anti-Wenger activists would have felt a bit sad because the legendary Frenchman was leaving.
Even though his last seasons with the club were terrible, his legacy is unquestionable and there is no doubt that he occupies a place among the pantheon of greats. It was time to say goodbye. But at the same time, there were reasons to be optimistic as a new man would be at the helm the following season. Enter Unai Emery.
On 23rd May 2018, Arsenal confirmed that former PSG and Sevilla manager Unai Emery would take charge of the gunners. Emery is a manager who has received a lot of plaudits for his type of football and shrewd business in the transfer market. Even though he is no genius or a legend of the game, he has the capability to steer the Gunners forward and lead them to subsequent glory.
The squad has already started to look promising as Emery set out to stabilise the Gunners' porous defence with the signings of Sokratis Papasthathopoulos from Borussia Dortmund and Stephan Lichtsteiner from Juventus.
Also, he bought Lucas Torreira who impressed with Uruguay at the World Cup from Sampdoria. Torreira will help unburden Granit Xhaka from his defensive role to a more attacking one as it his preferred position. Also, the signing of teenager Matteo Guendouzi from Lorient offers a lot of promise.
2018-19 is a season which all Gooners look forward to. The stellar signings made by Emery in this transfer window will boost Arsenal's chances to win a title again. He should start by taking Arsenal back to the Champions League, win some titles in between and mainly aim for the Premier League trophy which has evaded them for years now. Whether Emery can calm the troubled waters in the red half of North London we shall know in a short while. But until then, all we can do is hope for the best.