Arsene Wenger: the legend of Le Professeur
It looks as though Wenger is now on borrowed time at Arsenal. Despite this, one must not forget his contribution to English football.
When a tall, nerdy looking Arsene Wenger was presented to the media as the new manager of Arsenal FC, it was met more with surprise and less with acceptance. The Frenchman was virtually an unknown in England in spite of his successful spell with French club AS Monaco.
The now-famous headline that appeared on the front pages the next day read, ‘Arsene who?’. Not a single person expected him to last more than a couple of years (except perhaps, Wenger himself and Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein).
The Arsenal players themselves had little idea about the Frenchman, who they said ‘looked more like a teacher than a football coach’. Appointing Wenger was undoubtedly a huge gamble as no foreign manager (outside the British Isles) had ever won the Premier League before.
The man behind this master stroke was Arsenal Vice-Chairman David Dein. Dein successfully convinced the Arsenal board to go with Wenger despite having a more accomplished manager like Johan Cruyff as a potential candidate.
Initial success – historic double
Wenger took over the reins at Arsenal in late September of 1996, when the season had already begun. That season, the Gunners finished an impressive 3rd in the league.
The following season, which was Wenger’s first full season in charge, the Frenchman won a historic league and cup double thereby becoming the first foreign manager to win the Premier League and also the first foreign manager to win the double.
The eight seasons that followed brought astounding success to both Arsene and Arsenal. The North Londoners finished either 1st or 2nd during this period which saw them form one-half of a highly competitive rivalry with Manchester United.
Wenger himself found a fierce rival in Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson. Arsenal again won the league in the 2001-02 and also in the 2003-04 season. The Frenchman also led the Gunners to the finals of the erstwhile UEFA Cup in 2000, but narrowly lost out to Galatasaray, in a penalty shootout.
These achievements quickly elevated the Frenchman to being recognised as one of the best managers in Europe.
The last one of those league titles will go down in history as the benchmark for Premier League achievement. Wenger and his ‘Invincible’ team made history when they went the whole season undefeated on their way to lifting the trophy. The feat was last achieved over a century ago by Preston North End in a 22-game season.
The team, which was known for its attacking prowess, was described by television pundit Alex Hansen as ‘quite simply the most fluid, devastating team the British Isles has seen’. Arsenal extended their unbeaten run further, to 49 matches, before it was finally ended by Manchester United in a controversial game.
Around the same time Wenger reached the pinnacle with his ‘Invincible’ season, the Premier League was going through a metamorphosis. With a huge influx of money into clubs like Chelsea and later Manchester City, these clubs suddenly became a potent threat to top dogs Arsenal and United.
With Arsenal shifting their base from the revered Highbury to the brand new Emirates stadium, the club simply could not compete with the likes of Chelsea, United and City. The club was under financial restrictions and saw their top players depart for more lucrative offers elsewhere.
Despite all this, the Gunners still managed to make it to the UEFA Champions League finals in 2006. Although they were leading 1-0 with ten men and just 13 minutes left to play, Barcelona penetrated Arsenal’s defence twice to get an unlikely win.
During these turbulent times, despite having offers from some of the top clubs like Real Madrid, Wenger decided to stick with Arsenal. The board set him an ambitious target of finishing in the top four at least three times in the five seasons that followed the shift to the Emirates.
(Video courtesy: Arsenal YouTube channel)
With his spending severely impaired, and sub-par players at his disposal, Wenger bettered his target by finishing in the top four for all five years (as of today, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal have never finished below 4th in the Premier League).
Not only did Arsenal finish in the top four during all these years, but they also managed to mount a serious title challenge in the 2007-08 season (before Eduardo’s career threatening injury derailed their campaign). The Gunners also made two League Cup finals during this time.
Wenger’s second decade at Arsenal hasn’t nearly been as successful as his first. The only silverware Arsenal won during this time were two back to back FA Cups and two Community Shields.
Though this looks pale in comparison to some of the other managers, Wenger has been successful in creating a legacy that transcends all of this. Wenger single-handedly transformed a club which had a reputation of playing ‘boring’ football into one of the most attractive teams in Europe.
Wenger also revolutionised English football with his emphasis on players’ diet and statistical analysis, his new training methods and tactics. His attacking style of play, with quick passing and possession based football, often called ‘Wengerball’, is widely regarded as one of the most attractive systems of football.
The Frenchman’s time at Arsenal is similar to a classic ‘game of two halves’ football match. In his first half, he took Arsenal to outstanding success, winning trophy after trophy and creating a reputation in Europe for being the manager of one of the most attractive teams on display.
Though his second half did not bring as many trophies as the first, the fact that Arsenal always qualified for the Champions League, spending significantly less than their rivals, is a huge achievement in itself.
Arsene Wenger will always be remembered for revolutionising and pioneering modern-day English football. It will undoubtedly be a sad day for Arsenal and English football, in general, when he decides to call it a day.