Merci Arsene, Arsenal's greatest ever manager
When Arsene Wenger first walked through the hallowed gates of Highbury, not many in England had heard about him. They knew even less about his previous employers, Nagoya Grampus, in the Japanese league.
And yet, here was this bespectacled Frenchman, with a fine mop of greying hair that with age thankfully has not receded, and with every look of a college professor, chosen to lead one of England’s most successful teams. An appointment of this manner would scarcely happen today.
He wasn’t the first man to be signed on to manage a leading English club despite being an unknown entity. Sir Alex Ferguson, who by then was well on his way to become a behemoth at Manchester United, had been unveiled under similar circumstances, being plucked from Scottish side Aberdeen and thrown into the Stretford End.
But they are both representatives of an almost extinct breed of people for whom football is not just a source of income: loyalists. They are also representatives of an extinct quality in today’s world: patience. Not since the Busbys, the Shanklys and the Paisleys has football seen two men architect football of such high quality for such a long period of time.
They are polar opposites as far as personality is concerned. Ferguson was loud, gruff and boisterous, almost always up for a fight. He had his fair share of detractors, for his pressurizing of the referees and his ‘hairdryer’ treatment.
But Wenger, for as long as I have been following football, was symbolic of the romantic side of football, a side that everybody secretly wanted to see, but few hoped of ever seeing it. He had his fair share of big money signings, the number of which dwindled with each passing year, to almost a single signing per transfer window, as teams such as Manchester City, Chelsea and Tottenham pushed for inclusion amongst England’s elite.
His was never a team which was filled with superstars of the time, muscling their way through to titles. But what they were, were excellent movers of the ball. His midfields over time were always a treat to watch, with players such as Robert Pires, Patrick Vieira, Cesc Fabregas, Gilberto Silva, Mesut Ozil, Santi Cazorla (in spite of his unfortunate injuries) and Alexis Sanchez (who is the newest entrant in the Arsenal traitor logbook) having played wonderfully at Highbury and the Emirates.
His greatest signing, Thierry Henry, played with more than half of those players, redefining and rewriting what it meant to wear Arsenal colours. Dennis Bergkamp rekindled a stop-start career well enough at Arsenal to be deemed worthy of having his statue stand outside the Emirates.
That ‘Invincibles’ team of 2003-04 is talked of with the same reverence even today. A team with the firepower of Manchester City and Bayern Munich, league champions this season and by the looks of it for some time, have not managed to reproduce a similar performance over such an extended period of time.
Like himself, he brought players from near obscurity into the Arsenal setup, both from inside and outside of the academy setup. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere, Ryo Miyaichi, Denilson and so many more flourished under Wenger’s tutelage, admittedly not to their full potential.
But the trust and courage to play them in crunch matches, like in Wilshere’s case against Barcelona at the Emirates in 2011, should be appreciated. Against a Catalan midfield consisting of Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets, all at the peak of their powers, the precocious Wilshere gave a performance that was well beyond his years as Arsenal outclassed the all-conquering Barcelona team of Pep Guardiola, 2-1 in the Champions League.
Wenger’s contribution to the English game is untenable, proving that dominant goalscorers could be replaced with engine-like midfielders, (well, apart from Ian Wright, Henry and Van Persie, for one season) and still produce eye-catching football. He produced credible teams despite a severe dearth of big-money signings. And when he did make the rare big-money signing, they often turned out to be the shrewdest ones of the season.
Arsenal will miss him, the last bastion of stability in professional football management. And the game will miss him. A man who the rest of the footballing world could not bring themselves to hate, apart from the ‘Wenger out’ banners. But even those became a part of pop culture and descended to redundancy.
A man who resonated so much with the Arsenal way of life that a 10-year-old me thought Arsenal was named after Arsene, due to the similarity in the two names. And wherever he may turn up next, one thing is for certain, it won’t be like that day 22 years ago. This time, people will be knowing a whole lot more about the man known as ‘The Professor’.