Merci, Arsene: Bidding Farewell to a 22-year Glorious yet Divisive Reign
- A detailed look into Arsene Wenger's 22 years at Arsenal, charting the highs and the lows of a great club led by its iconic manager.
On April 20, 2018, Arsene Wenger announced to the world that he would quit Arsenal Football club after 22 years at the helm. The announcement sent shockwaves throughout the football world, with heartfelt tributes pouring in from all over, thanking this great man for his immense contribution to English football. In his 22 long years at the club, he has turned Arsenal into a revenue-generating juggernaut of World Football and ushered the club into a new era characterized by financial stability and growth.
His rivalry with Sir Alex Ferguson and his Manchester United side defined the first decade of the Premier League. This was a simmering feud which would lead to countless memorable moments both on and off the pitch. From Wenger’s arrival in 1996 till 2004, one club would invariably have to get past the other to win the league.
These two were by far the longest serving managers of English Football and were both given passionate and incredibly emotional send-offs. However, while Sir Alex leaving Manchester United was met with an acute sense of sadness which was almost universal, Wenger’s announcement was greeted with relief and excitement, at least by some fans.
Looking at how he had been at the club for so long and contributed so much to its development into a modern giant of the football world, why did his exit not universally sadden the entire fan base?
In order to answer that question, we need to analyze his 22-year reign as a whole. Performance of Arsenal under Wenger can broadly be classified into two contrasting timelines.
Also read: Arsène's Arsenal: Forever and for always
1996-2004: The Golden Years
Wenger arrived at the club on October 1, 1996, replacing Bruce Rioch. His arrival came as shock to many, as he was an unknown commodity in England. He had spent the previous 18 months in the Japanese league, at Nagoya Grampus Eight. However, he quickly won over the Arsenal faithful, finishing third in his first season. It was in his first full season at the club, in 1997-98, that Wenger would really make an impression.
He displayed astuteness in the transfer market, signing players such as Patrick Viera, Marc Overmars, and Emanuel Petit, who were key performers in his first title-winning side. His Arsenal team, led by skipper Tony Adams and the brilliant goals of Dennis Bergkamp, won the league over the then-dominant Manchester United side led by Sir Alex. The team also won the FA Cup, beating Newcastle United.
After the 1997-98 League winning season, Arsenal faced a series of setbacks in each of the next three seasons, coming second to Sir Alex’s all-conquering Manchester United squad. The 1999-00 season was especially disappointing, with Arsenal finishing a massive 18 point behind United. It was also during this period, that Wenger would face European Heartache for the first time. In the 1999-00 season, Arsenal entered the UEFA Cup and made it all the way to the finals, where they lost on penalties to Fatih Terim’s Galatasaray side.
It was during this period, that Wenger signed a flying winger from Juventus by the name of Thierry Henry, who he would turn into one of the greatest strikers world football had ever seen. Thierry would go on to become Arsenal’s greatest Goalgetter, with 228 goals for the club.
After a dry period of 3 years without a League win, Wenger’s Arsenal won their second Premier League title in the 2001-02 Season. The season began in controversy when Sol Campbell decided to make the decision to move across North London from Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal. This season was also incredibly special for Wenger because Arsenal won the league at the home of their bitter rivals Manchester United, with Sylvain Wiltord scoring the only goal in a 1-0 win.
Arsenal also won the FA Cup that year, beating Chelsea 2-0 with Ray Parlour and Freddie Ljungberg getting the goals. This season will also go down as the year Tony Adams and Lee Dixon ended their 20-year association with the club, fittingly after becoming the only players to win the English League in three separate decades. This Arsenal team also went unbeaten away from home in this season
In the 2002-03 Season, Arsenal finished second in the league and won another FA Cup, beating Southampton in the final. Patrick Viera replaced Tony Adams as Captain. This was also the season when Wenger was quoted saying that his team could go an entire season unbeaten, which was met with widespread disbelief by the British media. This Season ended with David Seaman lifting the FA Cup as captain in his last appearance for the club, keeping his 237th clean sheet in the process.
This period of great success culminated in the 2003-04 Premier League Season, where Arsenal became the first team in the Premier League Era to go through an entire Premier League season without defeat, ending with a record of 26 wins, 12 draws and 0 losses. To this day, that Arsenal team is the only one to go through a Premier League season unbeaten.
Wenger started the season by signing keeper Jens Lehmann from Borussia Dortmund to replace the outgoing David Seaman. An early pivotal moment in this incredible season came at Old Trafford, where Manchester United’s Ruud Van Nistelrooy missed a last-minute penalty sparking passionate scenes from the Arsenal players who confronted him.
This Season had looked like it was headed into a tailspin when Arsenal was knocked out of both the FA Cup and the UEFA Champions League by Man United and Chelsea respectively. However, a memorable 4-2 win over Liverpool with a Thierry Henry hat-trick got their League season back on track and they won the title at the backyard of their biggest rivals, Tottenham Hotspur.
A 2-1 win over Leicester City on the final day ensured that Arsenal had done the impossible and gone an entire season unbeaten to conclude an immense first 8 years at Arsenal for Wenger. Thierry Henry ended the Season with the Golden Boot Award for top scorer, as well as finishing second to Ronaldinho in the FIFA World Player of the Year award.
2004-2018: A steady decline culminating in resentment
The 2004-05 Season saw the rise of a new power in English football. Chelsea, backed by Russian Billionaire Roman Abramovich appointed Jose Mourinho as their manager. Jose, who labeled himself ‘The Special One’ had just won the UEFA Champions League the previous season with unheralded Porto.
Arsenal began their season unbeaten in the first 9 games before their trip to Old Trafford to face United. Their unbeaten record in the league stood at 49 games and they were gunning for a half century. However, in an ill-tempered game which was later termed as ‘Battle of the Buffet’, United ended Arsenal’s unbeaten run with a 2-0 victory.
Ruud Van Nistelrooy, redeeming himself for his missed penalty the previous season, scored the first goal and Wayne Rooney then put the game beyond Arsenal’s reach. This season marked the debut of Cesc Fabregas, who at 17 years and 103 days was the youngest Premier League player ever at the time.
Chelsea under Mourinho ran roughshod over the league and set multiple records such as most points in a season with 95, least goals conceded with 15 and most wins with 29. Arsenal’s consolation was that they won another FA Cup, beating United in the Final 5-4 on Penalties after the game had finished 0-0. Patrick Viera’s winning penalty in the shootout proved to be his last kick of the ball for the club and he then left to join Juventus.
The 2005-06 Season will go down in history as the last one played at Highbury. Arsenal announced that the club was moving to a new stadium the following season. This was considered to be a necessary step for the club to catapult itself to the upper echelon of Europe and compete with the heavyweights of the continent. This league season was Wenger’s worst since he took over. The club clinched the fourth place on the final day with a 4-2 win against Wigan, with Thierry Henry fittingly scoring a Hat-trick.
This was also the year where Wenger finally got it together in the Champions League. Arsenal kept 10 consecutive clean sheets on their way to the final, knocking out Viera’s new team Juventus, as well as Real Madrid, on their way to the final in Paris, where they were up against Barcelona. In the final, disaster struck when Jens Lehmann was sent off early and Arsenal was down to 10 men.
However, they fought valiantly and even took the lead through a Sol Campbell header. However, the man advantage eventually counted and goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti hurtled Arsenal to defeat.
In a way, this game was the point in the Arsene Wenger Era from where it all went downhill for Arsenal. Robert Pires left the club that summer as they moved into the Emirates Stadium. Ashley Cole, the club’s long-serving left back also left for Chelsea under extremely bitter and controversial circumstances.
Thomas Rosicky was brought in from Dortmund as the new look Arsenal squad settled into its new surroundings. Thierry Henry had an injury-plagued and inconsistent season and Arsenal finished fourth again. The Champions League brought further disappointment with a loss against PSV Eindhoven. The League Cup run was the only bright light which ended in the final with a Didier Drogba brace for Chelsea.
The 2007-08 Season saw a radical shift in Arsene Wenger’s squad-building model with a focus on youth. The stadium move had placed a limit on the amount that he could spend in the transfer market, and he could not compete with his rivals for players. Thierry Henry left for Barcelona and the mantle fell on Emanuel Adebayor to provide the goals. He duly obliged, scoring 30 goals as Arsenal were genuine title contenders.
However, a 2-2 draw against Birmingham where striker Eduardo suffered a horrific leg break was seen as a turning point in their season. Three draws followed and United, as well as Chelsea, leapfrogged them, and Arsenal finished the season in 3rd, a mere four points behind United.
Liverpool ended their Champions League campaign in the Quarter Finals while United knocked them out in the FA Cup. This season was a prime example of the mental fragility that would plague Wenger squads over the next decade. This was the season where Arsenal began to be seen as a team of kids who played pretty football but could not get the job done on the biggest stage.
The 2008-09 Season saw Wenger continue to reshape his young squad with Samir Nasri from Marseille and Aaron Ramsey from Cardiff. Their league season got off to a terrible start with the team losing 5 of their first 14 games. This ruled them out of title contention fairly early and they were left fighting for fourth place again, which they eventually secured. One bright spot was the signing of Euro 2008 star Andrey Arshavin from Zenit. He announced his arrival in English football with a four-goal performance in a 4-4 draw against Liverpool.
The Champions League and FA Cup proved to be better but both ended at the semi-final stage. They were bundled out of the Champions League by Manchester United. Wenger and Sir Alex eventually buried the hatchet after the game when Wenger congratulated Sir Alex. They had not spoken to each other since the Battle of the Buffet almost five years back.
It can also be said that these two in the latter part of Wenger’s reign were not on equal footing any longer, with Sir Alex’s United often being superior. This could be seen by the fact that from the year 2005 till Sir Alex’s retirement, Arsenal did not finish above Manchester United.
In the subsequent four years, it was abundantly clear how paying for the new stadium was constraining Wenger’s ability to spend. So much so, that important players like Emanuel Adebayor and Kolo Toure were sold to direct rivals Manchester City. As was the case in the last few years, Arsenal played often breathtaking football but could not win when it mattered and finished third. They were also eliminated early in the domestic cups and in the Champions League, a 4 goal salvo from Lionel Messi eliminated them in the Quarter Finals.
The 2010-11 Season proved to be an infuriating one for Arsenal fans. Laurent Koscielny and Marouane Chamakh were the new arrivals and the season began promisingly, with Arsenal in the top 3 for most of the season. However, a shocker of a result where they blew a 4 goal lead in the second half against Newcastle, summed up the weak mentality of the squad. The Champions League elimination at the hands of Barcelona once again was controversial but in the end, it was a story of same old frailties manifesting themselves.
These few seasons of collective disappointment reached a horrible low point when in the 2011-12 season, Arsenal were brutally outmatched at Old Trafford and lost 8-2 to Manchester United. That game highlighted just how far behind United Arsenal had fallen. A consolation was the superlative season of Robin Van Persie who with his 30 goals in the league clinched the 3rd place for Arsenal and bagged the PFA Player of the Year Award as well as the Golden Boot.
However, to compound the frustrations of Arsenal fans, Van Persie, the reigning PFA player of the year was sold to Manchester United of all clubs at a relatively minuscule price of 20 million pounds. Van Persie continued his sparkling form the next season and won Manchester United the League title in Sir Alex’s last season. Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, and Lukas Podolski were brought in. Elimination at the hands of Bradford in the League Cup and Blackburn in the FA Cup, as well as by Bayern Munich in the Champions League meant that it had now been 8 years since the club last won silverware.
The Bayern Munich game was a prime example of Arsenal’s inability to raise their game until it was too late. A 3-1 home defeat proved to be costly and a 2-0 away win could not compensate for it. They once again clinched the 4th Champions league spot in the last game of the season. It was at this point that grumblings of frustration began to be directed towards Wenger. Eight years without a trophy had created a sense of impatience and annoyance among supporters.
Then, in 2013, came the deadline day signing of Mesut Ozil from Real Madrid, which was seen as a real coup for the club. This went down well with Arsenal supporters, who finally saw positive intent on part of the board.
However, in terms of their league campaign, it was the same story once again, with Arsenal starting the season in red-hot form but faltering at crucial moments. This was also a season where their lack of big game temperament was exposed, leading to heavy losses such as 5-3 to Manchester City, 5-1 to Liverpool and 6-0 to Chelsea in Wenger’s 1000th game. The absence of killer instinct could also be seen in the fact that despite leading the table for the most number of days in the 2013-14 Season, the club finished fourth again.
The Champions league too was a story of familiar disappointment, with Arsenal falling in the Round of 16 Stage once again, to Bayern Munich. However, this was the season where their trophy drought finally ended, with Wenger winning a 5th FA Cup by beating Hull City in the final. The FA Cup win created renewed hope that a title challenge was in the offing. This hope was enhanced by beating Liverpool to the signing of Alexis Sanchez from Barcelona.
With this capture, many felt that Arsenal was a genuine contender for the league. The signs were there as Arsenal dispatched league champions Manchester City in the FA Community Shield. However, once again, Arsenal began the season poorly and even a great second half season was not enough to see them catch league winners Chelsea. They finished third in the league.
This was seen as the year when they could get past the Round of 16 when they were drawn against Monaco. However, a catastrophic defensive performance in the home leg led to a 3-1 loss. Even though they won the return leg 2-0 in France, it was not enough and they were knocked out in the Round of 16 once again. However, the club ended the season in great fashion with a 4-0 demolition of Aston Villa to win a record 12th FA Cup.
While the back to back FA Cups was commendable, fans were still waiting for a concrete league challenge and were desperately hoping that 2015-16 would be the year. Arsenal started the season well, with particular highlights being the 3-0 Win at home to United and a 5-2 win away at surprise leaders Leicester. A last-ditch winner by Danny Welbeck in the return leg against Leicester created a genuine belief among supporters that this was finally their year.
However, a shock 3-2 loss against a depleted Manchester United side helped by a brace from a young Marcus Rashford, led to a familiar tailing-off of form. North London rivals Spurs leaped ahead as title contenders and threatened to finish above Arsenal in the league table for the first time under Wenger.
However, a late rally saw them pip Spurs to the 2nd spot, and their highest league finish in many years. It was clear to all though that Arsenal had blown a great opportunity to win the league in a year where the traditional big hitters such as United, Chelsea, and City had underwhelming campaigns. They could not retain the FA Cup as they lost 2-1 in the quarterfinals to Watford. It was a familiar story in the Champions League as they were knocked out by Barcelona for the fourth time in the last decade.
The rot had well and truly set in at the club, with fans finally losing patience and showing their dissent for Wenger with ‘Wenger Out’ banners at home games. This was made worse by the fact that Arsenal, for the first time under Wenger, did not finish in the top 4 places in the 2016-17 season. Although the season started well, including a 19 game unbeaten run, it all went wrong at the turn of the year 2017.
That, coupled with improved seasons from Chelsea, Manchester City, and Liverpool, meant that it was Arsenal who bowed out from the Top 4. The Champions league too was especially traumatic, as despite finishing first in their group, Arsenal ran into Bayern Munich yet again. This time the results were horrific as Bayern ran out 10-2 winners on aggregate.
Arsenal fans had enough and they made their feelings clear. It was only an amazing Cup run, in which Arsenal beat Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City as well as Antonio Conte’s league winners Chelsea on the way to winning the FA Cup, that enabled him to keep his job for another season. This should have been the year that he left on a high, with this win. However, Wenger’s love for the club meant that he just would not let go. So, the Board gave him one more year with the hope that the one year outside Europe’s top club competition would be an anomaly.
This brings us to the present season, which has by far been the worst league campaign Arsenal have had under Wenger. This was illustrated by the fact that Arsenal did not win their first away game until October. The uncertainty surrounding Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil was clearly affecting results on the pitch. Arsenal were not only underachieving but also playing some of the worst football seen in Wenger’s reign. They were knocked out of the FA Cup by lowly Nottingham Forrest.
The League Cup was a ray of hope. However, that too was ruthlessly extinguished by Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Manchester City side, who beat them 3-0 in the Final. The Europa league run, Arsenal’s only way of getting into the Champions League as well as providing a fitting farewell to Wenger, was ended by Atletico.
Also read: Arsenal's tryst with uncertainty
A tribute to a Legend of World Football
It is a real pity that the career of a great man who has given so much to Football ended like this. The fact that he left the club just ahead of being shown the door was extremely disheartening.
In my opinion, what really turned fans of the club against Wenger was the poor performance of Arsenal in the last three seasons. Not winning the league in 2015-16 season indicated that the club was unlikely to regain its glory days under him. From there, the subsequent decline in the following two campaigns made it easier for the Board to make their decision to not continue with him.
As an Arsenal supporter, I can tell you that he will be sorely missed. I have watched football and supported Arsenal for 16 years and he has been the only Manager I have ever rooted for. He has been the person who made this club what it is, and his teams produced some of the most eye-catching football I have ever watched. They played football like it is meant to be played, with an air of swagger and moments of brilliance. His achievement of going through a league season undefeated is something is unlikely to be replicated again in English football.
Wenger also changed the way footballers conditioned themselves. The fact that the Premier League is now probably the fittest league in the world is mostly to his credit. Unai Emery has an incredibly tough task in front of him, to fill Wenger’s oversized shoes and to restore this great club to the glory it once held. Being there in the Emirates Stadium to watch him address his fans at his last home game was one of the best experiences of my life. I will forever be thankful and consider myself lucky to have supported this truly great man.
One Arsene Wenger, There’s only One Arsene Wenger!
Also read: 10 Greatest Tributes To Arsene Wenger