Merci Arsène: The 22-year legacy of Arsene Wenger
For 22 long years, confined to the same culture and surroundings, our protagonist, Arsene Wenger, has witnessed everything in all its glory. If one had to put a genre to this, what would it be?
An adventure story - yes - full of drama and fraught emotions and bittersweet memories. It has been a journey of ebbs and flows with a fair share of time-travel involved with a touch of magic.
September 1996: A tall, slightly built Frenchman who looked more like a school teacher walked into Arsenal. He gave no impression whatsoever of being a football manager and had almost nothing in common with his grizzled British peers.
Having plied his trade in the footballing wilderness of Japan for the previous two years, he came to Highbury where he inherited a mediocre bunch of players infamously known for their turgid defensive style.
Johan Cruyff and Tery Venables were among the odds-on favourites to ascend the throne but, the so-called "Boring One" became the chosen one. Scepticism had hit its peak, and everyone firmly believed that he could never emulate what George Graham did.
Initially, in his journey, he struggled to win the players around, to his way of thinking. The way they ate in the mid-1990s was startling, and he banned the team from eating chocolates, even before his first game in charge.
He banned alcohol in the dressing room, and everyone started putting forth the theory of him being mental. Nobody expected him to survive that first winter, yet, his "unconventional" methods kindled a revolution, one that not only changed the face of Arsenal but most importantly, English Football.
They were transformed into a team, feared for their explosiveness and possession based gameplay and soon, they shelved the monopoly of Manchester United, one of the most decorated sides in English football, thriving under the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson.
Winning a rare double (both the league and the FA Cup) in 1997-98, in his first full season, was just the beginning of a majestic career and he started to win over not just his players, but the fans and the press as well.
His brigade started defining the entire landscape. Fully immersed in their poetically rhythmic routine, they were innovative, refreshing, different, and revolutionary. From "Captain Fantastic" Tony Adams to the French prodigy Theirry Henry, he weaved a magical spell upon them, one that made them play the game with extreme passion.
He firmly believed that winning alone doesn't cut it, winning it beautifully mattered the most. Intricate and sharp passing, with a creative style that is second to none, they had no restrictions to play in their dictated positions and had immense freedom to try something new, every single time.
15th May 2004: A new chapter was scripted on the pristine Highbury turf. Against the mighty Foxes, Bergkamp's exquisite through-ball to Vieira, who delivered a sublime finish, sealed a 2-1 second-half comeback victory for the Gunners.
It was certainly the most iconic moment that the London club had ever witnessed. They blitzed the league without losing a single game - a rare feat that was matched only by the great Preston North End side of 1889 in English history.
They displayed ruthlessness and tactical nous and was not intimidated by anyone. Hailed as The Invincibles, they imposed themselves as one of English football’s greatest ever sides.
Between 2005 and 2014, the North Londoners recorded their worst spell since the 1960s. The chief cause was economic. In 2001, when the club announced its intention to leave its Highbury home (capacity: 38,400) and build a modern stadium with 60,000 seats, costing £400 million, it set about a downturn in Arsenal's fortunes on the pitch.
Had anyone else been at the helm during these belt-tightening years, the global brand it represents currently, would have been just a distant dream. Not only did Wenger keep them breathe the Champions League air, he worked off a large part of the debt by auctioning his best soldiers.
Though Arsenal were incapable of mounting pressure at the top, they were often competitive and always had an elegant style. The highly "Impressive" list of defenders like Squillaci, Senderos, Traore, Clichy, and Djourou would have forced the likes of Pep or Mou to switch from their managerial profession.
Having dual responsibilities of being the accountant as well as the team manager, Wenger's post-Emirates era was overshadowed by his side's lack of competitiveness. Summers were ruined by the departures of his best troopers. Disgruntled fans and media despised him for the silverware drought, but hadn't it been for him, Arsenal would have been in complete shatters.
Just like many others of my age, there was a time when I too thought that Arsenal was named after this guy. 3 PL titles, a record-breaking 7 FA Cups, 7 Community Shields and the 1998 World Manager of the Year in his 22-year reign, speaks volumes of his stature and loyalty.
He is the reason for the Arsenal way of football, one we all love irrespective of which club we follow. He may not go down as the greatest to ever set foot on the pitch, but there is nobody that can ever fill his void.
For being more than just a manager, for being the innovative, imperfect and invincible human being, for constantly providing an unparalleled class of act, a huge Thank You, especially for what you've done for the football world, Le Professeur!
MERCI ARSENE, MERCI!