There is a generation of Arsenal fans who have known no other.
I should know – I’m one of them.
In 1996, as Bruce Rioch cleared out his Arsenal locker, I was seven. At that age, you have little feel for many of the details of supporting your team, beyond your favourite player (almost always either the captain or the top scorer), how you did in your last game (as long as you won), roughly where you are in the table (unless you’re top – then you know with 100% certainty exactly what position you are!) and of course, that youthful conviction that your team really is ‘by far the greatest team the world has ever seen’.
Certainly seven-year-old Helen had no idea that the imminent arrival of ‘Arsene Who?’ was to represent the biggest change to Arsenal Football Club for decades, if not ever, and that it would shape the future of the next twenty plus years in North London.
That initial reaction from the media was in many ways an overreaction. After all, the new Arsenal manager had enjoyed a successful seven year spell at AS Monaco even amid a backdrop of corruption allegations against his competitors, a period which saw him attract the attention and courtship of Bayern Munich for a time.
His sojourn in Japan was a less conventional choice for someone aspiring to manage at a top European club, but it was a greater indicator of the manager’s open-mindedness towards global football and global players which was to become something of a trademark. His famous comment on how football is “not about passports” was at the time seen as a defence of a squad lacking in British players, but in truth Wenger has always held a view on geography and nationality well in advance of this contemporaries.
This is a man who chose to take an intensive three-week English course in Cambridge as a young man rather than go on holiday, a man who now speaks six languages – French, German, English, Spanish, Italian and Japanese – a man who is the very embodiment of today’s cosmopolitan London.
But then, the press suspicion of a foreign manager was to be expected: Arsenal were mirroring their Frenchman’s open-mindedness on nationality. He was Arsenal’s first – and of course to date only – foray into overseas management.
In becoming only the third top Premier League manager from outside the British Isles, Wenger doubled the current tally, joining Chelsea’s lonely Ruud Gullit. By comparison, as he celebrates his twentieth year at the club, Arsene is in a Premier League where overseas managers outnumber home grown ones 13-7, while at the top of the league the difference is even more stark – nine of the top ten were born far from these shores.
Hardly a surprise, then, that the press kicking off Arsene’s reign with a suspicion which they still maintain to this day. Start as you mean to go on, I guess!
The early years brought accelerated success, with the first full season returning a League and Cup double. The usually serious manager endeared himself to fans the world over with both his swashbuckling attacking football and his unfettered joy at such a big achievement. While the club’s successes were built on one of the iconic back fours of English football, the verve and style ahead of them was a far cry from the tepid efforts of George Graham’s sides in the early ‘90s. Arsenal weren’t just winning, but we were winning right.
Yet if Arsene brought change on the pitch, he brought as much off it. He revolutionised English football when it came to diet and recovery.
Beer consumption was reduced and then prohibited, vitamin injections and creatine supplements were introduced, and players were encouraged to try out the benefits of yoga to improve their flexibility and extend their careers. Pasta, vegetables and chicken became the staple of the London Colney canteen in place of red meat and junk food, and even the water had to be consumed at room temperature to minimise internal disruption.
The term “marginal gains” is very much in vogue, with the likes of Team Sky and British Cycling prominent among the adopters, yet Arsene brought this mindset into North London two decades ago, way ahead of the curve. (If you’re interested in reading more about marginal gains, try the excellent ‘Black Box Thinking: Marginal Gains and the Secrets of High Performance by Matthew Syed).
Arsene may have been the master of small gains, but there were some rather bigger leaps too. The signing of Patrick Vieira, for example, was to be a masterstroke which would take Arsenal from 5th in 95/96, to 3rd in Arsene’s first season, to that aforementioned Double in 97/98. For those of us who have little memory of LBA – Life Before Arsene – it’s easy to forget that Arsenal haven’t always been all but guaranteed top four finishes, let alone expecting to compete at the very summit of the league. Indeed, in the year before Arsene joined, the mighty Aston Villa finished above us.
No, Arsene treated us to an unparalleled level of success, especially in those early years, and that’s even accounting for a very successful spell in the 1930s under the stewardship and latterly legacy of a certain Herbert Chapman.
Moreover, he did it in the right way. The football was great, of course, and still bequeaths us a reputation as one of the best footballing sides in the world despite some slightly less convincing sides in more recent years. But there were also great sporting moments, such as when he insisted that we replay our FA Cup tie with Sheffield Wednesday after our winning goal was scored while they had a player receiving treatment.
The ’98 double was following a couple of near misses in the cups as the club transitioned in defence, but better was to follow as Arsene’s genius for spotting hidden gems in the transfer market or converting players to new positions, started to bear fruit.
Thierry Henry was signed in 1999 and scored 26 goals in his 47 appearances that season despite taking eight games to get off the mark. Meanwhile the likes of Lauren and Ashley Cole were converted from more attacking origins to form the bedrock of the new-look defence.
It was the catalyst for an extended spell of success.
S is for Success
Everyone wants their club to be regarded as the very best of the best. Arsene delivered plenty of success in his first full campaign at Highbury, but more was needed to cement Arsenal as true giants of English football in the modern era.
Challenged accepted then. Wenger masterminded his second double campaign in 01/02, propelled by 32 goals from Henry, followed it up with the 2003 FA Cup. Perhaps of equal interest to the onfield successes, though, was a comment made in earnest during
“It’s not impossible. I know it will be difficult for us to go through the season unbeaten. But if we keep the right attitude it’s possible we can do it.”
The BBC reported on it at the time as a quote which would “go down under the heading of ‘things you wish you had never said’ – alongside Alan Hansen’s ‘you don’t win anything with kids’ comment on Match of the Day.”
Personally, I was as amused by the accompanying dig at his competition: “I can’t see why it’s so shocking to say it. Do you think Manchester United, Liverpool or Chelsea don’t dream that as well? They’re exactly the same. They just don’t say it because they’re scared to look ridiculous”
Arsene has never been afraid to be bold. His optimism and faith in his teams to outperform expectations is one of his most enduring qualities which, while it has at times been misplaced, has blessed us with some of the greatest teams of the Premier League era.
His words, too, are carefully considered, carefully chosen. The media, for all their love of criticising Arsenal and our legendary manager, still turn up to his press conferences in droves to hear him opine on any matter from football to global politics, and always with the same eloquence, the same injections of humour, and the same educated mannerisms. He did not get the nickname ‘Le Professeur’ by accident.
Those words of 28 September 2002 would make a mockery of the BBC’s ridicule, and that of the rest of the media, as a season later Arsenal achieved the ultimate feat in domestic football.
A whole season without losing a single match. P38 W26 D12 L0. WWWWDDWWWDWWWDDWDWWDWWWWWWWWWDWDWDDDWW.
Ferguson never managed it. Mourinho has never managed it. Guardiola has never managed it.
Indeed, in the major European leagues, only AC Milan before, and Juventus after, have managed to go a full 30+ game season without defeat.
We play in a league where there is constant flux of powers, where so many teams have a shot at competing for and winning the title. The Premier League is not a one, two or three team league where the winners are crowned and Champions League places confirmed before the season even approaches its conclusion. It is a constant battle for superiority between many both modern day and historically successful super clubs.
In delivering us an unbeaten season, Arsene has gifted us the right to be forever considered in that top echelon of English football, so always be included in any discussion of the greatest of all time.
The greatest regret many have – and I hope one day to be able to read Arsene’s own thoughts on the matter – is the speed at which that Invincible team broke up.
The following season returned an FA Cup victory which was achieved with the very antithesis of Arsene’s philosophy – a negative, defensive performance to force a stalemate and penalties, which famously secured our 11th success in the competition with Patrick Vieira’s last ever kick. But the league season was derailed by Pizzagate, as Mike Riley turned in one of the worst refereeing displays of all time.
Rio Ferdinand should have seen red for a last man challenge, van Nistelrooy likewise for a shocking challenge on Cole for which he subsequently received a retrospective three game ban, and the nincompoop of an official contrived to allow United players to kick Arsenal off the park. Since that failed to generate the desired result, he even gifted them a penalty for a Wayne Rooney dive. Some things never change…
But although that turned out to be a defining point in Arsenal’s season, and one which saw us secure only one win in the next five games in the aftermath (fortunately against Tottenham), it was also a moment which saw the usually taciturn Wenger betray his true feelings. He used statistics to berate the performance of Riley, but reserved his strongest words for “cheat” van Nistelrooy. It was to earn him a £15,000 fine from the Football Association, but you suspect such a consequence didn’t trouble him too much in comparison to the chance to air his views on the matter.
The FA Cup victory, then, represented some degree of retribution.
But everything was about to change…
Moving with the times
“My aim is simple – to make Arsenal not just the best in the Premiership, but the biggest and best club in the world.” – Arsene Wenger.
But the biggest and best club in the world does not play in a stadium with a capacity of X, however beautiful and classic that stadium is.
In the early 2000s, Arsenal harboured ambitions of being one of the world’s true super clubs, but that meant embracing change in order to move the club forward.
Arsene was instrumental in the initial decision making to go ahead with, and latterly the design of, the new stadium. Once again, his attention to detail ensured that every possible gain was to be eked out, from the shape of the dressing rooms to the acoustically sprung ceiling which means he can give his team talks in total calm and still be heard.
For all his reputation, it was this move to take Arsenal ‘Forward’ as per the club motto which demonstrated Arsene is not afraid of change, only of change for change’s sake.
As money poured into the Premier League from billionaire owners, Wenger carried Arsenal into a period of total austerity, where Champions League qualification was mandatory and the best players had to be sold on a regular basis. He was charged with maintaining as high a level as possible under these conditions, with a fanbase drunk on the success of the last few years.
As Arsene commented in dialogue with Amy Lawrence in the brilliant ‘Invincible: Inside Arsenal’s Unbeaten 2003-2004 Season:
“You feel like you have stones against machine guns. People don’t want to know that. They just want you to win the Championship.”
Very few managers, if any*, could have achieved the necessary, let alone had the patience to do so.
*Judging by how only Real Madrid (20)have more consecutive Champions League qualifications than Arsenal (19). For comparison, Mancheter City are currently at 5, Tottenham 1, and Manchester United, Chelsea and “five-times” Liverpool at 0.
The 2006 Champions League campaign was perhaps the best example of the manager’s ability to draw every last drop of ability out of group of players, as his side made it to the final on the back of the longest ever time without conceding a goal despite regularly fielding the likes of Senderos, Eboue and Flamini in the back four. Too often the manager is bemoaned for failing at tactics, yet during that ultimately heartbreaking run, there is no refuting that the collective was greater than the sum of the parts for his intervention.
We were, as a fanbase, spoiled in the early years of Arsene, and when that austerity period arrived we perhaps didn’t realise how fortunate we were to have a manager who guided us through unscathed, delivering the financial returns while still allowing us to enjoy both attractive football and – on occasion – enabling us to compete for trophies at the top of the game.
Often, fine margins are what defines how we remember things, and you can’t help but feel that the recent unrest at the club would have been less fervent, or even avoided, had a few things fallen more our way in the interim.
What if Henry or Hleb had put away their countless chances back in 2006? What if Martin Taylor had caught Eduardo slightly less calamitously in 2008? What if Szczesny and Koscielny had communicated just a fraction more in 2011.
Normally we (rightly) wave away what ifs in football, but sometimes when the margins between success and failure are so small it pays to take that into account when assessing the performance of a manager.
We were lucky enough, despite our financial constraints at a time when others were able to be free and loose with the purse strings, to still enjoy some world class talents gracing our home turf, even if consistency was lacking. It was Wenger’s foresight and ability to identify and develop young players which saw us overcome such a difficult period with our finances and reputation intact, bar the odd fourth-place-trophy jibe.
That particular phrase was born of a comment made by Wenger himself, when he remarked that coming fourth was as much a trophy as winning the League Cup. We scoffed at the time, because we were used to better, yet it’s scary to imagine where we could be today if we hadn’t managed to finish in those Champions League places each year, if we hadn’t been able to service our stadium debt. The likes of Portsmouth and Leeds United serve as stark warnings to those clubs who don’t look after their finances correctly.
In some ways, Arsene has been a victim of his own success. He brought so many triumphs in his early years at the club that the goalposts of expectation were moved, and as a result he has perhaps not received the level of appreciation he deserves for the period between 2004 and 2012 when his loyalty and skill saw us through what could have been one of the most difficult times in our history. Certainly it has been one of the most testing.
Whatever you think of his performances since we reached a sound financial footing, when we look back on Arsene’s contribution to Arsenal Football Club in his early and middle years, it can only be regarded as a resounding success.
The question is: will his last few years at the club serve to enhance or confuse that assessment?
What’s in a legacy?
Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing.
Or so it seems. Perhaps the better turn of phrase would be ‘sometimes you can forget the value of what you have and think you have had too much of a good thing when the reality is the opposite.’ Not quite as snappy, I’ll admit.
Perhaps counting Crows had the answer: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
In recent years, Wenger has been castigated for being outdated, for failing to keep up with the modern game. Many of the things which were his revolutions are now considered commonplace, and new innovations are arriving to take their place. You cannot teach an old dog new tricks, they say.
As his hair has whitened, and his ability to zip up a coat has declined, Arsene has cut an ever more paternal figure in the dugout. He continues, as always, to act as a guide in life as much as a guide in football to his players, and commands respect from every corner for his achievements, and for his class.
My impression of the man becomes ever more that of a grandfatherly figure – someone who wants to help and support you in reaching your potential, to enjoy the journey as well as the final destination.
It’s that purist in Arsene which is both his strongest asset and his greatest weakness.
He will not damage the club for his own personal gain, in a way that Mourinho has been doing for years; waltzing into a club, spending all its money, neglecting its youth in favour of players with limited future, and bailing within three years when the chips start to turn.
One quote that always sticks with me from the 2015 AGM probably sums up our Frenchman better than any other:
“I want to leave one day in a position where [the club] can do even better when I leave.”
It has been greatly satisfying to see us win first the 2014 FA Cup and then defend it a year later, after so long being mocked as the poor boys of English football. The ultimate vindication, if you will.
In an ever more competitive league, and against a backdrop which looks markedly different from that expected when we first drew up plans for the Emirates in the early noughties, we may not see Arsenal achieve that success of the earlier Wenger years again. English football no longer truly has the capacity to sustain a dominant force.
It is in this setting that we should truly take a step back and look at what our manager has given us, not just in that early period, but also in the intervening years.
We now have a world class club stadium which is the second largest in the country, we can afford to sign players of the quality of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez, and we still have a manager who cares for this club as much as you and I, who refers to his relationship with us as a ‘love story’.
He has also given us some brilliant moments to savour: His cheeky secretive grin on signing Ozil, his happy jig on the touchline, his avoidance of a hypocritical Mourinho handshake after a Community Shield victory. He is undeniably a character, who enhances our club by sharing the full force of his dignified yet humorous personality.
In the heat of the moment, we all have our own view of Arsene’s achievements based on what spectacles we’re wearing.
But when he finally hangs up his stopwatch and walks out of the door at London Colney for the last time, we’ll take off the lenses that we’re currently peering through, and remember him.
Our greatest ever.
One of the world’s greatest ever.
Let’s enjoy him while we still can.