In 2004, Roman Abramovich, who had recently become the owner of Chelsea Football Club, started putting together the pieces necessary for the rise of the club as a superpower just as Arsenal made moves to become one themselves.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Look into the future
Arsene Wenger had realised that other competitors in the Premier League would soon be bankrolled by owners with seemingly bottomless fortunes, and to compete with such clubs in the long run would require a strong financial position.
He imagined that he knew what he was getting into when he commissioned Arsenal’s move from the revered Highbury stadium to the Ashburton Grove, popularly called as the Emirates Stadium. This stadium move, he felt, would keep Arsenal amongst the top clubs by providing revenue on a continuous basis.
For the estimated amount of £390 million needed for the construction of the stadium, £260 million were to be raised through debt instruments. Majority of the amount lent came through the banks, who kept a very odd condition for lending: Arsene Wenger had to sign a five-year contract at the club.
He happily agreed, unmindful of the trials and tribulations he would have to go through over these years and beyond. They were going to be the most trying years of his managerial life.
As the life at the new stadium kicked off with the 2006-07 season, Arsene Wenger noticed that his young squad was inhibited in its approach. Thierry Henry, who was the club captain at the time, had the annoying but effective habit of demanding the ball all the time, which made his teammates play in a restrained manner.
It was not the kind of approach the Arsenal Manager wanted; he wanted each player to play with freedom.
Next year, in a shocking move, he decided to accept an offer from Barcelona for Henry and the French striker was gone, marking the end of an era. Such salient departures would become a hallmark of the Emirates era in the years to come.
Whenever a player demanded a move to another club, he usually got it. Partly, this was due to the financial limitations, which left the club incapable of competing over wages with rivals. The top earners at the club could often be tempted for a move elsewhere with the offer of a rise in paycheck. The other reason remain shrouded in mystery.
On two separate occasions, there erupted considerable controversy when Arsenal decided to sell their players, both times to the same club. When Emmanuel Adebayor was sold in the summer of 2009, he claimed later in two separate interviews that he wanted to stay, but was told by Wenger that he was being sold to raise money. Samir Nasri, after he was sold in the 2012 summer, revealed that Arsene Wenger wanted to keep him but Stan Kroenke, the American businessman and the majority shareholder of Arsenal, forced the Arsenal manager to sell him.
Wenger though, thoroughly defended all the player sales by directly taking the responsibility unto himself. This habit of taking the blame unto himself extended to on-pitch performances as well. He would very rarely criticise his players in interviews, no matter how badly they had played or the margin by which they had lost.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Understanding the rationale
To understand the rationale behind such behaviour would need an understanding of the deep rooted values to which Arsene Wenger adheres, loyalty being its cornerstone. In a heartfelt speech at the Annual General Meeting of shareholders in 2011, he took the blame upon himself for Arsenal having failed in all four competitions that season, after appearing to be in a good position to challenge in all of them.
All the top clubs such as Barcelona, Bayern Munich, and Real Madrid, have courted him during these years since the move to the Emirates Stadium and all of them have been rejected, some of them more than once. Loyalty underpins his outlook towards football, which also seems to explain why he feels let down by fans who stubbornly and often abusively call for him to be sacked.
The value of loyalty also reflects in his treatment of players. Abou Diaby remained at Arsenal for close to ten years after he first suffered a leg-breaking injury. Aaron Ramsey, who suffered a similar career-threatening injury at a young age, has gone on to become a key first teamer. Tomáš Rosický continued to suffer minor niggles upon his return from an eighteen month layoff, so what does Arsene Wenger do? Just like with Aaron Ramsey, he gave the Czech Republic international a new contract.
Almost all of the players in this Emirates era who have played under him have only had good things to say about him, with many such as Aleksandr Hleb, Alex Song, Cesc Fàbregas, Samir Nasri, referring to him as their second father, indicating the influence that the man continues to have on them.
Perhaps it then becomes easy to put things in perspective and see why most of the players who left Arsenal during these years failed to replicate their form elsewhere. The absolute loyalty of Arsene Wenger ensures that many of them rely on him, and they know it very well that they will be given the freedom and time to express themselves.
If you are a good player deserving a chance, you play in Arsene Wenger’s team. Such trust often ensures that the players end up playing much better due to the continuity and chances they get at Arsenal. At other top clubs, it is almost unheard of to care for players to this extent, especially given that managers often change and the fired-before-you-blink approach makes them opt for ready-made solutions rather than nurturing players.
While Arsene Wenger trusts his players to perform, no player is allowed to become bigger than the club. The wage structure for a long time in the Emirates era was strictly egalitarian. At one point, the highest earner was Andrey Arshavin on £80000 per week in basic wages while most of the other players were earning around £50000 per week.
Fair and equal treatment of all players was regarded as the key to maintaining squad harmony. In the future, when one man held the club at stake and grew too big for the club, like Robin Van Persie did recently, there was only one way for him as per the French manager- out of the club.
This trait he shares with another iconic manager to have graced the English Premier League- Sir Alex Ferguson, who famously sold star players when they started acting pricey.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Tight control
Indiscipline of any sort was also not tolerated
Wojciech Szszęsny had been the first choice goalkeeper, until he was found smoking in the dressing room showers after a defeat to Southampton. He was subsequently dropped and shunted out on loan, before being sold permanently. That explains why Alexis Sánchez started on the bench in a surprise move against Liverpool. Sánchez allegedly fought with his teammates in training. The Arsenal manager’s response was just what was expected.
From a strictly footballing sense, the Emirates move also provided Arsene Wenger with the chance to test an idea he cherished- assembling a squad of exceptional young players and making them world-class. Their bonding and experience would grow over the years he felt, making the team stronger and stronger.
Having seen that central midfield was the area from which all possession-oriented teams functioned, he quickly set out to build his team around a central playmaker. Realizing Cesc Fàbregas’ ability to think two steps ahead always, Wenger built his team around the Spanish midfielder and ensured that all the pieces in the tactical plan worked around him. The efforts to ensure that Fàbregas dictated the style of play led Wenger to even change formations from time-to-time.
Tactically, Arsene Wenger likes to provide defensive freedom to the playmaker. In the 2007-08 season, he would employ Cesc Fàbregas in a central midfield role in a 4-4-2 formation, alongside Mathieu Flamini.
Flamini was a workhorse and a close friend of Fàbregas. He understood very quickly that he would have to function on his own, most of the times, to retrieve the ball from opposition, ensuring that Fàbregas was given the liberty to do what he did best- playmaking. The partnership worked very well for a year until Flamini left for AC Milan and Arsene Wenger had a problem on his hands. He had sold Gilberto Silva and Lassana Diarra, both of whom had the ability to deputise for Flamini.
The three central midfielders who remained were Alex Song, Abou Diaby, and Denílson, but all of them lacked the experience and tenacity of their predecessor. Realizing that Fàbregas was being hindered when he continued to play in a two-man central midfield, Wenger quickly changed to a three-man central midfield, with the Spaniard deployed in an advanced free role, farthest amongst the three.
In 2010 though, Wenger noticed that the deepest of the three central midfielders, Alex Song, had developed his stamina to go from box-to-box. Arsenal were also beginning to see the emergence of a prodigy in Jack Wilshere, who could shift defence into attack very well, and he was immediately drafted into the first team. Fàbregas now operated just behind the striker in a more attacking role, with the two central midfielders operating in a pivot.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Selling Cesc
The sale of Cesc Fàbregas in the summer of 2011 changed a lot of things for Arsenal. Creating chances was easy for the new Barcelona recruit, he would top the assists chart every season with great consistency. To fill the void, Wenger tried to alternate between Aaron Ramsey, Tomáš Rosický, Jack Wilshere, and Yossi Benayoun in the attacking midfield position but failed to get the same results.
He had to wait for two more years to find another creator-in-chief, in the form of Mesut Özil. Wenger had tried to sign Özil before and liked his profile very much: selfless, assured in possession, and able to carve opposition defences apart with his passes. Deal was struck with Real Madrid and Özil moved to North London. As had been the case earlier, tactical formation was accordingly structured around the new playmaker. Giving him full license to operate in the manner he wanted, Arsene Wenger deployed Özil behind the striker in the hitherto employed 4-2-3-1 formation.
The central midfielders in an Arsene Wenger system must be able to play out. He does not like the concept of a holding midfielder who just sits back and defends. The pivot he deploys in matches must be adept at linking the defence and attack, which is why players like Santi Cazorla and Jack Wilshere, experts at carrying the ball from deeper areas, have had such an important impact in his teams.
Without a ball carrying central midfielder, as was been the case when Granit Xhaka and Francis Coquelin played together, this link between defence and attack, essential for Arsenal’s fluid system, breaks down. That is perhaps the reason that Arsenal this season have been struggling to build from the back and create chances. The team desperately lacks an available central midfielder in the Wenger mould who can take the ball under pressure and carry it ahead to the advanced attacking players.
The wide-men are required to be flexible and creative, so that the man on the ball has more options to choose from. With such a tactical approach, the team is not dependent on the playmaker solely for creating opportunities, the wide players can also become the outlets to unlock opposition defences.
In the initial years, Aleksandr Hleb and Tomáš Rosický fit very well in the wide roles envisioned by Arsene Wenger in his 4-4-2 system. However, unlike the wingers of his ‘Invincibles’ squad, Freddie Ljungberg and Robert Pires, these two were essentially at ease in the middle of the park. To solve the problem, Arsene Wenger gave them instructions to play a floating role- to roam when Arsenal had the ball, but to return back to their positions when the opposition were in possession.
In subsequent years, multiple playmakers, who were at ease centrally, were moved to the wing. Andrey Arshavin, Samir Nasri, Yossi Benayoun, Aaron Ramsey, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, all central players in essence, have actually played on the wing often in Arsene Wenger’s teams. When he shifted to a 4-2-3-1 formation, a playmaker was normally stationed on one wing, and a quicker player on the other, who could make the runs behind opposition defense to exploit the creative capabilities of the playmakers.
While these tactical machinations of Arsene Wenger have enabled Arsenal to dominate possession in games, they have also caused their downfall many times, especially against the so called big teams. There would be a fixed pattern to be observed in these games: Arsenal would create chances, fail to convert them, opponent somehow gets a chance and scores, Arsenal chase the game, only to concede on the counterattack again.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Sore loser?
Arsene Wenger found this difficult to fathom and it reflected in his answers in the post-match press conferences, which made him look like a sore loser; albeit he had a genuine point to make. He could not understand how Didier Drogba scored two goals despite hardly touching the ball throughout the game, while his side had toiled and toiled to create chances, only to miss them and lose the game by a score of 3-0. It was unjust, he believed, that when his side had almost double the shots on target than Manchester United in the FA Cup quarter-finals, Alex Ferguson’s side still managed to beat them 2-0.
What became worrisome was that against small teams too, this possession approach started failing. Teams would sit back, defend doggedly, and frustrate Arsenal, minimising the space between lines and not allowing for the quick transitions which underpin Arsene Wenger’s style of football. In an act of naivety, Arsenal players would walk straight into this trap by losing their defensive organisation, leaving spaces for the opposition to exploit and score.
In the meantime, the opposite teams also grew in terms of the resources they had and started outplaying Arsenal at the possession game.
The likes of Manuel Pellegrini and Pep Guardiola came to the Premier League, whose teams were better organised to dominate possession than Arsenal. Slowly, Arsene Wenger began to drift away from his favoured possession-oriented style of play. In 2015, he publicly stated that possession did not reward as much as it did earlier.
In a change of guard, Arsenal now began to sit back and absorb the pressure, especially against big teams away from home. In a rather surprising move for someone who has criticised the long ball method of English football in the past, Wenger chose to play direct against Liverpool at Anfield by asking his defence to kick the ball to Olivier Giroud in à la Stoke City mode.
The approach has yielded mixed results however, given that Arsenal have won just one game against the top five this season and have been hammered by the likes of Bayern Munich. To correct this, Arsenal switched to a 3-4-2-1 formation, and have been able to enjoy relative defensive stability.
Competitively, the Emirates years certainly became trying for Arsene Wenger, partly due to the failure to win trophies, but also due to what he perceived as ‘methods to subvert his work’ by rivals. He would grow resentful of the ways in which the young players he had signed and developed, would be snatched by rival clubs, the moment they had attained a world-class level.
Every year, he was like a commander who did not even have half the resources of the opposite side at his disposal, yet fought valiantly to finally lose by a slender margin. His soldiers would then defect to the enemy camp, weakening his side further and causing him to rebuild again for the next campaign.
At a time when continuity mattered so much for the outcome, this rebuilding process placed him at a significant disadvantage, and majorly contributed to the inability of his Arsenal teams in the Emirates era to win significant silverware.
From 2006 till 2011, in cup competitions, Arsenal had managed to reach the finals twice and the semi-finals thrice. However, the team lacked the experience and maturity to engrave their name as the cup winners. Their frailty and uneasiness was palpable. They came up against teams whose players had the tenacity and were seasoned in the art of winning. While he realised what exactly was missing, Arsene Wenger was helpless. He could not sign the necessary players to strengthen the team unless he sold the existing ones.
While by 2011 Arsenal had managed to retain their key players and sold those who were not exactly central to the future plans, the summer of 2011 was going to mark a shift in policy. The club was rocked by the departures of Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, and Gael Clichy. Robin Van Persie followed next season.
The club had to rebuild again, having lost the spine of the team.
When it finally appeared to have been rebuilt to its previous capability, with the likes of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez arriving, the club managed to win five trophies. However, the other side of the picture is that the two big trophies have still eluded the club, even after the transition period has sailed.
Arsene Wenger’s Emirates era – Success or failure?
To make an exact assessment of whether Arsene Wenger has failed or succeeded in these twelve years is difficult. Objectively, Arsene Wenger is the longest serving and most successful manager in the club’s history.
He has won the FA cup more times than any other manager in the history of the game. Under him, Arsenal have managed to successfully finish in the ‘top four’ for twenty consecutive seasons, an achievement deemed as underwhelming by many fans.
However, before his arrival, the club had finished out of this ‘top four’ zone 15 times out of a possible 27 seasons, thrice finishing in the bottom half of the table. Thus, it cannot be disputed that he has toiled to make this club a force to reckon with. It is inarguable that he has raised the level of Arsenal Football Club in the world. The question perhaps then turns to knowing whether he can do better, or someone else in place of him can do better, with the resources now possessed by the club.
To answer that, firstly, it has to be understood and acknowledged that the case of Arsenal Football Club has been unique as compared to other English clubs. No other club has perhaps come close to winning the Premier League trophy as consistently as Arsenal in these twelve years, and failed.
Other clubs have had one or two failed campaigns in a while, like Liverpool did three seasons back or Tottenham Hotspur have had for the past couple. Arsenal though, have had the opportunity to win the league as late as February on five occasions, and on three occasions as late as March in these Emirates years. Unlike what his critics like to make out, the manager cannot somehow solely influence this twist-of-fate in the club’s fortunes every time it enters this crucial period.
On the contrary, evidence points to the fact that the club actually just needs that element of luck to push over the line at times too, which has been the due of so many title winning squads, right from Alex Ferguson’s famous Manchester United sides to that of Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City.
This is quite evident in the Champions League games where Arsenal have been a goal away from quarter-finals in four of their last seven round of sixteen games in the Champions League or the Europa League this season. Other elements such as the attitude of the fans in the stadium, criticised by the likes of Andrey Arshavin as uninspiring, have also contributed to the failings, as much as such things are ignored in determining the reasons for the club’s failure.
However, though the manager has some responsibility towards the results, he has unfortunately become a convenient lone target for the failure of the club to win important trophies.
What is also often overlooked here is the remarkable competition that Arsenal faces in its quest for the two trophies it covets. In the Premier League, it has become incredibly difficult to even attain a position in the coveted ‘top four’.
Clubs are spending record amount of money in a single transfer window yet finding themselves unable to achieve it, something Arsenal managed for 20 consecutive years under Arsene Wenger, making it seem ridiculously easy.
The composition of this ‘top four’ has changed year by year, but Arsenal, except this season and last, have been the only club to have been a part of it consistently. In terms of winning the league, Arsenal have always aimed to fight for the title and have been closer to the first position as opposed to being away from it.
It has to be remembered that although that sounds very deflating and uncompetitive, there is only one team that wins every season and to be that team is incredibly difficult given the level of competition around.