Arsene Wenger, OBE, celebrated last September 19 years in English football. He has, to his name so far, three Premier League titles and five FA Cups, becoming one of the most successful managers in the Premier League era. In a time of shotgun decisions, big money transfers and the demands of instant success, the Frenchman is the longest serving manager in all tiers of English football. He has faced criticism, backstabbing and Jose Mourinho. He has gone toe-to-toe with Alex Ferguson. He’s bought Andrei Arshavin. But most of all, he’s had an unprecedented effect on football.
After an inauspicious playing career in France in the ‘70s and ‘80s, Wenger went immediately into management with AS Monaco, leading them to the French Cup in this first season, but was unable to deliver stable success. He left Monaco in 1994 for the Japanese League, winning two trophies in his only season with Noyota Grampus Eight, a side led by none other than Gary Lineker. In 1996, Wenger became manager of Arsenal, and won a league and FA Cup double in his second season. Over the next 6 years, he delivered a further two titles and three FA Cups. His focus on quick passing, flair and dictating tempo was a far cry from the tag of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ of the early ‘90s. Arguably, his finest moment was winning the league with the ‘Invincibles,’ becoming the only club to win the league undefeated in a season since Preston North End over a century earlier.
Wenger’s effect on English football was as revolutionary as it was derided. Prior to Wenger, training was based around endurance tests, power and running. Injuries were treated with painkillers, with a relatively short career seen as a fair price, or with a long layoff and little specialised treatment. Now ubiquitous staff members such as masseuses and physiotherapists were treated as soft, exotic expenses that were more trouble than they were worth. Players and opposition managers made fun of his meticulous, calculated, studious approach, which was so unlike the tracksuited, gym coach style of the time.
Wenger also exercised more power over players. Gone were the Great British bonding exercises of lager and vindaloo. In with chicken breasts and noodles. Although this wasn’t always popular with the players, it gave Arsenal the upper hand in Wenger’s first few years. His players were more energetic, leaner, and more powerful, they weathered conditions and lasted through matches better, they were faster, and they kept their concentration. Wenger put this down to his few months in Japan, where the cuisine was much more based around vegetables and carbs rather than the great British staples of Mars Bars and batter.
He is also rightly praised for focussing on youth. Bringing in the unknown teenager Nicolas Anelka in 1997, five months after his own arrival, Wenger put him straight into the first team to cover Ian Wright. At 17, Anelka was nowhere near at peak, but it was a clear sign of Wenger’s intent that his youth players would be taking on great responsibilities. He would go one further, spending a hefty £11 million on Juventus winger Thierry Henry, who he moulded into a striker. Ignoring widespread criticism of the forward, Wenger made Henry into the foremost striker of his generation, and one of Arsenal’s greatest ever players. He has kept this faith in youth throughout his tenure at Arsenal, bringing in Cesc Fabregas, Ashley Cole, Theo Walcott, Aaron Ramsey and, unfortunately, Jack Wilshire, either as teenagers or through the youth system, many of whom have gone on to have successful careers, with other clubs.
Outside the dressing room and on the tactics board, Wenger was the first to really go against the normal 4-4-2. Blending foreign flair in midfield and attack with solid English grit in defence, he invented and adapted his own unique philosophy. As his team took shape in the mid ‘00s, the natural pace of Ashley Cole and Lauren meant that he could experiment with different formations, knowing he had his two full backs proving width. Robert Pires and writers’ nightmare Freddy Ljungberg were brought further inside, Patrick Vieira was moved further back with Gilberto Silva, Dennis Bergkamp was brought further back to take up creative duties, and Thierry Henry was allowed to just keep on scoring. The ease with which Wenger settled into the English game allowed Rafael Benitez at Liverpool to come in and thrive, and has led to a massive influx of foreign managers and Alan Pardew into the Premier League since. His tactical nous was arguably even great than Sir Alex Ferguson’s. (Ferguson was more of a motivator with excellent man management and desire over playing style and tactics, like Wenger).
So what happened after that FA Cup win in 2005? Wenger took Arsenal to their first Champions League Final in 2006, where they lost 2-1 in the final minutes to Barcelona, the first team from London to do reach it (Chelsea would later go on to win it in 2012). A year later, they were beaten 2-1 in an ugly, hotly contested League Cup final by Chelsea (dubbed the Snarling Cup). Losing to a last minute Obafemi Martins goal in the League Cup Final 2011 against Birmingham was the closest Arsenal would come to a title for the next three years. In that time, they never finished lower than fourth in the league, however they never finished higher than third, nor did they get past the semi-final stage of the Champions League.
Much of this has been due to Wenger’s stubbornness. Despite his excellence in terms of innovation in his first few years, he never adapted his originally successful tactics. As managers around him began applying his training and nutritional regimen to their own teams, Arsenal were no longer ahead of the curve. Many talented players left and were never suitably replaced, i.e. Emmanuel Adebayor for Henry, Jose Antonio Reyes for Robert Pires, Denilson for Gilberto Silva. Others were sold to slightly more successful clubs as Arsenal began to fall away (Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Ashley Cole). As a result, Arsenal have no kept one captain for more than two seasons.
Current captain Mikel Arterta only moved to North London in 2011. This became coupled with a lack of defensive discipline. Even this season, Per Mertesacker has been accused of ducking out of the way of shots. Goalkeeper Wojciech Szczesny is constantly an accident waiting to happen. Wenger has also perpetually resorted to youth players to dig them out of a hole, rather than spend money bringing a good player in.
While this is an admirable stance to have, whilst still making the Champions League every year, it has meant that Arsenal have consistently fallen short of their own, and their owners’, targets, leaving Arsenal in the odd position of the owner wanting to spend money that the manager doesn’t. This has also led to players claiming that Arsenal’s lack of spending shows a lack of ambition. Only recently has Wenger bucked this trend, bringing in first Ol’ Bug Eyes himself, Mesut Ozil, in 2013, and then Barcelona’s Alexis Sanchez the next year, for big fees, and trying to negotiate a deal for the hipsters’ favourite, Julian Draxler, from Schalke.
This lack of defensive stability and Wenger’s stubbornness was first displayed in the 8-2 drubbing at Old Trafford in 2011 (Arsenal fans look away now, this paragraph doesn’t get any easier). Newcastle were also able to come back from 4-0 down at half time to draw 4-4 that same season. Over the previous season, Arsenal were in for some heavy beatings, losing 6-3 to Manchester City, before 5-0 and 6-0 losses to Liverpool and rivals Chelsea. Unwilling to change anything, Hull even took a shock 2-0 lead in the first ten minutes of the FA Cup final in 2014, before Arsenal’s superior quality brought them the win in extra time.
That FA Cup win was probably the best thing to happen to Wenger since that glorious season in 2004. From the loss to Birmingham, large sections of the Arsenal support had been in support of the removal of Wenger. The bizarre 40 million and one pound bid for Luis Suarez from Liverpool was evidence of Wenger’s growing dictatorship; the trophy drought a sign that he had lost his innovation. The Twitter-led #WengerOut campaign went and probably still will go through cycles, as the FA Cup wasn’t the sign of impending dominance that it has appeared. However, Jurgen Klopp fans may be thanking their lucky stars that Wenger wasn’t ejected so easily, after seeing Dortmund’s performances so far this season.
Overall, Arsene Wenger still deserves his chance, if he can forego his tactics and learn to experiment. He need not fear being sacked, as there is no one more qualified out there to take the job. Jurgen Klopp is captaining a sinking Dortmund ship who are languishing below mid-table. Diego Simeone will not leave Atletico after such a good season. Rafael Benitez is disliked at Napoli, but it’s unlikely he would manage a third English team. At least for now, Wenger is the safest option. He’ll probably get top four once again, Arsenal are still in the FA Cup and may even go far in the Champions League, with Sanchez and the returning Ozil driving them forward. At any rate, it’s refreshing to see him have gotten past the ‘I didn’t see it’ part of his management. Now, can he turn the FA Cup into another renaissance for Arsenal?