He came to England in October 1996, and the London Evening Standard asked the question ‘Arsene who?’
His impact on the development of the English game has been profound. He has nurtured some of the most talented footballers the world has ever seen and has revolutionised a club that was steeped in ye olde English tradition.
But eight years of starvation have followed eight years of feasting. So it begs the question, as Wenger sits on the brink of his 1000th game in charge of Arsenal, how should he be remembered?
It’s hard to define an epoch with one single characteristic, especially when there have been so many moments of note. For every Arsenal fan who remembers the triumphs of a bygone era, there are those who still cling to the lack of silverware and can’t disassociate the lack of ‘success’ with the underlying factors. The two distinct periods of Wenger’s reign – those WITH vs those WITHOUT trophies – must be separated in order to contextualise what he has achieved.
The unruly bunch Wenger took charge of in the 1996-97 season famously used to go on all-night mid-week benders, refuelled with Mars bars and dieted strictly on fish and chips. And his first influence was to kick old habits to the kerb. Out went takeaways, in came white meat and steamed veg. Out went kegs of booze, in came bottles mineral water. As a firm believer of the more good you put into yourself, the more you would get out, Wenger turned the studentesque culture of the club on its head. Tony Adams, struggling at the time with alcoholism, lauded Wenger for the transformation of his career. The ageing famous five in defence, upon which Wenger built his first championship-winning side, would no doubt each credit his training and dietary regulations in prolonging their careers.
Within a year at the helm Wenger began reshaping the squad by turfing out the likes of John Hartson, David Hillier, Andy Linighan and, most significantly of all, Paul Merson. He chose to bring in more familiar faces such as Emmanuel Petit and Gilles Grimandi from AS Monaco, both players whom he knew he could rely to accompany Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira. The squad began to have a more cosmopolitan feel to it from the English-centric nucleus of two years previous.
Wenger’s first full season in 1997-98 was an unprecedented success, winning the league and FA Cup double, becoming the first foreign manager to win the English top division whilst shaking off the ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ tag in the process. The solidity of the Dixon-Adam-Bould-Winterburn-Keown axis was supplemented by the industry and composure of Petit and Vieira along with the flair and technique of Bergkamp, Overmars and Anelka.
As the legs of his geriatric squad finally succumbed to the inevitable Wenger turned a mixture of youth and experience to create a winning formula. Winterburn soon become Ashley Cole (with a brief intervening period of Sylvinho), Dixon became Lauren, Keown and Adams became Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure. By the time the 2003-04 season rolled around Parlour and Keown were the only remaining fixtures of the George Graham era.
The period of 2002-2005 saw Wenger’s reformed side collect two league titles and three FA Cups, the zenith being the 2004 ‘Invincibles’ side, playing some of the most exhilarating football the Premier League has witnessed. The possession-based Wenger sides of today can’t match the power, pace and efficiency of the team that dominated in this short period. Henry, Bergkamp, Ljungberg, Wiltord and Pires lead the flying counter-attacks while Vieira and Gilberto Silva marshalled in front of the defence. Wenger had built a team of technically and physically superior footballers who harboured a ruthless desire to win.
In isolation, nearly nine years that have passed since Wenger last took the Gunners to a trophy would rightly be deemed a failure. Having created a side that challenged the hegemony of Manchester, how could a club that feasted on silverware go so long without it? As always, the answer is money.
The development and construction of the Emirates Stadium was to cost a whopping £390 million, incurring huge debts which would culminate to have its most significant impact on the pitch. Wenger undertook the challenge to keep the club amongst Europe’s elite whilst assisting with the transition into the new stadium.
Whilst being touted as the next potential manager for a host of Europe’s superpowers, Wenger has stuck it out through the toughest of times, which has seen Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City leave them in the dust and their great rivals, Tottenham, close the gaping chasm that existed between the sides back when Wenger’s ‘Invincibles’ were enjoying a purple patch.
With the endless riches of Chelsea and City, and the countless revenue streams of United, Wenger acknowledged that the only way to keep in touch was to buy young and cheap, and sell at opportune moments. Despite the rancour at the time of selling the likes of Henry and Vieira, it’s hard to argue now against Wenger’s decisions when observing their post-Arsenal performances.
So in a period where Wenger admitted to a ‘fight with clubs who lose £150 million a year, when we had to make £30 million a year’, the downturn in success on the pitch was always likely.
From 1998-99 up until the present day Arsene Wenger has navigated his side into successive Champions League competitions, a record only Real Madrid and Manchester United can match. Despite the relative lack of success in the competition in these 16 years, Wenger has guided the club into a position where they have been able to reap the financial rewards without too significant a detriment to the club.
But as a new dawn beckons at the Emirates, with new commercial deals and financial benefits as a result, the shackles of the clubs financial requirements have been lifted. Wenger has steered Arsenal out of the red and into the black. The club-record transfer of Mesut Ozil, sandwiched in between the contract renewals of a host of key players represents a club on the rise.
It’s easy to brand the past eight years as a monumental failure when you view it in contrast to the eight years previous. Arsenal fans were spoilt rotten with a quality of football which matched the glut of trophies in Wenger’s early years. But in recent times the club has faced an even greater battle off the field. Those who view success as purely based on trophy success should take a look at Portsmouth; FA Cup winners and finalists the following year, now floundering down in League Two.
Whether you see Arsene Wenger as synonymous with his first eight years or his last, the stability he has brought to Arsenal is an achievement which should never be overlooked. With just nine league games remaining Wenger’s side sits four points beneath top spot. With a real ‘six-pointer’ this weekend at Stamford Bridge, and a potential FA Cup final just around the bend maybe, just maybe, this could just be Arsenal’s year. Wenger would deserve no less.