There was a time when there was Arsene Wenger and then there was everybody else. One of England’s most magnificent title-winning teams, put together just ahead of the brewing storm which erupted soon after just west of their position in London. There has never been enough credit given to Wenger for his achievement with the Invincibles, first citing it as a possibility—only to be laughed out if the room—and then two seasons later putting into practise. English football should have been stunned, certainly in the same manner as they were when Alex Ferguson led Manchester United to the treble in 1999. Two wholly different accomplishments, of course, but equally impressive in their action.
How many of those players from the Invincibles and even from Arsenal’s first double-winning team would have gone to war alongside Wenger? And that’s the romance of it all: a manager who claims the impossible can be done and then galvanising a group of extraordinary talents to buy into his words. It was a similar case when Pep Guardiola went into his first meeting with the Barcelona players back in 2008, each one of them taking fully on board the manner in which Guardiola wanted to act out the successes playing over in his head.
The dramatic change in the football landscape had forced Wenger down another path towards success and everlasting glory; just in the way his Invincibles should be immortalised, his next generation of stars and their potential achievement could have been equally impressive considering the forces they were battling. And here’s the thing: almost everyone seemed to be buying into his new youth-driven policy. Sure there were disappointments, but a team headed by Cesc Fabregas—coupled with the pride at which Wenger discovered his talent—was one which still managed to play out the fantastic football that Wenger had brought to the Premier League.
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The disappointments is that Fabregas and Samir Nasri and Robin van Persie were never given enough to fully succeed at Arsenal in the way of equally talented team-mates. But no one, especially Wenger, could have predicted the manner in which his team would be torn up, forcing him to readdress and eventually cast aside his policy as a failure.
There was some logic in the manager bringing together a group of young talents to grow as a team and hold a bond with the club. No matter what was going on outside and around Arsenal, their players should have remained loyal—at least that was the idea. There was hardly any surprise when Fabregas eventually packed up and returned to Barcelona, but Wenger’s intention was surely to keep the player until his late-twenties at least. Everything else was a shock, and the financial restraints due to the stadium move meant there was little to fall back on at the best of times.
As is usually the case with Arsenal there are two sides to any story, and in this instance it’s the damaging effect of a lack of trophies and the wealth of others. Samir Nasri certainly turned his back on Wenger when at the time his best option may have been to stay at the club. What is the argument for van Persie? Well perhaps Arsenal would have won at least one Premier League title had the Dutchman been fit for an entire campaign prior to last season.
It’s one thing to blindly defend Arsene Wenger for his managerial mistakes, but it’s another thing to dismiss the idea that he was onto something before it was cruelly taken away. Is it right to paint the events of the last few years as back stabbing? Maybe it’s too strong, however maybe it’s totally accurate. Boardroom disagreements left the manager without an ally at the top, perhaps when he needed it the most. The kicker is that “their sort” have now been embraced and currently sit at the head table.
Whose fault was it that Wenger’s best team since the last cup win in 2005 was almost mercilessly ripped apart? The 2007/08 squad was and is Arsenal’s finest since the move into the Emirates Stadium, but Wenger didn’t foresee Alex Hleb having his head turned by loftier European clubs, nor did the manager expect Mathieu Flamini to up and leave following his best season. There’s certainly warranted criticism for the way Flamini’s contract situation was handled, but the player never once gave any indication that he could perform to the standard he did in that season.
It seems a long time ago that Arsenal beat Barcelona at the Emirates—and that was another fantastic team. Maybe it wasn’t clear at the time, but it’s certainly the case when weighing up then and now. That team came close too, but it’s difficult to see where they ever collectively repaid the manager. Cesc Fabregas aside, who else from that time regularly went to war alongside Wenger?