Arsene Wenger’s first decade at Arsenal gifted him a reputation.
Coming into an old-school Premier League side in Arsenal, he changed things around and extolled the virtues of broccoli and clean living. That’s what you’ll probably find in his obituary, alongside his many achievements and trophies, it’s the fact that he ushered a new age of professionalism to the English fame which will stand out. It was era-defining.
Then again, perhaps it wasn’t. When you’ve been around as long as Wenger has, and have been as successful as he’s been – certainly at the turn of the century when such changes were taking place – a few myths might find themselves attached to you; a few quotes might be misattributed to you if they sound like you might have said them.
In this case, English football might well have been transformer from a binge-drinker’s paradise to a haven for health on its own and without the French sophisticate. But then I guess we’ll never know.
Another such myth is Wenger’s prowess for youth development and sniffing out a star.
He built a reputation, and of course reputations can only begin on a cornerstone of some sort of truth. It would be unfair to say that Wenger did absolutely nothing to transform the game or bring through young players – that would be patently untrue and a mean-spirited rewriting of history just as painting him as a man who almost single-handedly brought English football from the dark ages would be, too.
But it would be equally unfair to overstate Wenger’s eye for a player too much.
By 2010, Arsenal were five years without a trophy. That drought would continue, but at the time their position didn’t look as precarious as it probably was. With Manchester City coming up on the rails, and with Manchester United and Chelsea consolidating their positions at the top of the table, Arsenal were drifting but still very much top four stalwarts.
But there was an enormous trust in Wenger as a man who had the managerial skills to bring the Gunners out of their years in a transitional wilderness and back to the very top. He could see a player after all.
Years of finds like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira had shown his ability not just to bring players through but to find them and develop them further in North London. Especially French players, it seemed.
That narrative might have been something of a downfall for him. Since then, Wenger has been dining out on it, with Arsenal development teams being seen as breeding grounds for exceptional young talent who will become superstars in the not too distant future. Meanwhile players who are brought in have been heralded ones to watch – young or unknown players who will be hits when they are taken under the Wenger wing and turned into superstars.
You have to wonder whether Wenger himself believed the hype. Years of purchases you might not regard as flops because they played many games, but who never grew into the players we all thought they would followed. Theo Walcott makes for a great example. By now the phenomenon has faded as we now know what to expect from such purchases.
Another of the most vivid examples is perhaps Marouane Chamakh, who came to Arsenal from Bordeaux. Another player from France – a Moroccan international born to North African parents near Bordeaux – much was expected of a new striker who had performed well in Ligue 1.
Wenger still had his reputation, and Chamakh was thus expected to turn into a top player in England, making the step up under the tutelage of a French boss who seemed to have a canny knack of helping his foreign imports to thrive.
Except, just like with so many other players whom Wenger was tasked with developing over the years, nothing happened. Chamakh may not have settled particularly well, but he certainly didn’t progress. Jeremie Aliadiere, Sebastian Larsson and Nicklas Bendtner are some of the names who fall into a similar category: players who stood out as youngsters and may well have gone on to greater things had things turned out differently.
Who knows where the blame lies for that. Is it with the players themselves, who just weren’t good enough? With Wenger, whose reputation preceded him, but who had long since lost his ability to take modern young players to the next level under his leadership? Or somewhere else entirely?
Either way, there came a point – probably when we realised Chamakh wouldn’t make it as a top player – when we stopped waiting for Wenger’s proteges to come good. The players who were either brought into the first team from the youth academy or brought in from clubs a rung or two below Arsenal in the food chain.
After Chamakh’s bright start at the club, and after he faded in the second half of his first season, we stopped waiting for him to make the step up, and we stopped waiting for Wenger to work his magic. We knew it wasn’t coming.
Now we know the reputation didn’t stand the test of time.