Ever since announcing his departure from Arsenal a few weeks back, French Manager Arsène Wenger has been receiving plaudits (deservedly), not only for his longevity on the Arsenal bench (22 years) but for actually winning titles as well as introducing a philosophy of positive Football.
However, Connoisseurs of the game are aware that he is not leaving on his own terms, but the decision was forced upon him.
In his 22 years at Arsenal, Wenger became a staple of the Premier League and helped pave the way for other foreign Managers to make a mark in Britain.
His success and duration on the bench as a foreign Manager cannot be overstated in a country that for the longest time was considered to be suspicious of outside influences (in Football terms that is).
When objectively analyzed in closer detail, we see that Wenger managed Arsenal in two different and distinct eras. There is the period of (1996-2006) where the Gunners were at their height of glory and the post-2006 era, where Arsenal were thereabouts but nowhere near a title winning side.
Like most successful Managers, Wenger had an undistinguished playing career. He was born on October 22nd, 1949 at Strasbourg. He started his playing career for sides in his Alsace region (Mutzig, Mulhouse, ASPV Strasbourg) before making his way to Strasbourg in 1978. From early on it was clear that Management was his forte and not playing.
He was hired as mainly an assistant coach for the reserve side (but did manage a few appearances for the senior side). He eventually was charged with the reserve and youth sides.
He did not neglect his education in those years. He had earned an Economics Degree, studied learning English and earned his coaching badges.
In time he would speak many other languages, which would serve him well for the future in his profession.
A new opportunity opened up for him, when in 1983, he joined Second Division side Cannes to be Manager Jean-Marc Guillou’s Assistant. The following year, 1984, he earned his first top flight management position, when he was appointed at Nancy-Lorraine. He would stay there for three years and then join Monaco in 1987. In his first season (1987/88); he would win his first title as he led the club in the Principality to clinch the League Title with a side containing Englishmen Glenn Hoddle and Mark Hateley.
Wenger would stay in Monaco for seven years until 1994. In those years at Monaco, he launched the careers of many future stars (such as Emmanuel Petit) and gave a new lease on life to the careers of Ramon Diaz and Jurgen Klinsmann. He would also introduce a young Liberian named George Weah to the European stage.
Photo From: World Soccer, September 1996
(Wenger at Monaco with Hateley and Hoddle)
He would hand a debut to a teenage Thierry Henry just a few weeks before being sacked at Monaco in the Fall of 1994.
By now, Wenger’s Management skills had crossed the borders and interestingly just months before his sacking, Bayern Munich had approached him to manage the side but he had refused.
On January 1995, he surprisingly joined the new Japanese League (J-League) as Manager of Nagoya Grampus. He stayed there for two seasons before getting the Arsenal call in the Fall of 1996.
Arsenal Vice-President David Dein was instrumental in convincing the Arsenal board in the hiring of Wenger as Manager. He would be Wenger’s key ally in the boardroom for the coming years.
Photo From: World Soccer, September 1996
Wenger had adapted well at Japan, but felt that had he stayed longer it would have been harder to leave and he was yearning for a return to Europe to manage at the highest level. Arsenal presented a challenge that he could not turn down.
He came to England at a critical juncture. England had just hosted the 1996 Euros and a fresh wave of enthusiasm had crept into the domestic game.
This was also the first season (1996/97) that the ‘Bosman Ruling’ had come into effect. This had led to an abundance of new arrivals from overseas on the playing front. Nevertheless, a foreign Manager was still a rarity and Wenger was largely unknown to the British Football Press (The Famous ‘Arsène Who?’).
As a foreign Manager, Wenger had to adapt to the demands of a club Manager in the English sense. This meant not only being responsible for managing the team, but also overseeing other aspects such as transfers, medical, other coaches on staff, materials, etc. He compared his new responsibilities to that of a CEO of a company. While other Managers unaccustomed to this new reality might have been overawed, Wenger took to this aspect of the English game with delight.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 97, February 1997
(Wenger in his office, first season at Arsenal)
On the Football front, when Wenger took over, Arsenal had just gone through a solitary season with Bruce Rioch at the helm, preceded by George Graham’s tenure (1986-1994).
While Arsenal had won titles under Graham, they had developed a reputation for playing a negative defensive brand of Football. The sight of Tony Adams’ outstretched hand (to signal an offside) had become a customary and derided aspect of Arsenal that was referenced in a humorous way in the film ‘The Full Monty’. Arsenal were known as ‘Boring, Boring, Arsenal’.
Arsenal’s playing staff consisted of goalkeeper David Seaman and the legendary back four defensive line of Captain Tony Adams partnering Steve Bould or Martin Keown, along with outside backs Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 97, February 1997
(Wenger leading a training session, first season at Arsenal)
At the top, Arsenal relied on the goalscoring talents of Ian Wright and Dutch star Dennis Bergkamp, who after a difficult start in the previous season had started to settle.
In a sign of things to come, Wenger brought with him two French players: the veteran Remi Garde and the up-and-coming midfielder Patrick Vieira. While Garde would struggle with injuries and would not make an impact, Wenger would mold Vieira into one of the greatest midfielders of his generation. In those new days of Bosman, Vieira would become one of the rare Frenchmen to make his National Team debut while with a foreign team. Wenger had an uncanny eye for talent and midway through this first season, he prized away PSG’s teenage striker Nicolas Anelka. Many in France, criticized him for poaching such a young talent, but Wenger’s response was ‘what’s legal is moral.’
In this first season, Arsenal would finish third to qualify for the UEFA Cup.
Wenger would also be involved in the first of his spats with his Manchester United counterpart, Alex Ferguson. Manchester United had asked the end of the season to be extended to ease the burden on them, but Wenger had opposed such an idea. Ferguson attacked him by saying that Wenger “has been in Japan. He doesn’t know anything about English Football and the demands of our game.” It would not be the last time that they would square off on and off the field.
Wenger’s first season on the bench had been a solid debut but not yet a spectacular one. He would soon make changes to create a team with his won imprint.
The next season (1997/98) would be his first fully in charge from the start. He set about strengthening the side. He brought on his former Monaco charge Emmanuel Petit and Dutch winger Marc Overmars from Ajax.
Wenger would also sign, Petit’s Monaco teammates French defender Gilles Griamandi and Liberian striker Christopher Wreh. Other new arrivals included the Austrian goalkeeper Alex Manninger and Portuguese striker Luis Boa Morte.
This would be the season that would establish Wenger as one of the best of the Premier League era. In the second half of the season (after being as much as 13 points behind Manchester United), Arsenal would take charge and win the League in scintillating fashion by playing an attractive attacking style. Emmanuel Petit appeared tailor made for English Football and would play his way back into the French National Team. Bergkamp was playing some of the best Football of his career and his goals that season vs. Leicester City are routinely referenced as some of the best in the Premiership era.
Nicolas Anelka had taken over from the ageing Ian Wright and was now the focal point of the Arsenal attack.
Wenger became the first ever foreign and Non-British Manager to win an English League Title. Just days later, he would end a dream season as Arsenal won the FA Cup as well (defeating Newcastle 2-0) and won the Double (Arsenal’s first since 1971).
At this point, Arsenal was at its height and Wenger was the toast of the Nation and many were already predicting a bright future.
Photo From: France Football, Issue 2717, May 5, 1998
(Wenger lifting the 1998 Premier League trophy)
After winning he underlined the importance of having an English backbone to the team (the famous back four). He praised the old guard for maintaining the team tradition and spirit. He under-played the praise that he had revolutionized Arsenal. Instead, he felt that it had been a mutual effort. The veterans had adapted to him and him to them.
It was not just the style on the field that had earned praise, more importantly it was a new mentality off the field that many saw as a catalyst for the results.
There was a drinking culture in English Football and Arsenal were no exception to it. Wenger brought with him new ideas in diet and nutrition that would pay dividends with improved performances from many older players.
Many believed that the careers of the likes of Adams, Dixon, etc were prolonged due to these changes that they were receptive to.
After his success many more clubs were willing to take opportunities on foreign Managers. His compatriot Gerard Houllier (hired at Liverpool) credited Wenger’s success for opening the doors.
Photo From: World Soccer, Summer 1999
Despite not winning the title in the next three seasons as Manchester United were unstoppable, Arsenal appeared to be the only credible challenger to United’s homogeny.
In fact were it not for Arsenal, it’s conceivable to think that Manchester United could have won even more titles with greater ease.
Arsenal were integral to keep the Premier League competitive against the Manchester United juggernaut.
Wenger would welcome more French players in those years. Robert Pires and Sylvain Wiltord would join in 2000, but Wenger’s most significant signing would be in the previous year (1999), when Thierry Henry came board. He had come as a dejected player after a miserable half-season stay at Juventus. Wenger would resuscitate his career by making positional change. Henry was switched from a winger to central striker. He would make Henry as one of the greatest strikers of the Premiership era and change history.
Another turning point in Wenger’s early reign would be the summer of 2001, when Arsenal went on a spending spree and acquired the much sought after defender Sol Campbell (from London rivals Tottenham) along with Dutch midfielder Giovanni van Bronckhorst, Everton’s promising striker Francis Jeffers and Ipswich goalkeeper Richard Wright. While the likes of Jeffers and Wright failed to impress, Campbell fit in well and Arsenal romped to another League and Cup double to reclaim the prominence. Adams and Dixon bowed out in style to end the back four era.
At this point, Wenger claimed that a power shift had occurred from Manchester to Arsenal. However, Manchester United were not down for the count and bounced back the following year.
Undeterred Wenger would once again lift the team to mount another League challenge in the summer of 2003. The ageing goalkeeper David Seaman was offloaded, to be replaced with the German Jens Lehmann. Led by Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira (Captain since Adams’ retirement), Arsenal went through the entire season undefeated. This was their third title in seven seasons.
Photo From: World Soccer, November 2003
This would turn out to be the last League title of the Wenger era. A year before in the summer 2003, a significant event had occurred that would change the course of the Premier League. The Financial lure of the Premier League was starting to attract foreign investors. A Russian Oligarch named Roman Abramovich had taken over at Chelsea and spent heavily in an unprecedented manner. In the Summer of 2004, after Arsenals’ title, Abramovich spent even more to build one of the strongest teams in Europe to be led by an up-and-coming Portuguese Manager Jose Mourinho (fresh from winning the Champions League with Porto).
After Ferguson, Mourinho would become Wenger’s next nemesis as the two would in the coming years have a war of words (and even one physical altercation).
Photo From: World Soccer, March 2012
(Wenger and Jose Mourinho)
Chelsea would go on to win the Premier League that season (2004/05) in emphatic fashion with Arsenal ending as runner-ups. This would turn out to be the last season that Arsenal would be challenging for the title in a significant way. Arsenal did manage to win the FA Cup that season (at the expense of Manchester United). Not many would have bet that this would be Arsenal’s last title of any kind for nearly a decade.
Surprisingly that summer, after years of resisting offers, he sold Patrick Vieira, one of the symbolic players of his era and his captain. He was confident that Cesc Fabregas was ready to take over.
Dennis Bergkamp was also showing signs of age, and in the summer of 2004, Wenger had brought in the promising Dutchman Robin van Persie to learn the trade from Bergkamp before launching him in the near future.
The following season (2005/06) would the last at Highbury as Arsenal were nearing completion on the bigger ‘Emirates Stadium’.
That season turned out to be a poor season for the Gunners. They finished outside of the top two for the first time since Wenger’s inaugural season as they finished a poor fourth place (poor by their standards).
Against all odds, Wenger led the team all to the way to the Final of the Champions League that season but lost to Barcelona (1-2) in the Final.
That summer (2006) before moving into the new stadium, Dennis Bergkamp retired after over a decade of glorious service and Robert Pires was offloaded to Villareal (as Wenger was unwilling to give him more than a one year contract).
The Great Arsenal side was slowly crumbling with Henry remaining to play at least one season in the “Emirates Stadium’.
Arsenal was once again off the pace in the League and finished fourth again (2006/07). They were no longer the top challengers in England as clearly Chelsea had bypassed them as the only credible challengers to Manchester United.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 247, August 2009
In 2007, his biggest supporter at the club, Vice-President David Dein resigned after a disagreement with the board. Wenger is said to have suggested resigning himself as a show of solidarity, but Dein had convinced him to soldier on.
Thierry Henry also bowed out in the summer of 2007 as Wenger and Arsenal were entering a new era.
A shift in politics of the club had become apparent and lower expectations were expressed. Due to the high cost of building the stadium, funds were limited and new top signings would be scarce. Wenger instead would be charged with molding a young team that (we were told) would come to fruition in a few years time. The likes of Nicklas Bendtner, Carlos Vela, Abou Diaby, Theo Walcott, Cesc Fabregas were being “groomed” to be the next superstars.
Arsenal were no longer as attractive a prospect as before and even key defender Ashley Cole opted to join Mourinho’s Chelsea to win trophies.
For the next decade and remaining years of the Wenger era, Arsenal would finish either in third or fourth place (except finishing second in 2016 on the last day). They would never appear as clear title challengers. Some years they would be League leaders up to a point in the season before crumbling (the 2007/08 disintegrating title challenge would be blamed on striker Eduardo da Silva’s bad injury vs. Birmingham).
In fact, Arsenal players would be injured so much in Wenger’s second decade that many questioned its medical staff / physical training regimen, as the likes of Jack Wilshere and others would stumble from one injury to the next.
Photo From: Onze-Mondial, Issue 251, December 2009
Chelsea and Manchester United shared the titles and even Liverpool were now ahead of the team as one of the top teams.
In the Champions League, the team was unable to advance beyond a certain point and every time they were paired with Barcelona, the tie was a foregone conclusion.
Soon, Manchester City backed by United Arab Emirates financing entered the fray and Arsenal fell down the pecking order to another rival with deeper pockets.
In an unprecedented manner, Arsenal spent heavily in 2013, to sign Mesut Ozil (Real Madrid) and Alexis Sanchez (2014) to very little effect.
The truth was that Arsenal required five or six players of similar quality in the same transfer window to have any hope of a title challenge.
In the last few seasons, the chants of ‘Wenger Out’ grew louder, which would have been unheard of a few years as most fans were fully aware of all he had done for the club.
Critics would constantly reference the fact that Arsenal had not won any silverware since 2005.
Arsenal did manage to finally win the FA Cup in back to back years 2014, 2015 and even 2017. But in the Premier League and Champions League era, the FA Cup did not have its allure of the past.
Although in some way, these wins perhaps delayed Wenger’s departure.
These trophies did not improve Wenger nor Arsenal’s fortunes and in these latter years of his reign, even the dreaded cross-town rivals Tottenham had bypassed them and become a top four team.
For the last decade, despite not winning the League title, Arsenal could proudly claim that it would qualify season after season for the Champions League (1998 through 2016).
But even that came to an end as Arsenal finished fifth in 2017 (to only qualify for the Europa League) and ultimately a distant sixth place in his last season.
He just did not have the human material for a title winning side. Former Manchester United player Roy Keane would describe the latter Arsenal crop of players as just being interested in “selfies, six-pack and their hair.”
When one observes the Wenger era there is clear demarcation point. The first decade was one of the greatest in the club’s and the Premier League’s history. The second decade was a decade of stagnation where Arsenal failed to challenge for a title and had to settle for a number of relatively meaningless FA Cups (that in itself after a run of nine trophy-less seasons). While most teams would gladly settle for a run of continuous Champions League qualifications, this was unsatisfactory for a team that had been winning League titles.
Photo From: World Soccer - January 2015
(Wenger with his former player and then assistant manager Steve Bould)
His own players grew frustrated for not winning and jumped ship to win titles elsewhere (van Persie, Nasri, Clichy, Sagna, Fabregas, Ashley Cole and ultimately Alexis Sanchez).
In hindsight, Wenger should have left in the summer 2006. That year seemed like an end of a cycle. The generation that he had trained had reached its peak by reaching the Champions League Final and finishing a dismal fourth place.
His lasting memory for the Arsenal faithful should have been that of Arsène of Highbury.
He had already been there a decade and no one could have accused him of abandoning the side. He would have left on his own terms having accomplished a mission. Yet he lingered on perhaps pressured by the Management to stay on initially for the new stadium, etc. The longer he stayed with no improvement, the more the calls increased for a change.
The relatively young sophisticated bespectacled Manager had turned into a man with a permanent scowl on his face sitting on the dugout bemoaning the spectacle on the field. It was hard to imagine the early Wenger pushing a Mourinho on the sidelines or getting into a shouting match with Martin Jol.
Had he left earlier he could have remained fresh and sharp tackling new challenges at Real Madrid or even a National Team. But he was in a rarified area for a Manager where he had total control over everything with little fear of dismissal and that was perhaps something he could not give up.
Mourinho suggested as much when at one point he made a reference that there was only one Manager in the Premier League whose job is safe.
His great rival Sir Alex Ferguson had struggled at Manchester United for the first few years before building a dynasty, in contrast Wenger’s greatest triumphs were in the early years and he had struggled afterwards.
He was a Manager who had overstayed his welcome by a decade. Wenger is simultaneously a cautionary tale for the success of having confidence and maintaining a Manager in place, as well as the stagnation of staying too long in a job.
It was a testament to his professionalism when in a touching scene his old rivals Ferguson and Mourinho welcomed him at Old Trafford for the last time. All the animosity and rivalry had dissipated and what remained was the respect for a man who had done so much for English Football.
The careers of many of the greatest players in the game are inextricably linked to Wenger. Thierry Henry, Emmanuel Petit and Patrick Vieira had their greatest years as Arsenal players. After his spell at Monaco, Glenn Hoddle would credit him for taking up management. According to Hoddle, Wenger had “opened his eyes.” He respected Wenger to such as point that upon taking over as England Manager in 1996, Hoddle had actually suggested Wenger to be the FA’s Technical Director.
He launched into the spotlight the likes of Youri Djorkaeff and Lilian Thuram (Monaco) and Nicolas Anelka and Cesc Fabregas (Arsenal) among others.
Dennis Bergkamp and Marc Overmars were like their Ajax best in Arsenal colors under him.
He discovered George Weah and saw the potential in nurturing such a talent. When George Weah was elected as FIFA player of the year (1995) in January 1996, at the gala ceremony he called Arsène Wenger to come on stage and symbolically presented him his award. Weah said, “Arsène Wenger made me not just the player I am today, but also the man I am”.
He also had the foresight to sell off players at the right time and none of them (Vieira, Henry, Petit, etc.) were ever as good a players after they left.
In 22 years there are bound to be enough transfer flops to build two teams (Suker, Jeffers, Stepanovs, Luzhny, Cygan, Chamakh, among others), but more often than not he had an eye for quality.
In time, the disappointments of his last years will give way to the wonderful Football of his first decade. He will be regarded as the greatest Manager of Arsenal perhaps at the same level as Herbert Chapman.