It seems so strange now to look upon the incredulity that greeted the arrival of Arsene Wenger as manager of Arsenal in 1996 through the corrective lens of hindsight. I still remember an encounter with an elderly gentleman who chuckled loudly at the ‘Arsene Who?’ headline emblazoned across the back page of London’s Evening Standard the day the Frenchman was appointed.
The press, pundits and football fans alike were not quite sure what to make of the spectacled Frenchman who more closely resembled the Economics professor suggested by his academic past than a man who could hack it as a football coach. Articulate, suave and intelligent, Arsenal’s first non-British manager, wore a Zen like aura which befuddled England’s football establishment. Arsene Who indeed?
Nobody was left in any doubt, however, about Wenger’s managerial abilities by the time he had completed his first full season with the North London outfit. The Frenchman guided the Gunners to the League and FA Cup double, while playing a sophisticated and attacking brand of football completely alien to Arsenal teams of the past. Terrace taunts of ‘boring, boring Arsenal’ were banished to oblivion as Wenger’s players swept all before them. Over the following years, two more Premiership titles, three FA Cups and the club’s first appearance in the final of the Champions League propelled Wenger to the status of Arsenal’s most successful ever manager. The man from Strasbourg also masterminded an unbeaten Premier League campaign in 2004, earning his team the title of ‘the Invincibles’.
But, as his side face the prospect of a ninth consecutive season without a trophy the halcyon days seem as distant a memory as the recollection of Wenger’s arrival in London. This weekend’s trip to White Hart Lane, the ground where the Invincibles clinched their Premiership crown, is a microcosm of Arsenal’s beleaguered predicament. Four points behind arch rivals Tottenham in the battle for a Champions League berth, the Gunners need at least a draw just to keep themselves in the hunt. The Invincibles have steadily become the All Too Vulnerables.
Things were not always like this. There was a time when Arsenal were among the top dogs – able to sign some of the most exciting talents in the world and burnish them with honours. The club’s best players would only leave on Wenger’s terms and after having enjoyed trophy laden careers. Stars like Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and Robert Pires, never shone as brightly after seeking pastures away from Arsenal. Thierry Henry and to a lesser extent Nicholas Anelka were exceptions to the rule, but only to a small degree.
From many years now, however, Arsenal’s biggest stars have been leaving in their prime, disaffected by the club’s lack of silverware and perhaps by the manager himself. Though admirable, Wenger’s dogged determination to stick with his policy of trusting in what he has and making seldom forays into the transfer market, has ceased to yield the required fruit. It is true that the move to the Emirates has curtailed Wenger’s spending power, but he has not exactly been a pauper. Andrei Arshavin, Samir Nasri, Thomas Vermaelen, Tomas Rosiky, Lucas Podolski, Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla all cost in excess of £10 million. And even with a committed wage structure, Arsenal pay the fourth highest wages in the Premiership.
The problem has been less about money and more down to Wenger’s choice of transfers and his recent development of players. Far too many of his signings have not lived up to their inflated reputations while players like Sebastian Squillaci, Marounne Chamakh and the truly awful Andre Santos are just not good enough for a club with ambitions to win the highest honors. More critically, the manager’s stubbornness with his methods has meant that key areas, such as the goalkeeping position and central midfield have not been adequately strengthened for a number of years now. Furthermore, for a man with a reputation of cultivating youngsters – far too many have failed under Wenger’s guidance. Potential superstars like Jermaine Pennant, Carlos Vela, Nicholas Bendtner, Philipe Sendros, Abu Diaby, Denilson and a string of others are now little more than average players.
Compare that with Tottenham’s transfer activity since 2005 and the indictment becomes even more damning. Spurs have managed to snaffle players of the caliber of Luka Modric, Dimitar Berbatov, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Gareth Bale and Hugo Lloris, all of whom would have significantly improved the Arsenal teams they would have joined. Yes, Spurs have like Arsenal lost as much of their superstar talent to the bigger clubs, but at least they put up a fight to stop them leaving as best witnessed by the Modric-to-Madrid saga of the past summer. The White Hart Lane club have also developed an uncanny ability to replenish their playing staff with some of the best talent available on the market. Mousa Dembele, Lewis Holtby, Sandro, Jan Vertonghen are footballers who could easily play for Europe’s elite.
Despite all that Spurs have still not managed to finish ahead of their rivals in the league during Wenger’s reign. They are though moving towards that. The infamous St Tottirengham’s day arrived only on the final day of last season and this year it might not come at all. Arsenal in the meantime have pitifully regressed.
The departure of former captain Patrik Viera, Wenger was significant for more than just the player’s high –profile exit. It saw Wenger adopt a new tactical approach, moving away from away from the 4-4-2 underpinned by two solid holding midfielders, to a 4-5-1 formation with a lone striker and midfield packed with short, nimble and skillful ball players. The football produced by Arsenal is at times ineffably brilliant, but the lack of midfield protection means that they are easily overrun at times and seen as having a soft underbelly. Note that their main holding midfielder this year is Mikel Arteta. Many question the point of playing with such outstanding beauty when it does not wield the desired results? In fact, this season, the football has been far from attractive and the tactics can be described as pragmatic at best.
What does all this mean for Wenger and his club? It should be remembered that when the Frenchman became Arsenal manager in 1996, he took charge of a team that had spent the early Premiership years languishing in mediocrity under George Graham and Bruce Rioch. Perhaps the greatness he achieved was an exhilarating anomaly and after many years of over-achievement Arsenal have fallen back to their proper level. If that is the case then Wenger can only be praised for keeping the club in the position they are in despite the constant cloud of depression that hovers over them.
However, failure to qualify for this season’s Champions League would be a watershed moment for it would represent a significant signpost in Arsenal’s turbulent recent history. Champions League football is crucial to the Arsenal blueprint, it is in Wenger’s own words their ‘trophy’ – to miss out would be catastrophic both in terms of riches and prestige. The club may bounce back and qualify the following season, but they would have gone from being a side which wins championships, to one which regularly finishes in the top four to one which intermittently qualifies for Champions League football. In the current Premiership landscape there might be no coming back, at least under Wenger’s stewardship. ‘Wenger Who?’ may no longer require an answer, but far more pressing concerns still remain to be resolved.