A virtual unknown on English shores before his arrival at Arsenal, it could be argued that the Frenchman did more than anyone else to revolutionise English football than anyone else.
Major Honours: 3x Premier League, 7x FA Cup, 7x FA Community Shield
Arrival and first title: 1997-2001
The Frenchman abroad – when Wenger arrived at Highbury in 1996 from Japan, Arsenal fans wondered who on earth he was and they weren’t the only ones; Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson wasn’t too impressed, saying:
It’s straightforward. He has no experience of English football. He’s come from Japan and is now into English football and is now telling everybody in England how to organise their football.
His methods went on to revolutionise English football with new training regimens, improved fitness and better diets. Wenger brought in an osteopath and an acupuncturist, and eventually helped redesign the club’s entire training centre to bring in the latest fitness equipment.
He barred the players from eating chocolate and drinking pints, – “I think in England you eat too much sugar and meat and not enough vegetables,” Wenger said in an early newspaper interview. He relied on science rather than tradition when it came to getting his players into the best physical shape possible.
Wenger’s approach to training was at first questioned by his own squad but was then quickly accepted when it brought results.
I recall Tony Adams and myself, in our first Wenger pre-season, going to see the boss just before the start of the campaign,” Lee Dixon wrote in 2003.
Our feeling was that we had not done enough running. We were concerned that the team wouldn’t be fit enough. The manager calmly explained to us that it was all scientific and that the team would be fine. ‘Have faith,’ he said. Sure enough, 10 days later we flew out of the blocks all full of energy and raring to go. That man knows what he’s talking about.
Winning the double (Premier League and FA Cup) in his first full season in charge, put an end to any lingering doubts about the new regime.
Peak Arsenal 2001-2006
Arsenal during this period won two Premier League titles, three FA Cups and reached the Champions League final in the 2005-06 season.
Arsenal grew into a clear tactical identity, with a focus on the ability to make key passes from every area of the pitch. With wide players (Robert Piers and Freddie Ljunberg) drifting inside and the fullbacks (Ashley Cold and Lauren) overlapping, while the forwards (Thiery Henry and Dennis Bergkamp) combined beautifully, either dropping deep to create or running in-behind on the shoulder of the defenders. Add to that the leadership, tenacity, and box to box domination of captain Patrick Viera and Wenger had at his disposal a core of world class players.
Without a doubt the most memorable, iconic, and greatest season of the Wenger era was the Invincibles side of 2004.
Arsenal went 49 games unbeaten in the Premier League between 2003-2004, winning 36, drawing 13, and losing zero, the longest undefeated run in English history, with Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool second with 44 games unbeaten between 2019-2020. The invincible season was the first in Premier League history and had not been matched in English football for 115 years since Preston went undefeated for a full campaign in the 1888-89 season.
That team has gone into Premier League folk lore, and journalist Amy Lawrence wrote a book called ‘Invincible’, while they were voted the Premier League best team in the 20 seasons awards.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing. Sometimes in your life, you can go look back on a moment, a period, a time frame, where your life changed significantly for better or worse, but noticing the signs that a change is coming is often the hardest thing to do. As prior you can’t see the forest for the trees. When we look back on the evolution of Arsenal during these years, the signs were there in the league positions: Arsenal, between the 2005-06 season and 2010-11 finished 4th, 4th, 3rd, 4th, 3rd and 4th.
While the achievement of reaching the Champions League was often overlooked back then, Arsenal fans viewed the club as a title contender every season, and a new reality of being happy with top four spot was hard to accept.
The Decline 2011-2018
During this period Wenger’s transfer policy came under heavy scrutiny, selling great players often at the zenith of their Arsenal careers to rival teams. On 15 August 2011, Barcelona signed Cesc Fàbregas, Arsenal’s star midfielder for an initial fee of €29 million with a further €5 million incentives, ending one of the most protracted transfer sagas in recent times. During his final five-year period at Arsenal, Fàbregas had created 466 goal-scoring chances, made 86 assists and scored 48 goals.
Samir Nasri, on 24 August 2011 joined title rivals Manchester City. The transfer fee was priced in the region of £25 million, and the player signed a four-year contract.
Robin Van Persie signed for Manchester United in 2012 for £24 million after failing to agree contract terms with Arsenal and then proceeding to win the league in 2012-13, scoring 26 goals, leading ‘United’ to their 13th Premier League title.
If we were to pinpoint one tactical downfall of Wenger’s Arsenal reign, it would be not adapting to modern realities of pressing to regain possession. His teams always wanted to play possession based football, similar to Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona side, but as Sir Alex Ferguson said in his autobiography:
Barcelona were far more organised than Arsenal. When they lost the ball they would hound it. Every one of their players would be after it to win it back. Arsenal didn’t have quite that dedication to the task of regaining possession.
This was the main difference between Pep’s great Barcelona side and Wenger’s Arsenal. The French manager’s struggle to adapt to the modern game led to a tactical naivety, which saw Wenger’s Arsenal side having some of his worst results during this period:
- Manchester United 8-2 Arsenal (Premier League, August 2011)
- Liverpool 5-1 Arsenal (Premier League, February 2014)
- Chelsea 6-0 Arsenal (Premier League, March 2014)
- Bayern Munich 5-1 Arsenal (Champions League, February 2017)
- Arsenal 1-5 Bayern Munich (Champions League, March 2017)
- Liverpool 4-0 Arsenal (Premier League, August 2017)
The last decade at Arsenal, become a sad debacle, as a percentage of the Arsenal faithful turned on Wenger, with ‘Arsenal TV’ becoming must watch TV every time Arsenal lost, pushing for Wenger to resign. The hashtag #Wengerout would sometimes be trending on twitter and BBC Radio Five-Live weekly ‘606’ show would fill up with angry fans anytime Arsenal lost. For the neutral football fan, an Arsenal defeat became a time to get the popcorn out.
The FA Cup win in 2017 where Wenger become the most successful manager in FA Cup history, winning his 7th cup, seemed as good a time as any for the French manager to depart. He stayed for another season, Arsenal finished 6th in the league, and he announced his departure from the club on 20th April 2018, after his 21st season’s in charge.
The Arsenal of today are – post Wenger – a club that still gets talked about in the same vain as Barcelona. The Arsenal way is now directly related to attacking football, the club are a global entity, 18.3 million followers on Instagram, and 16.4 million followers on Twitter, worth an estimated 2.27 billion according to Forbes annual most valuable sports teams rich-list.
Arsenal in 2020 may be without a league title in sixteen years, yet they remain a highly attractive club. While the foundations of the Gunners being a great club were set in stone many years ago with many fine players, – Piers, Viera, Bergkamp, Henry are, – voted by Arsenal.com as four of their top six best players in history – it was Arséne Wenger who nurtured, cultivated and revitalised them. He set the standards; he raised the bar.