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It’s 1995 and George Graham has decided his time at Arsenal was up – Leaving Rioch to hold the fort for The Gunners who finished a mediocre 5th the following season. I say mediocre, but this was a huge improvement on their league position in the previous season, in which they finished 12th following Graham’s sacking after the scandal he was involved in. Graham’s sacking left the club in a state of disrepair and in need of a pioneer to get the club back to the heights it was at during the 10 years prior. ‘Arsène who?’ the papers questioned, when the Grampus Eight manager was hired in the close season. How could a club with such a glorious history choose such a person to drive them back in to Europe? Sure he had won a Ligue 1 title amongst 3 other trophies in his time at Monaco, but a man who cowers off to Japan when things get tough surely cannot handle the great English Premier League? You can imagine these were the thoughts amongst the media and so too the Gunners faithful followed suit. Arsenal captain Tony Adams famously said ‘He looks like a school teacher’ with the clear implication that he wasn’t all that in football terms.
Wenger introduced new training methods and player dieting, something unheard of and ridiculed in English football. I won’t go into the details because this is an article, not a biography. I’ll let you know in brief then, how the opening decade of Wenger’s reign went:
96/97 – 3rd after signing Patrick Vieira and Remi Garde
97/98 – 1st and won the FA Cup after signing Emmanuel Petit, Marc Overmars and Nicholas Anelka with Ian Wright departing after the Cup Final.
98/99 – 2nd losing the Premier League and the FA Cup to ‘The Class of 92’. Ljungberg and Kanu sign.
99/00 – 2nd losing the EUFA Cup Final to Galatasaray. Anelka leaves and is replaced by Thierry Henry. Graham’s old guard begin to depart, Lauren brought in to replace Winterburn.
00/01 – 2nd losing the FA Cup Final to Liverpool. Petit and Overmars leave, Pires, Wiltord and Edu are brought in.
July 2001 – Wenger is offered the chance to join Petit and Overmars at Barcelona, instead he signs a four year deal at Arsenal. Arsène finds his new CB pairing in Sol Campbell and Kolo Toure.
01/02 – 1st and win the FA Cup. Two doubles in 6 years for Arsène and Arsenal. Gilberto Silva signs.
02/03 – 2nd and win the FA Cup. Wenger hits out at Manchester United’s unbridled spending. Brings in Lehmann to replace Seaman. Senderos, Clichy, Djourou, Van Persie and Fabregas are signed.
03/04– 1st. Arsenal go the entire season unbeaten in the league with 90 points. Reyes is signed midseason to aid the title challenge .
04/05 – 2nd Arsenal miss out to Mourinho’s Chelsea, who spent £203m in the two windows prior. Arsène’s saving grace is once again winning the FA Cup.
2004 – 2006: The work on the Emirates Stadium finally begins. Wenger describes this as ‘the biggest decision in Arsenal history’. And so it was.
Now I’m not going to pretend the next 8 years are pretty. They aren’t. Arsenal have to start making annual PROFIT while Chelsea spend in excess of £70m each window on transfers alone. Arsène holds his tongue despite only being given a minute budget the previous season (the only signings being Flamini, Eboue and Almunia with no movement in January to aid the title push). The squad are low on morale after missing out on the club’s third double in a decade – and it’s only about to get worse. Robert Pires feels his best days are over and leaves the club, taking his creative contribution with him. The club then receive an offer for want-away captain, Patrick Vieira from Juventus. The Invincibles lost their captain that year and the rest of their spine follow a year later (Ashley Cole, Sol Campbell, Thierry Henry) after the heartbreak of the Champions League Final loss to Barcelona. Half of the squad Arsène built over the last decade have abandoned him, the board say they do not have the funds to properly replace them.
You know how the rest of the story goes. Arsenal endure a lengthy trophy drought between 2005/2014, despite making 5 semi-final appearances and one final appearance, each as agonisingly painful as the other. Many argue ‘Arsène lost us that many big matches.’ but I’d like you to think for a moment who managed to get us in that position in the first place? Of course he could have handled certain occasions better – perhaps set up more defensively etc. as all the twitter experts and Adrian Durham will tell you, but does that take anything away from the credibility of the man? Does that mean he is not a top class manager because he refuses to play negative football and ‘park the bus’? Of course we can pick at individual mistakes Wenger has made over his tenure, he has managed over 1,000 Arsenal games and is bound to get some of them wrong, him being a human being and all.
But this article isn’t about ‘what makes a top class manager’, It’s about the contribution Arsène Wenger has made to Arsenal Football Club. I will remind you again of the events of 2001 where Arsène was asked to join Barcelona or perhaps 2004 when he could’ve taken the coaching role a Real Madrid. How easy would it have been for the Premier League Manager of the Year 2004 to ‘leave on a high’ and build on the 16 trophies he’s already won with one of the Spanish giants? I know world class manager, Jose Mourinho would’ve. I can say that because that’s exactly what he did when he left Chelsea mid season in 2007 because things weren’t going as planned. The difference between the two fantastic managers is that Mourinho would rather retire with a very pretty trophy room, filled with his own personal honours and be known as ‘the special one’ by those who supported his various teams – whilst Wenger wants to make an imprint on one football club, a long lasting legacy that will ensure the success of the club long after he’s gone. When asked about where his titles are Wenger said ‘I don’t know. I don’t like to look back’. He may not care for individual honours, but what he certainly does care about is Arsenal. Arsène sacrificed his own success so that he could make sure Arsenal could stay successful.
It’s been about two years since Arsenal paid the portion the debt of the Emirates Stadium that they planned too. and club CEO Ivan Gazidis claimed ‘Arsenal are now on course to compete with the greatest clubs in the world, we’re in the process of becoming a modern super club’. He’s not wrong. If you look at the transfers explored earlier in this article, you’ll see that Wenger bought 2 or 3 key players in each season prior to the Invincibles run – gradually building a title winning force that can maintain a challenge in ALL competitions. Arsène unearthed great gems during the trophy drought, players he surely thought would shape the spine of his future title winning team – Cesc Fabregas, Alex Song, Samir Nasri, Robin Van Persie, Gael Clichy, Kolo Toure,Cole. All left to chase glory with sides that had uncapped spending potential. Each time Wenger would establish his first team, get to a stage where he was two players off a side that could win titles, two more would leave – an impossible task when you make world class players but cannot afford to keep them happy. Now we find ourselves in a similar position. As I type this, Arsenal fans are still relishing in their triumph over Manchester United, the club look on course to retaining the trophy they ended the drought with. We also sit in one point off of 2nd place, many suggest we are one or two players away from winning the title – where have I heard that before? Though due to the debt of the Emirates Stadium being paid off, we are in a position where two players can come in without us having sacrifice one of our star men to afford it.
For me, the sad part is that Wenger feels his own career is coming to a close. When his contract is up in 2017, he’d have finally completed the squad we’ve been building for years. Ozil, Alexis, Wilshere, Ramsey, Walcott, Koscielny, Gabriel and Giroud will all be in the peak years of their respective careers. There you have a spine of a team that can win titles in the present but what astounds me is Wenger’s concern for the future success of the club too. Spending grand sums of money on youth products like Chambers, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Hector Bellerin that’ll surely continue to dazzle and contribute to Arsenal’s success long after Arsène himself is gone. The manager that takes Wenger’s place will have very little to do as the foundations for success will be there ready made for him. The media illusion will tell you that Wenger’s retirement is what Arsenal needed to win titles again, but in reality it was the sacrifices he made that created a platform for us to succeed in the first place. He may not have the titles Ferguson had, but he will leave the club of his heart with the means to continue to be strong without him. My aim of this article wasn’t to put Wenger’s name up in starry lights and glorify everything the man has done. Just to make you think a little before you criticise a man who has always put our club, his club, before himself.