Arsene Wenger: ‘A brilliant revolutionary who refused to change’
The Arsene Wenger era – a story that started at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers on 12 October 1996 – is finally over after his decision to step down as Arsenal manager.
Wenger’s name is synonymous with Arsenal after winning three Premier Leagues, a record seven FA Cups and six Charity/Community Shields, as well as overseeing the move from Highbury to Emirates Stadium in 2006, an arena that will stand as a monument to his achievements.
The 68-year-old Frenchman, who won the league and FA Cup double in 1998 and 2002, has become an increasingly divisive figure among Arsenal fans, as the club have gone 14 years without a Premier League title, but his success and impact on English football has made him one of the sport’s most significant personalities of the modern era.
Wenger signed a new two-year contract after beating Chelsea to win the FA Cup in 2017, but dismal league form – Arsenal are 14 points off a top-four place and have no away wins in 2018 – added to increasing fan discontent and declining attendances, making his departure inevitable.
Wenger stuck to his principles even in the face of mounting criticism. But, ultimately, was he the manager who changed everything in English football and then paid the price for not changing himself?
‘Arsene who?’ The French revolutionary
“Arsene Who?” was one infamous headline that greeted Wenger’s arrival on his appointment after a 19-month spell at Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, having previously won Ligue 1 in France with a Monaco side boasting England international Glenn Hoddle.
Arsenal season ticket holder and shareholder Darren Epstein, one of the most respected fan voices on Twitter with a following of 127,000, recalls: “Like most fans I’d never heard of him.
“We didn’t have 24-hour news, live games from around Europe and, given that he was in Japan at the time, his profile was very low.”
It soon became clear, however, that English football was witnessing the arrival of the man who would change the landscape forever with his approach to tactics, diet – instantly banning chocolate as a pre-match snack – and the culture of professional players.
Former defender Martin Keown, who was in Wenger’s first Arsenal line-up, told BBC Sport: “My first thought on Arsene was: ‘Do nice guys win things?’
“He would shake my hand three times in the morning. There was genuine warmth.”
Wenger’s glory years – the great alchemist
Wenger brought a golden age to Arsenal between 1998 and 2004, the early months of the 1996-97 season almost being used as a fact-finding mission for the era that culminated in “The Invincibles” going a 38-game Premier League season unbeaten to win the title 14 years ago.
In the 30 league games of his first season, Wenger’s win ratio was only 46.7 per cent – but 12 months later it had been transformed to a title-winning 60.5 per cent as he proved himself to be the master of innovation, tactical mastery and alchemy.
Wenger welded the steel of the Graham era, with the famous defence containing goalkeeper David Seaman, Keown, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon and Nigel Winterburn on to new, emerging, world-class purchases.
Midfielders Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit were brought in, plus attacking talents Thierry Henry, Marc Overmars, Robert Pires and Nicolas Anelka – a 17-year-old signed from Paris St-Germain for £500,000 in February 1997 and sold to Real Madrid in the summer of 1999 for £22.3m.
And he was, of course, bequeathed one of the greatest jewels of all in Dennis Bergkamp, who was signed by Rioch.
“Arsene signed great players and then made them greater, which brought us that period of success,” added Keown. “Bruce Rioch thought that famous defence was finished, but they weren’t. We understood everyone else’s role and Arsene was clever enough to realise that element of management was being done for him on the pitch.
“He will be seen as a great visionary and that was just a wonderful period when we were all part of a beautiful transformation.”
Trophies were gathered ruthlessly but stylishly. Three league titles, including those domestic doubles in 1998 and 2002 and the start of that collection of seven FA Cups.
Wenger’s initial win ratio started to rise, reaching a pinnacle of 68.4 per cent in the title-winning seasons of 2001-02 and 2003-04.
Epstein revelled in the joy of being an Arsenal supporter, enthralled by what Wenger produced, saying: “He mixed old Arsenal, tradition with a new way.
“Despite popular belief, Arsenal were not boring under George Graham – but the difference was if we scored our defence would shut out the opposition, so that is initially what Arsene Wenger mixed.
“It meant we had a core of players fans could relate to but who stayed in the team because they deserved to. He also brought teams together that were unbelievable to watch. We played Middlesbrough, Blackburn and Portsmouth, to name a few, whose fans applauded us off.”
It was a potent mixture of new silk and old steel. Wenger had the materials when he arrived but his revolutionary approach, his ability to take the best of the old and blend it with his modern approach, turned it into a silver-lined Arsenal era.
The Long Road To Decline
When the 41-year-old Jose Mourinho swept into Stamford Bridge on June 2, 2004 and christened himself “The Special One”, it would have been hard to imagine his new rival Wenger would never win another Premier League.
So was the arrival of the brash, outspoken, confrontational Mourinho – fresh from winning the Champions League with Porto – the day the success died for Wenger?
Wenger, who was able to cope with the rivalry with Manchester United counterpart Ferguson, was suddenly trapped in a toxic relationship with a manager who got under his skin – and more significantly was in charge of a successful team that got the better of Arsenal.
Wenger did not manage a league win in 12 meetings with Mourinho until Arsenal defeated Manchester United last May. When it counted, he did not come out on top.
Wenger’s overall win ratio remained high – but Mourinho’s was better. The 2004-05 season was a perfect example. Arsenal delivered a 65.8 per cent rate, only to be outdone by Chelsea’s remarkable 76.3 per cent record as the title returned to Stamford Bridge for the first time in 50 years.
The Frenchman could never reclaim the title he won regularly, taunted by Mourinho as a “voyeur” when it came to Chelsea’s successes and, most damningly, “a specialist in failure”.
So was Mourinho the man who started the downfall that led to an increasingly outdated and outflanked Wenger?
Wenger’s refusal to depart from his trusted methods saw him left behind, a decline underlined by the new Premier League breed of not just Mourinho – who returned after successes at Inter Milan and Real Madrid to win the title once more at Chelsea in 2015 – but coaches like Chelsea title-winner Antonio Conte, Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp, Tottenham’s Mauricio Pochettino and, of course, Pep Guardiola as he brought his purist, modern modus operandi to Manchester City.
As Arsenal were outclassed in the 2018 Carabao Cup final by Guardiola’s City, the contrast in the technical areas was stark.
Guardiola was the symbol of modernism, while Wenger looked tired and struggling for new inspiration.
Brutally and ruthlessly, Guardiola looked like the man Wenger used to be.
“Historically, people will look back on Jose coming in. Football moves very quickly,” said former Chelsea winger and BBC Sport analyst Pat Nevin.
“The pace of change, particularly tactically, has been extraordinary over the past 10 or 15 years, arguably more than ever before.
“It has adapted and changed, and people have adapted and changed with it. The thing about Arsene is that he has not really – so Jose Mourinho is a good point at which to start.
“And when you have a new group like Conte, Guardiola and Klopp all arriving at the same time, as they did and with Pochettino putting his stamp on Spurs, it accentuates that and makes it more obvious. We can all see it. When Jose comes in, you think that’s a quantum leap. Arsene didn’t adapt to that level.”
So was Wenger guilty of presiding over what ended as a damaging period of stagnation?
“He did change everything and then stuck to his guns – but one man’s sticking to his guns is another man’s belligerence and unwillingness to change,” added Nevin.
“They are both the same thing, just a different viewpoint on it. When you’re successful, it looks like the former. When you’re not, it’s the latter.
“The question is whether he should have maybe left last year. If he wins the Europa League he has done the right thing in staying, but if he doesn’t, even losing in the final, then people will say he didn’t.”
The once-visionary Wenger has maintained his fire still burns.
But in his latter days the fires seemed to burn more fiercely in others – including Conte, in his first season at Chelsea at least, Klopp as he reinvigorates Liverpool, his rival Mauricio Pochettino at Spurs (although Wenger can point to greater recent successes in terms of trophies) and Guardiola.
Wenger may not have lost his desire but was he the innovator and master of adaptation who eventually failed to adapt?
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