Wenger still inspiring Arteta 25 years after
The date is October 12, 2021, and Arsenal currently languish in 11th place in the Premier League standings.
The Gunners are currently on a five-year hiatus from the prestigious UEFA Champions League and the feeling amongst supporters is split regarding current head coach Mikel Arteta.
Rewind 25 years to the day and the atmosphere around the club was quite similar.
Bruce Rioch had replaced legendary manager, George Graham, but was sacked after just a year in charge when it became clear that the current crop of players didn’t take to him.
Rioch’s replacement was an unknown entity in the form of Arsene Wenger, a French coach that eventually went on to become the most successful coach in the club’s history.
Wenger’s first game in charge was against Blackburn Rovers on October 12, 1996, a game that the north Londoners dominated before clinching a 2-0 victory thanks to a brace from English icon, Ian Wright.
It was a promising start to proceedings for the former Monaco boss and behind the scenes, players were left stunned by some of the decisions he implemented over the course of his debut campaign.
Change in culture
Before Wenger’s arrival in England, Arsenal players took part in the Tuesday Club, a regular drinking session led by then-captain Tony Adams, something that had been encouraged during Graham’s tenure in the managerial hot-seat.
However, the Frenchman quickly banned drinking, chocolate and even tea, something that left Wright, amongst other players, bemused.
“No salt, no anything, all we could do was drink water and eat… like the chicken was literally just boiled and it looked just wrong,” Wright recalled earlier this year when discussing Wenger’s arrival.
“Everything was just for fuel.
“We couldn’t have tea, we couldn’t have anything.”
Despite some ruffled feathers in the Arsenal dressing room, the change in culture quickly led to a change on the pitch.
The Gunners finished third in his first season in charge, the best they had managed in the Premier League era at the time before going on to win the league title the following season.
Wenger built the foundations of his team on a strong back five – consisting of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn. All five started the aforementioned game against Blackburn before playing key roles during the title-winning season the following campaign.
The full XI against the Lancashire-based club was: David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Martin Keown, Nigel Winterburn, Paul Merson, David Platt, Patrick Vieira, John Hartson, Ian Wright.
Current boss Arteta has clearly taken inspiration from his previous manager, focusing heavily on building a solid defence before addressing issues further up the pitch.
In fact, out of the 14 players that the former Manchester City assistant coach has brought to the Emirates Stadium, nine of those have been defenders or goalkeepers, showcasing the clear emphasis that he puts on forming a solid backline.
In the opening three matchdays of this season, the Gunners looked fragile at the back but given first-choice options Aaron Ramsdale, Takehiro Tomiyasu, Ben White and Gabriel all missed fixtures against Chelsea and Manchester City, it would be unfair to judge the Spaniard too harshly.
Since the aforementioned quartet have come into the line-up, the north London club look like a completely different team, registering clean sheets against Norwich City, Burnley and Brighton whilst also impressing during the 3-1 win over local rivals Tottenham Hotspur last month.
While Arteta has undoubtedly improved his backline, he has a long way to go before he can be uttered in the same managerial breath as Wenger.
After all, the legendary Frenchman won the FA Cup a record seven times and clinched three Premier League titles – including one in which his side went unbeaten in the process.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of Arteta’s team is their inability to unlock a deep-lying defence – something that Wenger mastered during his tenure in north London.
FIFA’s current Chief of Global Football Development would stack his team with multiple playmakers, overwhelming teams between the lines whilst emphasising the need for one-touch football in the half-spaces.
However, the current Arsenal boss has struggled in this regard, evidenced by the fact the Gunners only netted 55 times in the league last season – an amount that was bettered by eight teams, including newly-promoted Leeds United. Meanwhile, Wenger’s side ranked in the top five for scoring during all 22 seasons he was in charge.
Finding the right balance between attack and defence is one of the toughest aspects of coaching in modern football and if Arteta can find that then he could begin to turn the tide and help fire Arsenal back into the Champions League – a competition that Wenger famously qualified for 19 years in a row.