On this day two years ago it was announced Arsene Wenger was to leave Arsenal after 22 years at the end of the 2017-18 season. Richard McQueen analyses the Frenchman’s time at the club as he looks back at the Wenger years and states the case for and against.
The case for the defence: 22 years, 1,235 games, 2,298 goals. 716 wins. Three Premier League titles. Seven FA Cups. Two doubles. The Invincibles. 49,49 undefeated. Title triumphs at White Hart Lane and Old Trafford. Seven Charity/Community Shields. Oversaw the move to the Emirates. A miracle worker who ensured Champions League football for 18 seasons in a row on limited budgets, with teams packed with world class footballers playing champagne football.
The prosecution: Nine year trophy drought with a series of title challenges which faded badly. Failed to improve squads that were considered fragile and mentally weak. Turned Invincibles into Invisibles with his doomed youth project compounded by a vanity and stubbornness which refused to acknowledge mistakes or learn from them prompting the start of the club’s current decline.
Should there be a statue for Wenger and his legacy as a miracle worker – or is it a case of the Emperor’s New Clothes for a boss who had lost the plot?
So we’re all aware of the story.
The first part is the mysterious new boss at Arsenal called Arsene (‘Who’?) Wenger can’t believe the eating habits and fitness regimes of his new brood of players. They, in turn, are instantly suspicious of him and his methods - but he wins them over.
Lee Dixon said he’d never felt fitter after a pre-season and at precisely the same time France, the nation of Wenger’s birth of where he managed Monaco, produced a stream of outstanding players he had inside knowledge of.
Four of these players came to Highbury between 1996 and 1999 and they weren’t just Premier League class, they weren’t even international class - Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Viera, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires were world class footballers that forced the old guard to up their game. And that’s without even mentioning Nicolas Anelka who Wenger signed for £500,000 and sold for £23m – allowing us to build a state of the art training ground – and sign Henry.
Wenger didn’t have to worry about buying a keeper and a top centre half for they were already there - but he did add to the mix was just genius. Going to Arsenal at such a time was a joyous experience as there was something for everyone.
Arsene and Arsenal had the near perfect goalkeeper, along with a complete back four who could all ‘play a bit’. In midfield we had Vieira – who was always worth the entrance fee alone in my book – alongside Petit and his wand of a left foot next to him. Supplement that with pace on the wings and Ian Wright still up front – well, we had something and we knew it, the trophies had to come and they did.
Players grew old and players got replaced
I worked with a Crystal Palace fan and he came haring into work one day and said: “I’ve seen the best left back in the world at Palace and he’s on load from Arsenal!’. ‘Ashley Cole’ I replied knowingly. Wenger, pushed by David Dein, was brave enough to sign Sol Campbell. While Kolo Toure arrived to be transformed into a supreme ball playing centre half - nothing like the chubby bloke who ended up at Liverpool at the end of his career. We also had Gilberto, while never being quite as superb, did a fantastic job of filling Petit’s boots. Freddie Ljungberg replaced Marc Overmars and was even better and the success kept coming. Henry was like no player I’ve ever seen and Wenger deserved every praise as Arsenal became the Invincibles.
However, the football landscape was changing
That very season when the highly unfancied Portowon the Champions League in 2004, Roman Abramovich – who parked his tank at Stamford Bridge the year before and started firing £50 notes at everything as Dein so memorably said - decided he had to land Jose Mourinho from Portugal and all changed, changed utterly.
From believing the foundations were there for Arsenal to dominate for years to come it quickly unravelled. Mourinho was at his peak while Ferguson was still competing furiously and refusing to bow out quietly, Manchester City became wealthy overnight and developed a quick and keen eye for anything that seemed to ply their trade in an Arsenal shirt.
Yet I can’t help thinking Wenger made it all too easy for his peers around then - at a time when he really shouldn’t. I never understood the ‘once you hit 30 you get a one year contract’ philosophy, it just made great servants restless, especially when sides and agents were busy whispering ‘Man City or Barcelona will give you a three year deal’.
Arsenal lost a maddening amount of players to both clubs – we can all understand the lure of Barcelona but how many was it? I can think of seven across Wenger’s reign: Henry, Petit, Overmars, Alex Hleb, Alex Song, Thomas Vermalen and Cesc Fabregas- and don’t even get me started on City.
The curious case of Ashley Cole
Then there was the curious case of Cole. My Palace mate was right. Do I like the way he ultimately handled himself? Of course I don’t. Do I think he had a point? Of course I do. He proved he was right. He did end up the best left-back in the world but we all knew he was going to be. So Wenger lost him too. And Gael Clichy was a poor imitation of him, whatever fans argued at the time.
Arsenal became a selling club
Wenger became obsessed with making money on genuine world class players. Viera could and should have stayed for so much longer – he should have seen out his days at Arsenal alongside Fabregas and we’d have been better for having him, not just for a season or two but for years and years, while also tending budding youngster emerging from the academy simply by sharing the ethos of the club and what it meant to be an Arsenal player.
Yet, all that experience was lost when Pires and Dennis Bergkamp and others departed around 2006. And even if there was a case to argue that they had seen better days on the pitch, surely Wenger could have kept them on at the club. For the life of me I’ll never understand why legends weren’t kept on at the club in a far more visual capacity in the way Sir Alex Ferguson always seemed to employ former players in one role or another at Old Trafford.
Then the trophies dried up
Our last great player under Wenger was Robin Van Persie. But even when playing superbly for us there was something unlikeable about him and he thoroughly lived up to that with the uniquely classless way in which he moved to United.
Did Wenger take his eye off the ball with the move from Highbury to the Emirates?
Wenger and the club were also obsessed with moving away from Highbury, a ground that the fans loved.
Everything I read at the time suggested that the TV money was so large that bums on seats didn’t really matter that much in the grand scheme of things. It seemed at the time without the benefit of hindsight all the cost and upheaval of moving ground would take years to recoup - yet all Arsenal had to do to keep raking in the cash was continue to play exciting football in front of a packed and noisy Highbury and the cash would roll in from TV deals. No-one would have got upset, and I for one, wouldn’t have had to keep hearing that we needed to move to ‘compete’.
Wenger seemed to genuinely believe that getting in the top four really was like winning a trophy - but what always perplexed and frustrated me in equal measure was the fact his side’s would then seem to get cold feet once the Champions League got tough.
I do wonder if he’d have rather have lost in the last 16 but finished fourth in the league than lose in the final and come fifth. The one line I always repeat to my kids is ‘don’t die wondering’ and that’s how I began to feel with Wenger.
Feelings were assuaged by FA Cup final wins and the odd performance that harked back to halcyon days - but they felt few and far between. It all felt very ‘Groundhog Day’, players were being lauded that weren’t a patch on those that had played previously under Wenger.
A once great manager became a figure of mockery - and that was sad
From being seen as a rival by other managers at the top of English football, Wenger had become someone to be pitied by his peers. With many fans he had gone from being respected to mocked – and he didn’t deserve that, he deserved far better. But he should have gone years before he did.
Football doesn’t always work like that - if it did Brian Clough would have left Forest after they won their second European Cup. Perhaps Wenger’s legacy would have been sealed if he had left at a time when we’d never have forgiven the board for letting him go to Real Madrid, Bayern Munich or any of those clubs he kept mentioning – rather than protesting against the powers-that-be for keeping him on far too long.
Yet, it feels like light years ago when a little known, to me anyway, when Wenger took over from Bruce Rioch - light years ago in football terms because, for one, can you imagine Arsenal appointing their next manager and him being the current incumbent of the manager’s hot seat at Bolton Wanderers?
So I thank Wenger for many different things, one of the most glaring is getting a few more years out of genuine Arsenal legends and then bringing in players of the calibre that – I’d love to – but feel I won’t see again. He was gracious and intelligent and urbane and showed great subtle humour - but he stayed too long.
I love this game but I love cinema too. At the depths of my frustration with Wenger I remembered a film I watched which starred a young Anthony Hopkins who played a brilliant ventriloquist that ultimately allowed the dummy to completely take over his character and personality so that it sent him mad.
As I watched it I thought to myself, “this is Wenger, he’s no longer pulling the strings, he’s been driven mad by his own creation”.
Even so, I’ll still doff my cap to him.
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