I’ve always found the hardest part of an article to be the start. I normally only blog about stats or the like on here, but I’ve wanted to write something about Wenger for a while. The man is the single greatest inspiration to me in both life and football, and is far more than just a football manager, yet so little substantive has been written about him, apart from possibly this piece hosted by the Guardian.
Arsène the stranger
Arsène Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 as an unknown quantity in the English game, a foreigner in an introverted land, following a successful short stint in Japan, a country he was forced to move to after becoming disillusioned with the (widely suspected to be) rampant match-fixing in French football, something that had undoubtedly denied Wenger the chance to add several titles to his CV. By his own admission, he was the league’s favourite to be sacked before Christmas, having been handed the unenviable task of reforming a club well known for its tradition, alcoholism and off-the-field scandals. George Graham had left under a cloud following the bung scandal, Tony Adams and Paul Merson had previously confessed to being alcoholics and Arsenal had finished 12th and 5th in the two preceding seasons.
There’s been a plethora of articles devoted to the transformative impact Wenger has had on his club, and it is his club to all intents and purposes, since joining Arsenal; new training regimes, healthier diets, better contracts for ageing players and a more fluid system of football. He was a revolutionary, using rudimentary statistical programs, an area he is still at the forefront of today, to rate players, picking the crème de la crème of Europe’s young talents to flourish under his watchful eye at Arsenal, players such as Anelka and Vieira. He even resurrected the stuttering careers of players like Overmars and Henry, the latter the most destructive forward in Premier League history.
Arsène the winner
And it worked. Doubles followed in 1998 and 2002, along with FA Cups in 2003 and 2005, and most impressively of all, the unbeaten season of 2003/04, a feat unlikely to ever be replicated in English football, all whilst Arsène and Arsenal strived to compete against the trophy-winning juggernaut that was Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, resulting in one of the finest sporting rivalries of all time. Like heavyweight boxers, the pair slugged it out for 7 seasons between 1997/98 and 2003/04, with United winning 4 titles to Arsenal’s 3 in one of sport’s great rivalries. Champions League football came to Highbury (or Wembley for a short time) for the first time in Arsenal’s history, and although it took Wenger’s sides a few years to get the hang of it, they soon became perennial fixtures in the knockout stages, little old Arsenal, a club with virtually no European pedigree and a stadium of 38,500, competing with monsters of the European stage such as Inter, Juventus, Barcelona and Real Madrid, in the most successful period in their history.
Wenger was so close to winning the European trophies he so craves, with penalties separating Arsenal from the 2000 UEFA Cup, and everything going wrong on that fateful evening in Paris in May 2006, Arsenal’s first (and only) Champions League Final. Arriving late to the stadium, Lehmann was promptly sent off against a Ronaldinho-inspired Barcelona. Yet Arsenal went ahead, clinging to their record (which still stands) of the longest run in Champions League history without conceding a goal, only being undone by an offside Eto’o goal and Belletti’s winner 10 minutes from time.
Arsène the builder
No matter. Arsène and Arsenal had more important things to think about. The club was about to enter the most important phase of its 120-year history, moving into the 60,000 capacity Emirates Stadium. This was a colossal project, the culmination of years of planning on Wenger’s and the board’s part, as Arsenal’s visionary manager attempted to move his club permanently into the European elite. To finance the construction of this £390m stadium, record 8-year deals were signed with Nike and Fly Emirates, to the tune of £8m a year. The problem was, within a few years, the hyperinflation of English football, kick-started by the arrival of Roman Abramovich across London, made these deals irrelevant in size to those being signed by Arsenal’s rivals Chelsea, Manchester United and Liverpool, and Arsenal were commercially left behind. Arsenal’s stadium-induced austerity project was so severe at points that they were reportedly almost unable to pay their players. Yet Wenger stayed throughout that period, rejecting offers from Europe’s most illustrious clubs; Barcelona, Real Madrid, PSG, Bayern Munich, all came for him. All were rebuffed by a man who has given his best years to the club of his life.
The arrival of Sheikh Mansour at Manchester City in 2008 and Harry Redknapp’s improving Tottenham team shifted an already-uncertain landscape as far as Arsenal’s position in England was concerned. All five teams (United, Chelsea, City, Tottenham and Liverpool) could spend more than Arsenal, and they did. Arsenal’s net spend in the period 2004/05-2012/13 (the austerity years) was -£31.8m. In contrast, Chelsea and City’s combined net spend in that period was over £700m. And yet Arsenal remained at the top table in Europe, qualifying for the Champions League every season despite these restrictions, a feat that possibly ranks as Wenger’s greatest ever achievement in terms of difficulty, something they have continued to do since, a feat even more impressive when one considers Liverpool’s and United’s decline, as well as Chelsea’s year in the wilderness of 6th in 2011/12, not to mention their implosion in the 2015/16 season.
During the years of admirable consistency, the trophies stopped. An incredibly talented youth team was beaten in the 2007 Carling Cup Final, Eduardo’s broken leg derailed a title challenge seemingly heading into a procession in 2008, and semi-final defeats to United and Chelsea put Arsenal out of two competitions in less than a week in 2009, as had happened 5 years previously. Yet Wenger stuck to his principles, signing and developing young players in the hope that his financially restricted club could fight with the big boys, with Fabregas, Nasri, van Persie, Adebayor et al flourishing, creating countless memorable moments by weaving a rich tapestry on the Emirates carpet. Yet all moved on to pastures new, lured by the promise of financial rewards and trophies.
Following the disastrous 2010/11 season, where Arsenal failed to win any of the four competitions they were in realistic competition for in January, everything seemed to fall apart at Arsenal. The club had been easily able to absorb the loss of Adebayor and Toure to Manchester City in 2009, but the departure of Fabregas to his native Barcelona represented an end to Wenger’s ‘Project Youth’ and his trust in younger players, to which his transfer policy since testifies. There’s no denying that the move hurt Wenger, a father-figure to Fabregas, one need only look at how much more haggard his face became between the optimism-filled months of January and February 2011 and the traumatic summer of 2011, which ended in jeers at Old Trafford, where Arsenal were thrashed 8-2. Nasri had left too, tempted by Manchester City’s lucrative wages, and Arsenal were a husk of the team which had beaten Barcelona in February of the same year. Yet the team still managed to sneak into the Champions League thanks to a remarkable season from Robin van Persie, finishing one place higher than they had the previous year. Van Persie promptly repaid Wenger’s dedication to backing his injury-prone self since 2004 by leaving to Manchester United, forcing Wenger to rebuild – again. That 2011/12 season was followed by another season in 4th in 2012/13, as Wenger kept up his perfect record, which still stands, of never having underperformed his club’s wage bill, the best financial predictor of finishing positions, and of never having finished outside of the top 4.
The summer of 2013 felt different however. And so it proved to be.
Arsène the restorer
Arsenal’s CEO, Ivan Gazidis, had boldly claimed that the club could spend big on players, with the club seemingly assured of new commercial deals which would kick in in the 14/15 season. Arsène tried, having Higuain snatched under his nose by Napoli and Liverpool refusing to sell Suarez despite Arsenal activating his release clause. The new season began with Mathieu Flamini and Yaya Sanogo the only signings and rumblings of discontent from fans convinced they had been duped by the club, rumblings which became a roar after an opening-day defeat to Aston Villa. Then it happened. With less than an hour to go until the end of the transfer window, Arsenal signed Mesut Ozil, the bonafide world-class signing the club had been crying out for in order to re-establish themselves a serious contender at home and in Europe, a contemporary signing to rival the impact of Dennis Bergkamp in 1995, smashing their transfer record by almost three times the previous amount, and obliterating a few myths about Wenger’s frugality as well. Inspired by Ozil, Arsenal stormed to the top of the table in the first half of the season, but heavy defeats to title rivals set their challenge back, with Arsenal finishing 7 points behind winners City in 4th. Despite this, a first trophy in nine years was won on a gloriously sunny day at Wembley, and clear progress had been made, as Arsène began the process of re-establishing Arsenal at the summit of English football.
£100m was spent the next season on new players, in part thanks to new commercial deals signed with PUMA and Fly Emirates, and Arsenal improved again, finishing strongly in 3rd having seemingly overcome their big-game block (showing that Arsène actually does do tactics) and retaining the FA Cup to make them the most successful team in its history and Wenger the most successful manager in its history, both magnificent achievements. However, there had been increasingly unsavoury incidents at games that season, despite the on-the-pitch progression. Wenger had been booed in public after a defeat at Stoke in December 2014, as fans’ frustrations boiled over at Arsenal’s failure to compete for trophies, even though they would win 4 (including Community Shields) between May 2014 and August 2015, more than any other club in England in that period, hinting at deeper divisions in the club, one that trophies seemingly couldn’t cure.
2015/16 was seen by many as the culmination of Wenger’s post-2013 rebuilding of Arsenal. Petr Cech was added to the squad, providing the much-vaunted clichéd qualities of ‘experience’ and ‘know-how’. Everything seemed to be set for another title for Arsenal’s most successful manager, especially in the context of Mourinho’s Chelsea imploding and Manchester City’s defensive struggles. For the first half of the season, everything went to plan. Arsenal were well in contention for the league, qualifying for the latter stages of the Champions League yet again. Then everything fell apart. Leicester, a 5,000-1 event, powered clear of the title-chasing pack as Arsenal faltered behind rivals Tottenham for the first time under Wenger, hampered by injuries to key players such as Cazorla and Alexis, having kept pace up until February. There was no refuge in the FA Cup either, with Arsenal being dumped out in the Quarter-Final by Watford, and fans’ fury boiled over, resulting in fights outside the Emirates, banners calling for Wenger’s removal and a tempestuous atmosphere at matches, leaving Wenger’s standing among Arsenal fans lower than ever before, with a summer of discontent seemingly on the horizon. A late rally, combined with Newcastle’s trouncing of Spurs on the final day of the season, saw Arsenal finish in second place, their highest finish since 2005, but one hardly likely to appease a section of the fanbase, who protested against the way the club was being run in a home match against Norwich, only to be drowned out by the overwhelmingly pro-Wenger crowd. Further evidence of Arsenal’s newfound financial strength was seen in the summer of 2016, with £96m spent on new signings, and although the club entered potentially the final season of Wenger’s glittering career with a squad blessed with depth in a way the sides of the austerity years could only dream of, the scepticism surrounding the manger’s 12 year wait for a title was greater than ever.
Despite this, the numbers of Wenger’s reign are astonishing. He’s won more games than any other Arsenal manager, he’s won more trophies than any other Arsenal manager, he has the best win percentage of any Arsenal manager, so much so that he could lose his next 100 games and still hold that record. He was the first foreign manager to win the Premier League with widely-accepted innovations in training and dieting, paving the way for future winners such as Mourinho, Pellegrini and Mancini, as well as the current crop of star managers; Guardiola, Conte, Klopp and Pochettino. They all owe him a lot. As do we all.
Arsène the philosopher
Albert Einstein once (allegedly) said that ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’ Gabriel Clarke, in an interview for ITV, on the eve of the 2014 FA Cup Final, put that quote to Arsène as a criticism of the perceived way in which Arsenal had fallen short in terms of winning trophies in the previous nine years. Wenger responded passionately, saying ‘without strong beliefs, you go nowhere in life.’ Who to believe? Who does more in the world? Those who consistently change their beliefs and approaches, or those whose single-mindedness and willpower enact great change? History is littered with great men in both camps, as is football.
We live in a time unique in history, where capitalism empowers those to aspire to (and reach) the cravings of man, with social media and the internet creating a web of immediacy and therefore impatience that touches all who come into contact with them, acting as a mouthpiece for millions. The creation of games like FIFA and Football Manager plays a part too; now you, little humble you, can take over and control the running of a multi-million pound organisation without fear of the consequences of failure. After all, you only need to turn your computer off. Humanity’s inherent nature is to desire more and more, bigger, better, newer, more flashy, and this is reflected in today’s society more than any other.
Arsène is the exception to that in today’s whirlwind of football management. The boy from Duttleheim, born in a different era, with one foot in post-war France and the other in post-war West Germany, growing up in the ruins of 1950s Europe. The young man who grew up watching faded legends of a game from a different time; Netzer, Platini, Baggio, Eusébio . An intellectual, equally capable of discussing politics with a room of enamoured journalists as he is talking football tactics. A manager, fluent in six languages, who fought against corruption in France, establishing Monaco as a domestic powerhouse in his reign, a man who revolutionised football in Japan, and a man whose spell at Arsenal transcends the movement of the world outside N5.
Maybe it’s because of his upbringing in his parents’ pub, watching the effects of addiction on those surrounding him, maybe it’s because of his different way of viewing the world, but Arsène has always had a rather ambivalent attitude to winning. Not that he doesn’t want to of course, but he understands that there is something more.
How can there not be? If you don’t win every time you play, do you fail? Does your success solely depend on whether the ball hits the woodwork and goes in, or spins tantalisingly across the goal-line? Luck matters more in football than most other sports, and the best team often doesn’t win every trophy. Even if you do win every trophy, as Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich have seemingly done at will in recent years, are the fans still happy? Or will they always call for more, criticising managers such as Guardiola for not winning the Champions League at Bayern Munich when they could not have possibly bettered the final year of Heynckes’ tenure? We live in a strange period in football where certain clubs and managers have a monopoly on success, which seemingly demeans each individual trophy as ‘inadequate’ unless it is consistently supplemented by more and more, a never-ending cycle of greed and entitlement. Trophies are nice, you get a shiny piece of silverware and a few days of celebration, with admiration fêted from all sides, before people forget, and past winners disappear into the history books.
Arsène understands that old adage of Socrates, who stated that ‘Beauty comes first. Victory is secondary. What matters is joy.’ He himself is quoted as saying ‘I want a fan to wake up in the morning and say, “Arsenal are playing today, I’m going to have a good time.” That guy starts his day off by thinking that something good is going to happen to him.’ To him, the way in which you win is much more important than the fact that you win, and I never used to understand this non-materialistic way of thinking. But I’ve been converted.
I’ve been very lucky in my life to have gone to many Arsenal games, and the moments of greatest satisfaction haven’t necessarily come from winning trophies. There’s Jack Wilshere’s team goal against Norwich, Andrey Arshavin’s winner against Barcelona and Mesut Ozil’s deft flick to assist Olivier Giroud against Aston Villa, moments which left me with a smile on my face, the entrance fee well worth the price for that split-second moment.
Arsène lives and loves these moments just as much as all of you, pumping his fists in the air in his trademark celebration, grinning as he prepares to sign Mesut Ozil, as he prepares to hug Fabregas, Henry, van Persie and Gallas in celebration, evidence of the tremendous bond he has with his players. He understands that what is left behind is more important than what went before, that legacy trumps all. We see examples of this all around us today, where the fall of mighty invincible empires has left behind pyramids at Egypt, temples at Palmyra, walls in England, palaces in Vienna and a world full of inequality and greed. Arsène wants to leave a positive impact, explaining, ‘I would like to go down in history as somebody who tried genuinely to help the club make a step forward,’ and his sense of legacy is impeccable, encompassing both the style of football Arsenal are recognised for and the Emirates Stadium itself, resulting in a football legacy that only Johan Cruyff can match at a single club.
Arsène understands the temporary nature of life, that life should be based around our attempts to make ‘each day as beautiful as we can’ and that ‘the only way to deal with death is to transform everything that precedes it into art’. His desire to play beautiful football, whilst forming a large part of his overwhelmingly positive legacy at Arsenal, is not born out of stubbornness, but rather out of pragmatism, an alternative to the idea of winning above all else, a temporary release from the constraints of our society that we can witness at 3 o’clock every Saturday.
Arsène’s connection to Arsenal is total, even extending to his name, and he’s all I’ve ever been fortunate enough to know as an Arsenal supporter, from the hazy successful days of the early 2000s to the barren years of beautiful football in our beautiful new home, followed by the return to former glories, all overseen by one man, beholden to the idea of purity and principles on the pitch. But outside of football stadia is where we must spend most of our lives, and I find it fitting that it’s a man from football, that strange sport defined by short-termism, where the average life expectancy of a top flight manager is just 13 months, who’s taught me so much about perspective in life. Here’s to the next 20 years Arsène. We shall never see his like again.