How many directors made acquaintance with their next manager whilst playing charades at a party? Can you imagine Klopp playing Pictionary at John Henry’s or Sacchi singing home karaoke with Berlusconi? (Actually, I can picture that last one). Of course, David Dein didn’t meet Wenger at his home party, but he got to know him there; Dein himself has talked of how it was at that moment that it dawned on him this was the man he wanted to take Arsenal into the future.
It’s unlikely, however, that either man knew how good a fit it would be, arguably surpassing Arsenal’s previous golden era under George Graham. Wenger didn’t just become the club’s most successful manager ever, he got to redefine the club; in doing so, he also got to reshape the paradigm of English football, and mould the Premier League era more so than anyone else apart from Sir Alex Ferguson.
Vitamins and stretches
It’s hard to think of a more unwelcoming reception than the one Arsène Wenger got upon his announcement as manager of Arsenal Football Club, on September 22nd, 1996. For all the reverence he had encountered in Japan, and for all the appreciation he received on his farewell, he got none of that upon arriving at Arsenal. The now infamous “Arsene who?” headline has come to embody the very first moments of Wenger’s Arsenal. Neither was there much support for the Frenchman among his players. English football culture (the good and the bad) was deeply ingrained at Arsenal. Most unhealthy aspects of it were represented by the Tuesday Club, social gatherings where some of the most important members of the Gunners’ squad would meet after training on a Tuesday to drink as much as they could find.
Still, Wenger soldiered on. He went above and beyond, hiring specialists in neurosciences, nutrition, physiotherapy and psychology to improve the player’s environment and help them progress and sustain their level. He cut the drinking, and imposed strict nutrition regimes on the whole squad, with a focus on the fish-heavy diets he had come to know in Japan. Much in the same way, he revolutionised training, modernising methods with shorter, more regular sessions, strengthening exercises and massages. The capability for adaptation the Frenchman had picked up in Japan paid dividends. “I knew I had to progress in small steps, gradually taking the team in hand, applying diplomacy and psychology, without relinquishing my convictions”, writes Wenger.
However, no amount of tact and communication skills would’ve ever done the trick had the manager not achieved his ultimate goal. Managing a respectable third-place finish in his first season, with a squad that contained many of the players who had struggled under Bruce Rioch in the previous campaign went a long way to proving the efficacy of his methods, and the players could feel it. “I played under him for just under a year. It was the fittest I’ve ever been”, said Paul Merson. “The vitamins, the diet, everything we were doing was like clockwork. He got us to buy into that, in a very, very strong dressing room. Straight away the training was enjoyable, it was fun. We used to go away with England and the Arsenal lads would do these stretches. Other players would say ‘What are you doing? What are these?’. He was so far ahead of his time it’s unbelievable”.
Another of the aces Wenger had up his sleeve was his recruitment skills. It’s no coincidence the first player he ever signed for Arsenal became the bedrock of his best sides. This is Patrick Vieira, of course. As Christopher Weir writes in an article for These Football Times, “If Thierry Henry was Arsenal’s superstar, then Vieira was its nuclear soul, an irresistible force of nature that made the midfield his personal, unconquerable universe”. Vieira’s debut against Sheffield Wednesday was so impressive that Ray Parlour thought he wouldn’t play again. Together with a defensive force (first Emmanuel Petit, then Gilberto Silva), he became the fundamental cog of every Arsenal side until he left for Juventus in 2005.
And it wasn’t simply Vieira. Petit, Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars, Freddie Ljungberg, Sylvain Wiltord, Robert Pirès, Henry; the Alsatian seemed to be able to find talent under the rocks of his garden. Even Dennis Bergkamp, who had joined the season before, became the first of Wenger’s “like a new signing’” as he found form like he never had since leaving Ajax.
From the moment Wenger’s first Arsenal team walked on a pitch, they did so in a very clear 4-4-2. Whether it was the influence of English football culture, an adaptation of the shape he previously used in Monaco or simply a better fit to the squad he had at his disposal we’ll never know, but this would be the shape he’ll play for the remainder of his early years at the club.
The style of the team, however, did shift. As the team moved from the English core to that multicultural squad, Wenger looked to play ever more expansive football. With the historic back four of Lee Dixon, Tony Adams, Steve Bould (later Martin Keown) and Nigel Winterburn, the team had a solid foundation at the back, with little in the way of flair, but also very effective.
Thus, Wenger relied on wide men Overmars and Parlour to provide width and attack the flanks. Down the middle, Vieira ruled the midfield supreme, covering the entire pitch, and aiding both recovery and build-up, with a defensive option (often Petit, but also at times David Platt) holding the space.
Up top, Dennis Bergkamp functioned as the focal point of the attack. He would move into channels and drift along the 3/4 mark, looking for gaps to receive the ball with time and space and either play a pass into a runner or create for himself. Ian Wright would spearhead the attack, creating space for the Dutchman to operate by going on darting runs that drew defenders, as well as being capable of holding defenders and beating them on the one-on-one.
Later into Wenger’s tenure, much of this would change. The unit of Lauren, Sol Campbell, Adams (then Kolo Toure) and Ashley Cole was a much more attack-minded, versatile block. Wenger would have his fullbacks, particularly Cole, push higher and higher up, providing width to the attack like Valery and Petit had done at Monaco.
This, in turn, meant he could have more purely creative figures on the wide midfield, with Pirès and Ljungberg often cutting inside, playing passes behind the defence or arriving late to finish moves. In the centre, even Vieira took a more creative, less discipline-demanding role, unleashing incredible passing range to add to his dynamic runs and box-to-box style. As Petit left the club, Wenger moved Parlour to that central role, before finding the perfect replacement in Brazilian Gilberto Silva.
At the front, Henry’s unbridled genius released Bergkamp of goal-scoring duties, which helped prolong his career as he entered his thirties. With the Dutchman as more of a pure creator, Henry took responsibility as the lead man and thrived, producing one of the best seasons of football ever in 2003/04. Starting slightly to the left to cut inside on his majestic right foot, he caused havoc on Premier League defences.
Their general approach to play would also shift slightly, with the earlier teams much more dependent on long balls and quick transitions, mostly through the flanks. Whilst Arsenal wouldn’t drop the fast-countering style well into the Emirates era, later teams would look to favour a more controlled approach more often, building slower from the back, and moving much more coordinatedly in the fast attacking transitions. It also meant Arsenal did a lot of interplay at the last third of the pitch, with lots of interior movement.
In defence, Arsenal would often press as a midfield block, with the strikers dropping alternatively behind the ball, and the team looking mostly uninterested in closing down their opponents on early build-up. Instead, Arsenal’s press would trigger mostly as their rivals moved into the halfway line, looking then to exploit the space created.
The Modern Arsenal
Wenger had proved he could get under Ferguson’s skin in his first season when some comments on United’s schedule sparked a response from the Scotsman: “[Wenger] has no experience of English football. I think he should keep his mouth shut. Firmly shut”. In the Frenchman’s second season, Arsenal would get the upper hand in their rivalry, beating United home and away on their way to their first double of the Wenger era. The era of the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry.
United would quickly regain dominance of the league, winning three consecutive titles, including their historic treble, but those titles cemented Wenger as more than a quirky continental coach with some interesting tricks up his sleeve; he had now conquered the league and the public.
With his feet firmly set on English soil and his aptness for the job no longer called into question, Wenger was able to pursue his ideas even further. He had been smart to make use of the backbone of George Graham’s Arsenal, adapting his methods and extending their careers. However, as they began to retire, Wenger started the process of replacing the irreplaceable. He would do it on his own terms.
What once was a team with an English core and continental flair sprinkled on top by the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars and Vieira, became a multicultural squad; one that much closely matched the ways of top tier modern European football, and the path the Premier League was on.
Without that unifying sense of English tradition in the club, Wenger did a great job of finding players who would gel on account of their fierce personalities. It was a squad that was defined by their strong will and their determination to succeed. Vieira led by will and by example, but characters like Henry, Gilberto Silva and Campbell weren’t far behind.
The team that won Wenger’s second double in 2001/02 was a much more modern team, shaped by the mind of their manager. They played a more expansive and free-flowing style of football. By the time The Invincibles came to lift the Frenchman’s third Premier League title, they were almost unrecognisable from the one Arsenal Wenger took over.
However, much like their defeat at the hands of Everton in October 2002 derailed their title defence, the defeat against Manchester United two years later (almost to the date) in October 2004 broke a spell that this Arsenal side could never quite recover from. “We knew that the good times were over”, writes Wenger, “that unique moment, the time without fear, had passed, and we knew it would be hard to recapture that state of grace”. Two years later, without Vieira and running on fumes in the Premier League, Arsenal reached arguably their most important single match under Wenger, the 2006 Champions League final. With 10 men from the 18th minute, Arsenal came a few lucky moments away from lifting Europe’s most coveted trophy for the first time. It would have been the best possible send off to that team, but it wasn’t to be.
The Paradigm Shift
Had Wenger’s Arsenal tenure ended in 2006, after that Paris final, we’d look back on it in a different light. It’s quite possible that we’d put it, at least on a purely managerial scale, on the same level of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan tenure or Johan Cruyff’s Barça stint. I’m not being hyperbolic here; he reinvented English football. The revolution he brought in 1996 is now standard procedure.
Not only that, but he did it whilst fighting every prejudice, and a resistance that neither Guardiola nor Sacchi had to face. As the quote from “Moneyball” goes, “the first guy through the wall always gets bloody”. Wenger was that guy, in many ways. He was just the fourth foreign manager ever to take over an English top-flight side, and only the second to do so without the leeway of “club legend” status. He was the first foreign manager to win the top flight and even did it by challenging the status quo. In much the same way, he was the first to challenge the idea of what was possible during a season, and the tools you could use to manage it.
Ultimately though, he had no say on the matter. As part of the loans Arsenal took to finance the construction of the Emirates Stadium, he was made to sign a five-year deal, as it was only with him at the helm the banks trusted Arsenal to be able to repay their debts. With offers from some of the biggest clubs in Europe on the table, Wenger acquiesced and fused his life with Arsenal. Not that he did it unwillingly. “With hindsight, all in all, I am happy to have been able to say no to more glory, more money, and to have been guided only by the idea of loyally serving the club during that period”, he writes in his autobiography.
What followed was an era of self-control and disappointment, which forever remains in the shadows of Wenger’s early tenure. The damage it did to Wenger’s legacy is unquantifiable; even now, as time seems to finally be closing wounds, the scars will forever remain.