In 1989, directors Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron put together one of the most ambitious historical films in history, “La Révolution Française”. It was an enormous multi-cultural production, made to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The film was split into two parts, “Les Années Lumière” (translated for the English version as “Years of Hope”), and “Les Années Terribles” (which became “Years of Rage”). The first part focused on the early stages of the revolution and the fight for a better life under its ideals, and the second encompasses the reign of terror and the fall of said ideals.
In many ways, Wenger’s French Revolution at Arsenal can be read in the same way. Not that the Alsatian became a disjointed paranoid and started ordering executions; however, there is clearly an early, happy (and successful) first era and a second, painful (and less successful) one. Did Arsène Wenger, like the leaders of the revolution, betray his ideals? How did one of the most influential managers of his era become a ridiculed figure?
Tied hands and broken ankles
As humans, we like to put markers on things; we like to draw lines, to make clear cuts. Most things defy this custom, with long drawn processes that shift gradually below our feet. Still, we persist, and sometimes we manage to pluck one single bit of information that manages to embody a whole array of underlying changes. As such, perhaps no move symbolises the transition from the good old Wenger days to the new era more than Ashley Cole’s transfer to Chelsea on Deadline Day of 2006. Arsenal had lost players before; however, in losing Cole, they lost the player touted to be their next great captain, and they lost him to a Premier League rival.
Unlike the players they would lose in the coming years, however, Arsenal failed to retain Cole not on account of lack of silverware or uncompetitiveness. It was a matter of simple money; when it was time to renew his contract, Cole was offended by the club’s initial offer and sought pastures new where his skills were properly rewarded. Arsenal lost the capability to challenge their rivals’ economic might at the precise moment when the Premier League became inundated with funds.
Still, change is slow and meandering. Arsenal’s post-Highbury era wasn’t instant doom and gloom. The arrival of Czech international Tomáš Rosický from Borussia Dortmund was meant to counterbalance the departure of Robert Pirès, and even with Thierry Henry leaving for Barcelona in 2007, the following two seasons would be some of the best the club would have that decade. Cesc Fàbregas came to his own and developed into one of the biggest forces in the league. Guided by the Spaniard, Arsenal led the way for most of 2007/08 before a harrowing injury to Eduardo shocked the team and killed any momentum. The next season, Arsenal would push all the way to the Champions League semifinal.
As seasons progressed, however, the stranglehold the new stadium loans had on the club started to feel more apparent; transfer market activity became reactive and almost damage-control motivated. In 2007, the loss of Henry, Freddie Ljungberg and José Antonio Reyes, three Invincibles, was countered with the signing of Eduardo da Silva and an increase in minutes for Theo Walcott. By 2011, Fàbregas’ departure brought the acquisition of Mikel Arteta and a loan move for Yossi Benayoun. Even when Arsenal spent, it seemed unrealistically bargain-like; at a time when €30M+ transfer fees were becoming the norm, the Gunners broke their transfer fee record by signing Andrei Arshavin for half the money.
Another factor that would wreak havoc among those squads was the notorious injuries, mainly those suffered by Abou Diaby, Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey, but also those that slowed the careers of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Thomas Vermaelen and Tomáš Rosický. It will remain forever unknown if anything other than bad luck was at play, but Arsenal’s injuries became infamous and unescapable. Still, every season between 2006/07 and 2016/17 would have the Gunners finish in the top four and qualify for the Round of 16 in Europe’s top continental competition. It seemed Wenger could maintain Arsenal competitive regardless of any external factors.
Behind the veil
Yet, something was lacking. The composition of each season’s team became different, with Wenger aiming for ever more technically proficient players. As Gary Thacker points out “the perception is that, amongst the players, ennui has replaced vigour, listlessness has replaced ambition, and optimism is now swamped by an all-pervasive apathy”. The Alsatian failed to replace the leaders his dressing room was losing, and the squad became younger and less experienced each time. Wenger’s role within the club shifted too, with him involved in more areas; without figures like David Dein and the old guard at the club, there was also less pushback against him. The Frenchman became an unquestionable father figure for his players, and his teams looked more and more like projects in perpetual development; perhaps that lesson in timelessness by the Japanese had stuck a bit too deep.
This, in turn, produced teams that, like the 2007/08 title challengers, crumbled under heavy opposition. As Alex Fynn and Kevin Whitcher put in their book “Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub”, Wenger’s young players could not respond to adversity in the way his previous sides had. “As a result of enhancing the attributes Wenger holds dear […]”, write Flynn and Whitcher, “victory should be the natural consequence, the end product. And with such productive end results winning has become accepted as the norm. Losing is not contemplated and therefore everyone – players and coaches alike – is dumbfounded when it happens. The ‘unbelievable belief’ coined by Paul Merson has a flip side when the faith is punctured. There seems no fallback position from which to regroup. A collective trauma invades the group. It is as if they have forgotten how to lose, or at least how to react positively to defeat, so unexpected is it”.
Even if we’ll never know how the Invincibles would’ve reacted had Henry or Vieira faced injuries like Eduardo or Ramsey did, when you hear them talk about what went down at halftime of that iconic win over Liverpool, it seems unthinkable that they would’ve failed to at least go out fighting. For whatever reason, however, the Emirates era Arsenal lost that competitive edge.
Still, the economical struggles and injuries cast a veil over all of that. Who was to say Wenger hadn’t had his hands tied right at the moment when he was about to sign the one player to make it all work again? Who was to say the likes of Nasri, Fàbregas, Song or Van Persie weren’t sold just as they were finally ready to overcome the naivety that had robbed them of success? Who was to say without so many injuries to key players those sides wouldn’t have risen to the challenge? When the curtain raised, however, things didn’t look much better.
The end of the illusion
If the departure of Ashley Cole was the moment that marked the beginning of the era of restrictions for Arsenal, it was another transfer that marked its ending and it happened on Deadline Day, September 2nd 2013. The previous day Wenger had all but confirmed it when a smile escaped (or was allowed to escape) from him; the signing we all knew about was Real Madrid’s mercurial creator, Mesut Özil.
The Merengues were about to make Gareth Bale the most expensive player in the world; back then, even them had to raise funds to pull transfers of such magnitude and some players were made available. Arsenal hit when the iron was hot and Özil became a Gunner; surely that meant a return to the good all days, right?
They certainly looked like contenders, racing to the top on the back of great performances by Aaron Ramsey. Özil’s form was irregular prompting some to brand him a flop and others to point out that he wasn’t the type of player Arsenal really needed to add. Still, the Gunners ended the year as winter champions, leading the table and very much the team to beat.
However, their season started to get derailed after Ramsey was injured on Boxing Day, and a 5-1 defeat vs Liverpool knocked them out of contention. Two years later, a 2nd place finish was as good as a token victory, with Arsenal failing to take advantage of a last-minute win vs eventual champions Leicester.
It quickly became apparent that there would be no quick way back to the good old days. The illusion broke and the world of football realised how far Arsenal had fallen. In fact, the end of frugality brought an ever quicker drop, with signings like Alexis Sánchez, Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi or Alexandre Lacazette failing to put the club back in contention.
Following the new stars
Like with Wenger’s first and second teams, we can distinguish two similar but distinct styles. Early in the Emirates era, Arsenal would retain many of the characteristics that were key to the Invincibles’ style of play, sticking to a 4-2-3-1 but pressing defensively in a 4-4-2. Rosicky and Hleb would play wide looking to cut inside like Ljungberg and Pirès, though their roles were much more akin to the Frenchman’s support of the attack than the Swede’s aggressive runs. Emmanuel Eboue (later Clichy) and Bacary Sagna provided supportive runs like Cole and Lauren had, and despite no Emirates era striker ever being as important to the team as Henry was, Adebayor and Van Persie played similar roles, wandering along the final third to find spots where they could be effective.
However, there was one big difference: Fàbregas. Not since the days of prime Dennis Bergkamp had Arsenal relied so heavily on one player to orchestrate play. Unlike the Dutchman, however, Fàbregas played across the entire pitch, often dropping to aid build-up and then rushing forwards to finish plays; a worthy display of the player wearing Patrick Vieira’s shirt. With a tactical intelligence that made him wise beyond his years, Fàbregas simply knew where he needed to be and he became integral to Arsenal’s play. So fundamental he was he became the captain at just 21 years old.
As the Spaniard grew into this role, and particularly with the additions of Samir Nasri and Arshavin, Wenger moved into a deeper, more clear 4-2-3-1, where the likes of Song, Denilson or Diaby provided a defensive line that allowed their three creators to roam from their spots and adapt to the creative needs of each play. It wasn’t a purely defensive setup, however, as Song (and later Wilshere) were more than capable of producing long runs from deep and long-range passing to aid Arsenal’s captain in the build-up.
All of that changed when Fàbregas left ahead of the 2011/12 season. Arsenal struggled for a clear style as signings meant to compensate for the captain’s departure weren’t able to fully replace him. The Gunners would get their next great star with Özil’s arrival in 2014, but by then the Gunners’ style was quite different.
Partly due to the talent at his disposal, and probably partly due to the shifting footballing paradigm, Wenger turned to a more possession heavy, high pressing side that made the most of the squad’s high technical ability. However, whereas Fàbregas made the team work, Özil was at his best when he was helping the team work. If the Spaniard was the conductor that kept the Wengerball orchestra on tempo, the German was the highly skilled soloist that looked best in an already attuned philharmonic.
There were other differences. In Olivier Giroud, Wenger added a forward who could play with his back to goal and be the focal point of the attack, something he hadn’t had since the days of Mark Hateley at Monaco. Alexis Sánchez was deadly both running behind the lines or creating for himself, more akin to Ljungberg’s darting runs than the free roam and combination play of Nasri or Rosicky.
Elcano and Magellan
We often admire the leaders who stick to their principles until the end, but we rarely talk of those who do it to their detriment. Wenger rebuilt Arsenal at a time when the club needed it and made it into a powerhouse in England and Europe. Yet, he failed to acknowledge the modern game was escaping from his grip.
The veil of the economic restrictions hid a lot of the things that weren’t working in the club. When it was removed, it became clear to see that, much like the English game was shown to have been left behind when Wenger arrived, Arsenal was struggling to keep up. The league he helped modernise was too modern for him.
Not that Wenger had lost his smarts, he remains one of the sharpest minds in football (even if sometimes his message doesn’t earn him many fans). He simply wasn’t at the cutting edge of the managerial game. Even someone much younger, like Laurent Blanc, has found that those of a certain mindset are no longer in demand. And even if the Alsatian had it in him to match Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp as coaches (and the likes of Zorc and Monchi as DoFs), the atmosphere at the club had long become too toxic for him to have a real chance at proving it. Perhaps even worse than on the “Arsène who?” days.
Of course, he wasn’t the sole culprit. There were many guilty figures, most of whom fled (either virtually or literally) almost as soon as they realised they no longer had the Frenchman’s shadow to hide under. However, by 2018 fans had turned on him as he became the face of a failing regime that long exceeded his own wrongdoings. That would be widely proved in the seasons following his last match.
Yet, like one famous Monty Python character, Wenger’s most damning failure in those last seasons was failing to realise when it was time to give up the fight. He had become the Elcano of his very own Magellan expedition, successfully bringing home a sinking ship. And then he proceeded to continue sailing the shipwreck. But then again, so did most of his achievements in football. He built his own legend from humble beginnings in a small town in Alsace. The record shows, he took all the blows. And did it his way.