Reflecting on Wenger’s 20 years at Arsenal

Most Arsenal supporters knew very little about Wenger when he was appointed as the club’s manager 20 years ago. It looked like a gamble at that time. But the truth is that Wenger was already a respected manager on the continent. He won the French league in 1988 and the French Cup in 1991 with Monaco. He also led Monaco to a runner-up finish in the 1991-92 European Cup Winners’ Cup and to the semifinals in the 1993-94 Champions League. On paper, Wenger was at least as good as any British manager in the Premier League. The only uncertainty was about his capacity to adjust to a new culture and win in England. No foreign manager had ever won the league then.

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Photo credit: http://www.arsenal.com

Now, 20 years later, Wenger has become Arsenal’s best manager of all time with 3 Premier League titles and 6 FA Cups won under his tenure. Even legendary managers like Chapman and Graham were not as successful as the Frenchman.

Wenger’s reign can be divided into three periods. The first period at Highbury from 1996 to 2006 was arguably the most successful era in the club’s history. The Gunners won 3 Premier League titles and 4 FA Cups in that 10-year span. Only the 1930’s with 5 league titles and 2 FA Cups could match a similar level of success. The second period, running from 2006 to 2013, coincided with the move to the Emirates stadium and a title drought. That troubled period left a lot of fans unhappy. However, I really think that finishing in the Top 4, while helping the club reimburse the cost of a new stadium with a shrewd transfer policy, was a difficult task that very few managers could have handled. The third period of Wenger’s tenure started with the signing of Ozil in the summer of 2013. Enjoying more maneuvering room financially, the Gunners put an end to the title drought by lifting the FA Cup in 2014 and 2015.

To assess Wenger’s performance at the club, I’ve decided to list his 6 worst failures and his 6 most outstanding successes. Let’s start with his failures. I’ve split them in two categories: results (failures on the pitch) and management (failures off the pitch).

No. 1 failure on the pitch: 2011 League Cup final

In his first years at the Emirates, Wenger relied heavily on youngsters to compensate for limited financial resources. To speed up their development, the manager gave them playing time in the League Cup. That strategy quickly bore fruit as Arsenal reached the League Cup final in 2007. The outcome, a 2-1 loss to Chelsea, was not a disappointment when you look at the lineups. Almunia, Toure, Hoyte, Senderos, Traore, Diaby, Denilson, Fabregas, Walcott, Julio Baptista and Aliadiere started for the Gunners. There wasn’t much quality in that team and only Toure and Julio Baptista were seasoned players. By contrast, Chelsea had a star-studded lineup with Cech, Diarra, Terry, Carvalho, Bridge, Makelele, Lampard, Ballack, Essien, Drogba and Shevchenko.

The context was different in 2011 when Arsenal faced Birmingham in the League Cup final. Wenger fielded his best team for that game with Szczesny, Sagna, Djourou, Koscielny, Clichy, Song, Wilshere, Nasri, Rosicky, Arshavin and Van Persie on the pitch at kick-off. The Gunners were the overwhelming favorites against a Birmingham side much weaker than the Chelsea of 2007. Somehow, Arsenal managed to bottle it by losing 2-1. A victory would have lifted the mood among the supporters and maybe deterred top players from leaving the club.

No. 2 failure on the pitch: 2015 Champions League exit

The Gunners have struggled to shine on the European stage since reaching the final of the Champions League in 2006. From 2007 to 2009, youth proved their main weakness against PSV Eindhoven, Liverpool and Manchester United. Then, they faced teams like Barcelona and Bayern Munich that were simply too good. In 2015, Arsenal benefited from a lucky draw to face Monaco in the last 16. Somehow, they self-destructed with a 3-1 loss at the Emirates in the first leg. A 2-0 win in the second leg wasn’t enough to save the Gunners from an embarrassing elimination.

The Champions League exit in 2012 was a failure, too. At that time, AC Milan was a pale shadow of the team that won the competition in 2007. Yet, Arsenal played with the handbrake on in the first leg and lost 4-0. The Gunners saved face with a 3-0 victory in the second leg but the damage had already been done.

No. 3 failure on the pitch: 2000 UEFA Cup final

A lot of fans still have regrets over the outcome of the 2006 Champions League final. Maybe it would have been different if Lehmann had not been sent off. But when you think about it, Barcelona had a great team with Eto’o, Ronaldinho, Deco, Puyol and Marquez. They also had Xavi and Iniesta on the bench. Honestly, there’s no shame in losing to such a club.

On the other hand, I still don’t understand how Arsenal managed to lose against Galatasaray in the final of the 2000 UEFA Cup. That was definitely Wenger’s best chance to claim some European silverware. Galatasaray had a decent team with aging stars like Taffarel, Popescu and Hagi, as well as some players who led Turkey to a third-place finish in the 2002 World Cup. But the Gunners were the better side on paper with Adams, Keown, Vieira, Petit, Overmars, Bergkamp and Henry. No team could score a goal in 120 minutes and Galatasaray went on to win 4-1 in the penalty shootout.

No. 1 failure off the pitch: Passivity in the summer of 2015

Let’s not kid ourselves, Arsenal missed a fantastic opportunity to win the Premier League last season. Big clubs like Chelsea and the two Manchesters couldn’t mount a serious title bid because the Blues self-destructed under Mourinho while City undermined Pellegrini’s authority and United remained dysfunctional under Van Gaal. Despite those favorable circumstances, the Gunners finished 10 points behind Leicester, a club with a weaker squad and a smaller budget.

The Gunners were no contenders last season because Wenger failed to strengthen an aging and declining squad, adding only Cech to the first team in the summer of 2015. Arsenal became stretched after a couple of months with eight players injured as the staff made a massive mistake in the assessment of the squad’s fitness. The manager also overestimated the quality of some key players. Mertesacker was a liability when the Gunners played a high defensive line, Flamini and Arteta no longer had the legs in midfield to break up plays like Coquelin, and Walcott never turned into a decent centerforward. Injuries combined with poor options on the bench explained how Arsenal struggled to rotate and collapsed in the second half of the season.

Wenger finally upgraded his squad this summer by signing Xhaka, Holding, Perez and Mustafi. Unfortunately, it came a year late. I also think the manager should have released Rosicky, Arteta and Mertesacker in 2015. His loyalty to old-timers has really hurt the club.

No. 2 failure off the pitch: A declining scouting network

In Wenger’s first decade at the club, the scouting staff did a good job to spot relatively unkown players like Ljungberg, Toure, Fabregas, Van Persie and Hleb. However, they have struggled to unearth hidden gems lately. Koscielny in 2010 and Bellerin in 2011 are the last signings who have surpassed expectations.

The French league used to be a gold mine for the Gunners. In the past few years, they have made some poor signings (Chamakh, Squillaci, Park and Gervinho) while missing out on the top prospects (Varane, Pogba, Martial, Coman, Kondogbia, Mahrez and Kante). It’s a similar situation in the United Kingdom where Arsenal spent about 16 million pounds to sign Chambers while Tottenham got Alli for 5 million.

In February, the club signed Wrigglesworth, Leicester’s head of technical scouting, in an effort to improve the detection of transfer targets. Obviously, it will take a bit of time and more than one person to revive Arsenal’s scouting network.

No. 3 failure off the pitch: Dressing room revolt in the summer of 2011

The worst crisis Wenger ever faced at Arsenal occurred in the summer of 2011 when the club lost Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy. In fact, half the dressing room wanted to leave, according to the manager. The situation seemed to spin out of control as the Gunners were thrashed 8-2 by Manchester United in August. This led to a mad trolley dash with Park, Santos, Mertesacker, Arteta and Benayoun joining the club in the last days of the transfer window.

A manager can get his tactics or his team selection wrong. But as Mourinho’s sacking showed last season, a manager can’t afford to lose the dressing room because the negativity in the dressing room impacts the performance on the pitch. The Gunners slipped to 17th place in September after five games and were still 15th in October after seven games. Somehow, Wenger managed to restore order in the house with the help of veterans like Mertesacker, Arteta and Rosicky.

Now, let’s talk about Wenger’s successes. Again, I’ve split them in two categories: results (successes on the pitch) and management (successes off the pitch).

No. 1 success on the pitch: Finishing in the Top 4 every season

Wenger has often been ridiculed for claiming that qualifying for the Champions League is like winning a trophy. Yet, Manchester United and Chelsea failed to finish in the Top 4 last season although they didn’t face the constraints the Gunners had to deal with when they moved to the Emirates stadium.

From 2006 to 2013, Arsenal lost key players every year (Henry and Ljungberg in 2007, Flamini and Hleb in 2008, Adebayor and Toure in 2009, Gallas in 2010, Fabregas, Nasri and Clichy in 2011, and Van Persie and Song in 2012) because the club had to pay for the cost of a stadium worth 390 million pounds and therefore it couldn’t compete with Chelsea and the two Manchesters for salaries and transfer fees.

Football fans sometimes say that a great manager is someone who can win with an average squad. That’s pretty much what Wenger did from 2006 to 2013. The Gunners couldn’t finish ahead of clubs on financial steroids but they did pip the other clubs to the post. For the record, St Totteringham’s Day has been celebrated every season of Wenger’s reign.

No. 2 success on the pitch: The invincible season

I’m sure a lot of fans would wonder why finishing in the Top 4 for 20 years is more important than staying unbeaten in the league for an entire season. No English club had ever won the Premier League without a loss. You have to go back to the 19th century to find a team achieving such a feat in what wasn’t the Premier League yet.

The 2003-04 season somehow left a bittersweet taste. The Gunners were a dominant force in the Premier League, but they were also knocked out in the quarterfinals of the Champions League and the semifinals of the domestic cup competitions. Believe it or not, I would have traded that invincible season for Manchester United’s 1998-99 season when the Red Devils won the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup.

No. 3 success on the pitch: Style of play

You don’t win artistic points in football but the style of play is still important to make fans happy and attract top players. Whereas Graham was known for his boring Arsenal, Wenger has injected a more continental brand of football in the club’s DNA.

Wenger has definitely set the bar high for his successor. Supporters still remember Bergkamp’s goal against Newcastle in 2002, Van Persie’s volley against Charlton in 2006, Arshavin’s goal against Barcelona in 2011 and Wilshere’s wonder against Norwich in 2013. If you’re an Arsenal fan, you expect to see goals, plenty of them, like in the high-scoring games against Tottenham and Liverpool in the 2008-09 Premier League and the crazy wins over Chelsea and Tottenham in the 2011-12 Premier League.

No. 1 success off the pitch: Transition to the Emirates

Building a competitive squad is quite a challenge when you have to reimburse 390 million pounds. No manager could have done a better job than Wenger in handling the transition from Highbury to the Emirates stadium. Can you imagine Mourinho managing a club with his hands tied in the transfer market?

The Gunners are not done yet with the payment for the construction of the stadium, but the gross debt has dropped from 411 million pounds in 2008 to 233 million this year and the net debt has shrunk from 318 million in 2008 to 6 million. The club is in a healthy situation now and able to sign world-class players again.

Top 4 finishes definitely helped secure good commercial deals and bring financial stability. If you take away the Champions League prize money (more than 20 million pounds every year), the club’s debt would have been much higher.

No. 2 success off the pitch: Riding the Bosman wave

Wenger completely changed the face of the Premier League by massively importing non-British players. Cantona and Klinsmann showed that foreign players could succeed in England. But they were the exception before Wenger joined Arsenal. What Wenger did was on a much larger scale. The Premier League became so smitten with foreigners that Chelsea fielded a non-British team in 1999. Arsenal and Manchester United followed suit in 2005 and 2009 respectively.

What triggered that influx of foreign talent was the 1995 Bosman ruling, which forbade discrimination against EU citizens. Instead of having a maximum of three non-British players in their squads, English clubs could have as many EU players as they wanted and a maximum of three non-EU players.

Having a degree in economics, Wenger quickly understood the implications of that change in nationality restrictions and signed many continental players in his first five years at the club (Vieira, Anelka, Grimandi, Petit, Overmars, Ljungberg, Henry, Pires, Wiltord, etc…). It’s no coincidence if Wenger became the first non-British manager to win the Premier League: he used his knowledge of European football and his understanding of English football to build a hybrid squad, both physical and technical.

No. 3 success off the pitch: New diet and training methods

Wenger also has a degree in engineering. He is aware that the environment of a club impacts the performance of a player. His scientific approach to football led him to change the food in the club’s cafeteria and introduce the famous Evian-broccoli diet which helped extend the career of players like Adams, Bould and Keown.

The manager also applied a similar scientific approach to fitness and training. Worried by the flow of injuries hitting his squad, Wenger named Forsythe as the club’s head of athletic performance enhancement in the summer of 2014. Arsenal’s injury record has improved since Forsythe’s appointment. On the training ground, some drills helped develop Arsenal’s slick one-touch passing by making the connections between the players almost instinctive. Wilshere’s goal against Norwich is the best example of that passing philosophy based on speed, accuracy and movement.

The succession issue

I’ve listed 6 successes and 6 failures for the sake of objectivity, but there’s no doubt in my mind that Wenger’s successes outweigh his failures. Very few managers have won more titles in England than Wenger. And very few have created a style of play as exciting as Arsenal’s. But it’s definitely the new stadium which is the difference maker for me. Some fans have complained about the title drought, but staying competitive while building a stadium is no easy feat. I’m really curious to see how Pochettino will fare when Spurs move into their new stadium. If they manage to stay in the Top 4, then I’ll have to eat my words.

Consistency shouldn’t be taken for granted. Legendary clubs like AC Milan and Inter Milan have slipped out of the Top 4 in the Italian league just a few years after winning the Champions League. Liverpool won the Champions League in 2005 and reached again the final of Europe’s top club competition in 2007, but the Reds have only finished twice in the Top 4 of the Premier League in the past eight seasons.

As Wenger’s reign is slowly coming to an end, the succession issue has become a hot topic lately. Some of the rumors thrown around by the news media have been quite ridiculous. Bournemouth manager Howe was recently mentioned in the tabloids. Let’s be straightforward: Wenger’s successor can’t be a British manager for the simple reason that there’s currently no British manager good enough tactically to cope with European football.

The only certainty we can have about the succession is that timing will be a key factor. There were a few talented managers available this year. Unfortunately, Arsenal had to take a pass because Wenger’s contract runs until 2017. The board might decide to extend Wenger’s contract if they don’t find any good replacement by the end of the season. However, if the Gunners finish outside the Top 4, an extension would no longer be an option.

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