Genesis of a Legend
April 20th, 2018 and Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger sought to stun the world again, only this time it was the announcement of his resignation as manager of Arsenal, rather than the clubs on pitch performance that would make the headlines.
It would bring to an end a 22-year career, that saw Arsenal win three Premier League titles, one without defeat in 2004, Seven FA Cups and Seven Community Shields. The team also qualified for the Champions League in 20 of his 22 seasons in charge, reaching the final in 2006 against an irrepressible Barcelona side.
What made Wenger different from all the other managers in the league, and potentially anywhere in the world, is the way he controlled the club. He worked with every department implicitly, he attended youth team games often and it wouldn’t be beyond Wenger to do his own opposition analysis or even to go and scout a hot prospect in Romania.
You might think most successful managers do this, but Wenger did it more often than most people care to recognise. He was a huge advocate of Sport Science and Player’s taking care of themselves, arguably one the key reason behind Arsenal’s early success, whilst other teams wined and dined, Wenger’s Arsenal were strategically loading up on Carbohydrates, Vitamin C and Water.
Arsene Wenger arrived in the Premier League at a time when it was common place for players to be out partying until the early hours, play on a Saturday and be drinking five pints in the local on a Sunday.
It’s this small, yet significant change that made Wenger the first revolutionary manager of the Premier League era, something that players and teams take for granted now and something that fans thought to be the very minimal expectation of professional athletes was implemented and enforced by the Frenchman upon his arrival in 1996.
Wenger implemented more than just dietary changes at the club though and if it’s something that he’ll be remembered for more than anything else, it’s his persistence with his philosophy, he was heavily criticised for this throughout his time at Arsenal, much like how Pep Guardiola has been at Manchester City. Ball retention was central to that ideology, as was short passing and fast, decisive movement, a total contradiction to the style that had been employed by the other 19 teams in the league previously.
What makes a great manager doesn’t always make a great leader, but Wenger excelled at this as well. He deflected negative attention away from players onto himself, and let the team take all the credit for positive results, this often got misconstrued by the media as Wenger being a soft touch, the antithesis of Sir Alex, the leagues other long-serving manager and great rival.
Battles of Old Trafford
It’s perhaps the rivalry with Ferguson that defines his time in the Premier League the most, the exchanges of wit and words were often bitter and almost always ended in Manchester United’s favour on the pitch. Many former players describe Wenger as a placid, calming presence, but you would never have thought that to be true in the days before and after a game with the Red Devils.
Arsene’s press conferences often filled with passion and vigour rarely ignited by any other fixture. It’s this fire and passion that would sometimes result in Wenger being dismissed from the sidelines, mistaken for aggression. One infamous example coming late on in his career at Arsenal, but one that exemplifies what he was all about when it came to facing the old enemy.
In an early season top of the table clash Arsenal faced United at Old Trafford, 2-1 down going into the 90th minute and Robin Van Persie fired in a vital equaliser, but it was disallowed due to William Gallas being in an offside position. Arsene kicked a water bottle in frustration, Mike Dean responded in kind by sending him off, and even with only 30 seconds to go insisted that he sit in the stands.
The whole incident descended into a farce with Arsene climbing the dugout and standing among the United fans, Wenger later claiming that he had nowhere to go with such little time left on the clock.
“I did it because I was disappointed, not because I thought it wasn’t offside. The fourth official called the referee over and he sent me off. I don’t know what to say. There were 30 seconds to go and I didn’t know where to go.”
This was just one of a catalog of memorable moments for the Frenchman at the Theater of Dreams, and as often as his fiery temperament got him into hot water, the fans loved his passion. This was what stood out about Wenger the most when it came to battles with Sir Alex and United, many a manager would turn up to the press conferences already defeated, much like Mike Tyson’s opponents walking to the ring, you could see it in their eyes they had lost before even stepping through the ropes.
Wenger then was Sir Alex’s Evander Holyfield, never intimidated and willing to go the extra mile in search of victory. Across his career with Arsenal, Wenger got the best of United 19 times in 22 years, with a purple patch between November 97 and August 99, losing only once in eight meetings.
Preparing for a Future That Never Came
When FIFA announced it would be implementing a Financial Fair Play ruling to start in the 2012/13 Season, Wenger couldn’t have been happier. Arsenal had moved into the newly constructed Emirates Stadium three years earlier and were struggling to compete financially with the likes of Chelsea, United and even local rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Arsene was a campaigner for FFP and was aware of its inception long before FIFA had officially announced it, he made plans and preparations to get ahead of the curve, spending frugally on young players that showed promise. The hope was they’d be the next Thierry Henry at a fraction of the price Chelsea were paying for top players, prices he believed would cease to exist in the years to come.
Wenger’s trust in young players was nothing new, he’d built a reputation at Monaco doing exactly the same and he continued that at Arsenal too, discovering the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Ashley Cole, Hector Bellerin and Jack Wilshere chief among those that have had stellar careers under Wenger, not to mention the countless others who’ve had success beyond playing for Arsenal, Carlos Vela, Oguzhan Ozyakup and cult figure Nicklaus Bendtner.
The problem with Wenger’s plan is that FFP didn’t penalise clubs in the way he had hoped, rather clubs were limited from spending beyond their means as opposed to having a financial cap, like what the NFL have in place. This meant that global powerhouses like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona continued to spend hundreds of millions on players, whilst the likes of Everton, Tottenham, and Arsenal were left behind when competing for the world’s best talent.
Ironically what Wenger had asked for and spent hard years preparing for, handcuffed them into a baron nine-year spell without a single trophy, between 2004 and 2013. The new stadium build had not gone to plan financially, and Arsenal were saddled with huge loan repayments. Cash that would normally have been reinvested into the playing squad was redistributed, and once FFP came into play Arsenal again didn’t have the global brand on the level of their domestic and European rivals, and thus still couldn’t compete with the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City for top talent.
Despite this Arsene Wenger still guided his side to a top-four finish and Champions Leagues qualification for 20 consecutive seasons.
Discovering how Wenger managed such a feat will be detailed in part two…