The story has finally come to an end. For one of the most divisive and polarising figures in the history of football, the writing has been on the wall for quite some time now. After 22 dramatic years, which saw unimaginable highs and devastating lows, on April 20, Arsène Wenger finally announced he will leave Arsenal Football Club at the end of the season. Yet amidst the chaos and glory of this storied career, he leaves behind an undeniable legacy the likes of which we may never see again.
Wenger pioneered a detailed approach to training and athlete development focused on sports science and nutrition
“Arsène who?” was the prevailing public expression when Wenger arrived from Japan in the summer of 1996 to join Arsenal. Looking more like a secondary school History teacher than the managerial genius and visionary he was soon to be heralded as, the arrival of a foreign manager with virtually no playing heritage or reputation was unprecedented and met with natural scepticism. Arsenal legend and former captain Tony Adams himself admitted his initial doubt: “What does this Frenchman know about football…does he even speak English properly?”
What followed was a revolution both on and off the pitch that shaped the landscape of English football as we know it. Wenger pioneered a detailed approach to training and athlete development focused on sports science and nutrition. The booze culture that had dominated the game and ruined too many careers was eradicated. Instead, the infamous diet of boiled chicken, broccoli and pasta served to transform alcoholic, undisciplined footballers into determined high calibre athletes. Replacing outdated transfer models, he developed a comprehensive trans-European scouting network through which he was able to unearth undiscovered prodigies like Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry and bring them to the Premier League for bargain prices.
Wenger’s innovative philosophy not only emphasized the tactical adaptability of each player, it also encouraged Arsenal’s ingenious, technically gifted frontline
Through the construction of this vision, Wenger produced an aesthetically pleasing style of football that was unparalleled anywhere in the country. Through cultivating the unlimited potentials of talents like Henry, Bergkamp and Pires, he built a style predicated on elegance, flair and creativity combined with steel and physical resilience. Wenger himself admitted that his ultimate legacy at Arsenal would be the entertaining and fluid style of play he implemented. Based on his desire to see “real, modern football”, this was a playing style dictated by dynamism and aggression in midfield, embodied by strong leaders like Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, transitioning to slick passing and intelligent movement within a successful 4-4-2 formation.
Wenger was inspired by the Dutch model of ‘Total Football’ developed by Rinus Michels at Ajax in the 1970’s and combined this with an uncompromisingly compact defensive organisation. Wenger’s innovative philosophy not only emphasized the tactical adaptability of each player, it also encouraged Arsenal’s ingenious, technically gifted frontline made up of Henry, Bergkamp, Pires and Overmars to express themselves creatively in order to shape the course of the game. The hallmark of Wenger’s tactical brilliance was realized in the legendary 2003/2004 ‘invincibles’ season, when Arsenal went an entire season undefeated to become champions, a feat we are unlikely to see achieved again in our lifetimes.
The second decade of Wenger’s tenure has been blighted by his relentless adherence to his own archaic idealistic vision…
Yet defeat in the 2006 Champions League Final and the transition to the newly constructed Emirates Stadium after 2006 marked a decisive break from this phase of glory and success. Over the years the continuous surrender of title challenges and apparent acceptance of mediocrity meant growing sections of the fan base began to lose faith in Wenger’s ability and commitment. Financing the debt of the stadium combined with the rise of Chelsea and Manchester City shifted the competitive battleground. Arsenal were no longer able to keep hold of their best players and their inability to compete with the football elite in the transfer market dried up chances of silverware. The former serial winner was now mocked by his rivals as a “specialist in failure.” A team once embodied by dynamism, heart and flair was now inherently fragile and weak, led by a manager who was perceived to have lost his touch.
The second decade of Wenger’s tenure has been blighted by his relentless adherence to his own archaic idealistic vision as the rest of the sport surpassed him. One need only look to the past few seasons to highlight his fall from grace. The sale of star player and captain Robin van Persie to Premier League rivals and eventual champions Manchester United in 2012 hinted to fans that Wenger himself no longer perceived Arsenal as the pinnacle of English football it had been a decade prior. The radical switch to a 3-4-3 formation and playing of multiple players like Hector Bellerin and Aaron Ramsey outside of their natural position reflected a manager who was now indecisive and no longer possessed the qualities to inspire his players.
The most tragic portrait of Wenger, though, is how the once great revolutionary and trailblazer was left behind in the dark ages…
Harrowing defeats in the last 5 years have made Arsenal fans feel resentment, towards Wenger and apathy toward the club. Notable defeats such as the 8-2 annihilation at the hands of Manchester United in 2011 and consecutive 5-0 implosions against Bayern Munich in Europe embodied the shadow of a manager who masterminded multiple title-winning campaigns. The atmosphere around the club has at times been toxic, characterised by public protests of the ‘Wenger Out’ campaign and the entertaining Arsenal Fan TV viral rants. The most tragic portrait of Wenger, though, is how the once great revolutionary and trailblazer was left behind in the dark ages as the new school of footballing philosophies engineered by Guardiola, Klopp, Pochettino and Conte passed him by.
While his counterparts continued to innovate and rewrite the tactical handbook through styles of counter-pressing, high pressure, and dynamic movement, Wenger continuously failed to strengthen key areas like defensive midfield and could not acquire a world class striker. Particularly damaging is the recent resurgence of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain at Liverpool under the stewardship of Jurgen Klopp following 6 unremarkable years under the guidance of Wenger at Arsenal. Wenger’s very success seemed to inhibit his evolution as he created a climate both in the dressing room and within the Arsenal bureaucratic administration where his authority and ideas were left unchallenged. Despite the criticism and now fractured relationship with the fans, he remained defiantly confident in his ability to turn around the club’s fortunes til the end.
When all is said and done, Arsène Wenger will be remembered as a visionary and innovator…
This second chapter of his journey cannot be unwritten. For me, though, his legacy ultimately transcends this division between the glory years and dark ages. This is the end of an era in more ways than one. Wenger represents the last of a dying breed of managers such as Bill Shankly and Sir Alex Ferguson. These are managers with longevity and stature. They were immersed in the heart and fabric of the club and community itself. In an age where managers are disposed of within 10 games, the triumphs within the tenure of Wenger’s 22 year reign are the envy of every person in the profession and a feat unlikely to be repeated. Within this timeframe, he transformed talented youngsters into international superstars and footballing legends. He cultivated an ethos of athletic professionalism and a relentless competitive drive that permeated the foundations of the sport. While the latter half of his rule may be irreversibly tainted, it should not encapsulate the remarkable career of a man who represents the last titan of a forgotten era that shaped the modern game.
When all is said and done, Arsène Wenger will be remembered as a visionary and innovator who changed the complexion not just of Arsenal, but of English football altogether. There will be a statue of him outside the Emirates, the fans will sing his name as he departs for the final time, and he’ll go down in history as one of the greatest managers of all time.