Image: Wikimedia Commons / Ronnie Macdonald
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Ronnie Macdonald

Reassessing Wenger’s legacy: an Arsenal cult hero or an all-time great?

Recently, Arsene Wenger released an autobiography detailing, among other things, his time at Arsenal. His account of the 22 years he spent at the North London club takes up a significant portion of the book, so the question to ask is: what does this book do for Arsene Wenger’s legacy?

Followers of football will remember that he was effectively hounded out of Arsenal at the end of the 17/18 season. While this made watching on social media fun as Arsenal fans took the time to express their dissatisfaction in some rather explosive ways, in retrospect it seems incredibly disrespectful.

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Before Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal, Arsenal saw some great success in England, however, they were not challenging as consistently for the top positions in the league as Manchester United and Liverpool were. Wenger took heavy fire from English fans and media alike when he first came in, however, he showed incredible man-management capabilities to convince his players to buy into his ideas and methods, methods that innovated the game.

Wenger cannot be forgotten for his ability to innovate

Wenger’s book showcases his emphasis on nutrition and performance evaluation through more objective metrics – using (admittedly rather primitive, yet nonetheless innovative) statistics to evaluate the performances of his players. These, like the manager, were foreign to the English game and unheard of.

Nowadays, they are commonplace. Wenger cannot be forgotten for his ability to innovate – something few managers can claim to have done in football, let alone England. Tactically as well, Wenger gave a real emphasis on technical play in a league dominated by physicality. This led to a real shift in how the English game is played, with technicality emphasised in all of the top teams.

Even in recruitment, and how youth academies were run pre-Brexit, Wenger innovated. Before Wenger, English teams had a majority of English players playing for them and youth academies full of British players. This changed due to Wenger’s desire to make Arsenal globally influential – something which he definitely has achieved considering the number of Arsenal fans that can be found around the world.

Wenger started to recruit from other countries, using the connections he had built over the years. His improvisational talents when it came to dealing with transfers may have had some misses – especially during the latter years of his Arsenal reign when the transfer process had become much more formal – but it also had many more hits, as showcased by Wenger’s accounts of the players he recruited including Henry and Vieria.

This account made me reassess how we should appraise managerial achievement

While the success of a manager is measured in terms of trophies by most people, there are many other dimensions of running a football club. Wenger spends a chapter explaining the difficulties Arsenal experienced while transitioning to a new stadium, financially in particular. Football finances in 2008 are a far cry from what they are now, with the TV deals and transfers being nowhere near as lucrative as they are now. This account made me reassess how we should appraise managerial achievement.

Before the transition to a new stadium, Arsenal were winning many trophies and only just missed out on the Champions League. While transitioning and relying on young players, Wenger managed to keep the team in the top four. It was a team that qualified for Europe despite many setbacks, showcasing his ability to build, recruit, and coach a team that had to constantly change in order for the club to stay above water financially.

Stadium transitions are nowhere near as difficult now – as the money involved is not as strenuous to top-level football clubs as they once were. With a bigger stadium, as well as a global recruitment policy, Arsene turned Arsenal into a global brand.

Financial Fair Play also made sure to curb recruitment on Arsenal’s part

Once Arsenal had the ability to compete financially again, Wenger can definitely be criticised for the fact that the Gunners never really managed to challenge for the title again. Of course, this is partially due to the general quality of the Premier League and the financial mammoths that other clubs had managed to become in that time.

Financial Fair Play (FFP) also made sure to curb recruitment on Arsenal’s part, hence the North Londoners were still as much of a selling club as they were a buying club. Wenger, by this point, had his best days behind him. Arsenal, in hindsight, definitely made some errors in recruitment, with Xhaka and Mustafi costing £69 million between them. These two are better than most Arsenal fans will tell you, however they are not at the level of consistent high-performers in title-contending teams.

Arsenal’s spine in its latter years would cost them dearly, it was clear that during the majority of the 2010s, the football, style of recruitment, and type of management that Wenger was once familiar with was now outdated, as he hints to in his book.

Wenger, during the late ‘90s and ‘00s, should be respected as one of the two best managers in the league – however, while his ability to manage a stadium transition showcases the highs of his adaptability, it seems that it was a quality he lost with age. With that still in mind, Wenger is definitely among the top five managers to have ever graced English football. He was a man of class and innovation at his best. Time, however, certainly caught up with the great Frenchman.

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