On September 22, 1996, Arsenal Football Club announced the appointment of a rather unknown figure to take charge of the team. Bespectacled, sharply dressed and typically French, the stern-looking manager set tongues wagging. “Arsene who?” a famous headline read, as the club struggled to steady the ship after the sacking of the legendary George Graham in 1995. Twenty years on, Wenger is the most successful manager in the history of the club.
With the North London outfit taking on arch-rival Chelsea F.C. tonight, the 66-year-old will take charge of the first game of his 21st year at the club. Talk of longevity, phew!
Known as “Le Professeur”, a young Wenger excelled in studies and is said to possess degrees in engineering and economics. Though his playing career was a relatively low-key one, the Frenchman was known among his peers for his vision and leadership qualities. He went on to coach three teams, including a nine-year stint at AS Monaco, before eventually landing in London. The club’s decision to appoint him was received with mixed response from fans and pundits, who were expecting the Arsenal hierarchy to bring in legendary player-manager Johan Cruyff. (Rumour has it that AC Milan had rejected a proposal to appoint Wenger as manager, because he looked too much like a schoolmaster.)
At Arsenal, Wenger was given full control owing to his experience and proficiency in managing financial matters. His most noted contribution to the club, as well as the league, was how he emphasised on nutrition and diet. This, and his meticulous training regimens, revolutionised English football.
Wenger’s appointment produced instant results for the team. He won the domestic double in the 1997/98 season that made Arsenal a force to reckon with. (He even has an asteroid named after him, by Gunners fan Ian Griffin, after winning the double).
He introduced a philosophy alien to the Premier League―a direct approach to the game that provided unadulterated entertainment to its spectators. The pass-and-move approach became a trademark of his game as the years progressed and is a common trait in all his attacking players, most notably Dennis Bergkamp and Mesut Ozil. In his 20 years at the club, Arsenal never finished outside the top four―the only team to do so. He has won three Premier League titles, six FA Cups and six community shields with the club. Despite consistent performances in the Champions League, the continental tournament has been the biggest miss for the Frenchman.
He made stars out of mere mortals, like Lilian Thuram, George Weah, Thierry Henry, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie, Patrick Viera, Dennis Bergkamp, Ashley Cole, Kolo Toure, Nicolas Anelka and Freddie Ljunberg. Often ridiculed for his penchant for recruiting young blood, most of these players were picked up young.
The highlight of Wenger’s career, however, will always be the 2002/03 season of the “Invincibles”―the only instance of an unbeaten campaign in the Premier League era. Arsenal’s record of 49 games without a loss is no mean feat in, arguably, the most competitive league in the world, where even the smallest of teams can topple the heavyweights (read Leicester City).
But, this has also often worked to his disadvantage. Wenger has been heavily criticised, in the latter half of his career for failing to adapt to changing patterns of the game and his overly-cautious approach in the player transfer market. His traditional approach to game has been blamed for the lack of trophies in the last decade. This resulted in the club’s inability to latch on to stars who sought greener pastures.
Wenger is known to treat the club’s money like his own. Cautious and calculated, with a tinge of misery. But this, too, has had a twin effect on his reputation. While he is credited for engineering the stadium shift to the Emirates, he has refused to splurge, like other big clubs, in the player market―an approach he was forced to give up in the last couple of years. And despite the flight from his philosophy, the big money signings of Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sanchez, Shkodran Mustafi, Lucas Perez and Granit Xhaka are proving to be worthy.
Wenger is the club's most influential and successful manager since Herbert Chapman (1925 - 1934). His relationship with fellow managers in the League has mostly been cordial, but there are instances of the gentlemanly gaffer losing his cool.
Fellow seasoned campaigner and the now-retired Sir Alex Ferguson and him have shared a hot-and-cold relationship, but one that is mostly respectful and courteous. (Interestingly, Sir Alex Ferguson was supposed to have taken charge at Arsenal in 1986, though the owners eventually settled for Graham.) But, no one has gotten under the skin of the Arsenal boss like the present Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho. In the latter's two stints at Chelsea, the pair have traded blows, almost physically, and entertained press conferences with audacious digs at each other.
Wenger's Arsenal will now face a Mourinho-less Chelsea, which is steadily going back to winning ways under the tutelage of Italian mastermind Antonio Conte. Sparks will fly on the pitch as the traditional rivals take on each other at the Emirates stadium. And Wenger would do well to forget that his last Arsenal milestone―his 1,000th game in charge―turned out to be a 0-6 drubbing by the very team he faces tonight. No team has marred his Arsenal story as much as the Blues and he will be trying to get back at them with a squad that looks to be one of the best Arsenal sides in the last few years.
Irrespective of the scoreline tonight, Wenger's legacy at the club is a matter of pride to the present generation of Arsenal fans and it is no coincidence that his first name resembles that of the club he represents. They were made for each other.