Twenty years on, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal revolution
Arsenal’s Tuesday drinking club and munching of Mars bars were banished and in came stretching and broccoli
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal it was more a case of “Arsene who?” Two years later, when he led the Gunners to double glory, he was dubbed a genius. By 2004, after he had overseen the “Invincibles,” he was an all-time great and club legend. Fast forward a few years and he was stubborn and frugal. By 2014 he was, according to Jose Mourinho at least, “a specialist in failure.”
But if there is one thing everyone can agree on when it comes to Wenger, and let’s face it that is quite tough, it is that he has always been his own man. A man who arrived at Highbury 20 years ago and who oversaw a revolution, not only of the famous club, but also of English football.
Arsenal’s Tuesday drinking club and munching of Mars bars were banished and in came stretching and broccoli. Hardly profound or radical in today’s game, but this was the era when change in English football invariably meant no pies and pints on Friday night or, if you were really daring, hiring a faith healer, a laying on of hands and inviting much mirth from bemused players.
The insular, semi-ridiculous - at least from the distance of two decades - nature of English football was taken to be sacrosanct. It may have been 30 years since the national team had won the World Cup, but there was still a sense that no one was in a position to tell the “in-ger-lish” how to play the game, let alone a Jonny Foreigner who, in the words of Tony Adams, “wore glasses and looked more like a schoolteacher.”
But the technical, passing, possession football that is now the norm for any side with ambitions to remain in the Premier League, let alone win it, and the idea that eating vegetables rather than a tub of lard was not a bad one was brought in by Wenger and him alone.
The big irony is that now 20 years on, the one-time revolutionary is now more of a throwback, someone viewed as a stuck-in-the-mud anachronism. A manager who harks back to a long-forgotten age when playing with the owner’s chequebook was not seen as the only path to success and when paragraphs were favored over 140 characters.
And that perhaps explains why so many Arsenal fans seemingly want him gone: Wenger is not of the Twitter generation, of instant opinions for the 24-hour news agenda, of hype over humility and of sensationalism over stability. The man who was once seen as the future is firmly sticking to his principles that are now deemed as belonging to the past.
While it is not hard to have some sympathy with Arsenal fans frustrated at the lack of a Premier League title since 2004 - who would not get annoyed at the monied arrivistes of Chelsea and Manchester City throwing cash around with all the class of an arrogant, talentless reality TV star? – the idea that had Wenger been more active in the transfer market titles would have followed is as flawed as it is convenient.
Every club over the past decade has tried, at one time or another, to splash the cash in a bid to grab glory – be that winning the title, getting into Europe or simply survival. During those ten years only four teams have lifted the Premier League trophy, one of them being Leicester City. And if there is one lesson from the Foxes’ stunning success it is that you do not need to buy big to win the league.
Today’s footballing world demands action and inquiries after even just one bad result. It does not deal in shades of grey or nuance and it is addicted to big-money signings and sacking the manager as the surefire way to glory.
Yes, Wenger has been stubborn, yes he has been frugal and yes, after some Arsenal performances this year it is easy to understand the resentment of some Gunners fans. But in an era when managers seemingly change every five weeks and players pledge loyalty only until a bigger salary is offered elsewhere, Wenger and Arsenal offer a refreshing alternative – a counterpoint to the bravado and bluster that dominates. A manager who wants to manage rather than simply go on a spending spree, and a club that sticks by their man.
The reason the club hierarchy has stuck by him is simple, while Arsenal have not won the title it is ridiculous to suggest they have not been successful. Despite the financial constraints Wenger faced, he has still guided the Gunners to the Champions League every year, all the while remaining true to his philosophy of producing poetry rather than prose.
If Arsenal fail to win the title again, this year there will undoubtedly be ever-growing calls for him to leave and perhaps after 13 years without a title those calls become ever more easy to understand. But for romantics in an age of the zillionaire, trigger-happy owner, it is a lot easier to celebrate teams that play the way Wenger’s do rather than those that achieve success simply because of the size of their wallets.
Over the course of Wenger’s reign, fellow big clubs such as Everton, Liverpool and arch rivals Tottenham have gone through 24 managers between them and, at the same time, not been shy in the transfer market. Everton have not won a trophy since 1995, Liverpool have not won the title since 1990 and Tottenham last lifted the trophy in the days of black and white TV.
Twenty years on from arriving at Arsenal, Wenger remains a maverick, an outsider, and yes, he can be infuriating. But if those stats tell us anything it is to be careful what you wish for.