A man who is so synonymous with the club that many assumed the club was named after him has achieved yet one more accoldate to an-already illustrious careeer: Arsène Wenger has joined the Premier League Hall of Fame along with long-time rival and friend Alex Ferguson. Their rivalry defined the late 90s and early 2000s as each vied for the title, trading blows like two heavyweights. Arsenal won the Prem in Arsène’s first year; four times, Man U won it with Arsenal finishing second. THis is not about the rivalry, though. It’s about just how much Arsène transcended the sport itself.
For too many of us, the legacy Arsène leaves is a tarnished, dingy one that bears no resemblance to the first decade of his time with the club. Yes, he won three FA Cups in his final five years, setting the record for most Cups won, but that second decade or so was marked by disappointing Prem campaigns in which that “fourth place trophy) was the best we could aim for.
This though was an example of how the man become a prisoner to his own vision. He believed in a self-financing club and committed us to a plan that would have seen us become not just self-financing but successful, perhaps even dominant. At the time that he committed us to building the new stadium, expanding capacity from a diminutive 38,500 to 60,704, there was only one club with a massive financial advantage, and that was Man U. Abramovich hadn’t come along yet; not had Mansour. Once those two started throwing the money around, the new stadium debt (and Arsène’s vision) became an albatross. We suffered as one after another player was snatched from under our noses. Enough, though. Let’s look past that to the man who made this club one of the most magnificent in the world.
When he became manager, British football may had more in common with its rubgy ancestors than anything we see today. It was much more physical, far less technical, and if old footage is to be believed, a bit grainy. Hoofing it upfield towards the big fella grappling with two or three other big fellas while the pacy little guys ran around the wide areas was the order of the day. Younger fans would be amazed at the amount of raw, physical, even brutish play. If you could teleport an English player from the mid-80s to the current day, he’d be sent off inside of five minutes for violent conduct. Fitness and training were a joke. Players showed up to matches hungover, sometimes still drunk, from the night before.
Arsène changed all of that. He introduced training regimens and fitness standards and tactics that revolutionised the sport. The technical, flowing, Wengerball took some time to instill. It’s a large part of the stereotype of Arsenal as a bunch of effete foreigners whom you could rough up in order to unsettle, but it also inspired a generation of players and managers to copy, imitate, steal, and emulate. The man did after all win the Prem in his first season. He’d do it again four years later and again, most famously, when the Invincibles finished a full season undefeated in 2003-04. It wasn’t just the winning, though, even if there was quite a lot of that. It was the way we won, the way we played, that made this era so special. Yes, there are still some curmudgeons out there who say the success was because of Henry, Bergkamp, and Vieira, but they forget how much of a debt each of those players and others owe to Arsène. To a man, they’d attest to his influence, seeing him as as mentor and even father figure.
As Arsène saw that those legends were getting older, he laid the groundwork (literally and figuratively) for reshaping the club. We would never see the levels of success or dominance of this first half of his time here, but he came close to replicating it. He was building a young, vibrant core of players immersed in his methods. Many he plucked up out of obscurity, unpursued by other clubs. Others, perhaps more-coveted but still unproven, he convinced to join through the vision he offered and the successes he had enjoyed. Players like Koscielny, Wilshere, van Persie, Nasri, Fabregas, Szczesny, Ramsey and others each replaced club legends, and it felt like the club didn’t even miss a beat. In fact, the football may have been even more-stylish and more intricate as youthful exuberance replaced seasoned expertise.
Sadly, however, the financial winds had shifted dramatically. It was getting harder and harder to scout those hidden gems. It was getting harder to convince players to sign when they could get better wages elsewhere. It got even harder to hold on to players we already had. I won’t go into the details for this is a time to celebrate the man who got us to a point that fourth place felt like a disappointment. For much of the three decades prior to Arsène’s arrival, fourth frequently felt like an achievement.
That’s how much Arsène elevated this club—many of us expect not just success but success with style. It’s with that in mind that I’ll turn to something the man said about himself:
I’d like to be known as someone who loved Arsenal, who respected the values of the club and left it in a position where it can grow and become even bigger.
I think it’s fair to say that he’s done that. While there were periods of frustration and even irrational bitterness, we cannot and shall not forgot everything Arsène Wenger has done for this club, sometimes at considerable personal sacrifice to his own financial future, his chances at managing a “bigger” club”, even to his own dignity and emotional well-being. To see him thusly rewarded should remind some of his harsher critics of just what he means to this club. Perhaps it’s no coincidence then that we’re seeing so many echoes of his influence in how the current squad play. Under Arteta, greater financial backing is being grafted to Arsène’s original vision—young, exuberant players, many of them unheralded or unknown before their arrival, are growing into stardom while playing exciting, progressive football in pursuit of a Prem title. Ah, yes, it was Arsène who signed Arteta as a player in the first place.
At a risk of putting too much pressure on the lads (come on, though. None of them even knows this blog exists), it would be very fitting indeed to win the Prem in the same year that Arsène was inducted into its Hall of Fame.