“Arsène who?” ran the headlines as Arsenal unveiled the Frenchman as Bruce Rioch’s permanent successor on September 22nd 1996.
Although Wenger had won Ligue 1 with Monaco in 1998, he was largely an unknown quantity in England, and it certainly didn’t inspire confidence in the Arsenal board at the time that they had recruited a manager from Nagoya Grampus of the J-League.
However, the doubters would soon be eating their words, as Wenger was to win the domestic double in his first full season at Highbury, before going on to win two more Premier League titles and six FA Cups.
Although the second decade of Wenger’s reign was not nearly as successful or as trophy-laden as his first, his longevity is, by modern footballing standards, remarkable.
— Guardian sport (@guardian_sport) September 22, 2016
In that twenty years he has had a number of defining moments that have made him one of the best Premier League managers ever – here are ten such moments:
10. Beating Tottenham to a Top Four finish (2006)
Arsenal’s record of qualifying for the Champions League under Wenger has been exemplary, but the closest they came (and have come since) to dropping out of the top four came in the 2005/06 season.
Wenger’s side had not been inside the top four since November, and looked for all the world like they would be playing Europa League football the following year (unless they beat Barcelona in the Champions League final). However, North London rivals Tottrnham allowed them back into the race towards the end, and that was all they needed.
Spurs slipped up on the final day, losing 2-1 to West Ham at Upton Park as half the team battled food poisoning. Arsenal, for their part, did the necessary and beat Wigan at the final ever Premier League game at Highbury to seatl the Champions League spot right at the death.
9. Beating Real Madrid at the Bernabéu (2006)
Though the 2005/06 domestic season will not be particularly fondly remembered by Arsenal fans, the European campaign was arguably their best ever.
On the way to their first ever Champions League final they were drawn against Spanish giants Real Madrid in the last sixteen, in what was to be a true test of this side’s ability.
The only goal of the game came just after half time, Thierry Henry embarking on a terrific run and finish to give the away side a priceless away goal and put serious pressure on Fabio Capello and his team. As it turned out, they had no answer, and a 0-0 draw in the return leg at Highbury sent Arsenal into a quarter-final tie with Juventus.
8. Ending a decade-long barren spell with an FA Cup win (2014)
By 2014, Wenger was under serious pressure. Not necessarily from the board, but after nearly ten years without a trophy the fans were becoming seriously anxious – especially after the manner in which Arsenal had bottled the 2011 League Cup final.
When they went 2-0 down to Hull within the first 10 minutes of the FA Cup final, everyone associated with the club must have feared the worst, that the barren run was set to continue.
However, a Santi Cazorla effort not long after Hull’s second, and a Laurent Koscielny equaliser with twenty minutes to go swung the tie massively in Arsenal’s favour, and an Aaron Ramsey goal in extra time sealed the win and the Gunners finally got their hands on some silverware once again.
Wenger has since admitted that he might have resigned had they lost that final.
7. Signing Thierry Henry (1999)
There was mild panic in 1999 when Nicolas Anelka sulked his way out of Higbuury for £22m, and when Wenger used that money to buy Thierry Henry, who at the time was floundering on the Juventus wing, for half of that money, that panic wasn’t exactly assuaged.
However, just as those who had doubted Wenger three years earlier were quietened, Henry turned out to be arguably the best signing Wenger has ever made. The former French international scored 228 goals in 376 appearances for the club (including a brief return in 2012) and is such an Arsenal legend that he even has his own statue outside the Emirates.
6. Winning the Premier League title at White Hart Lane (2004)
Arsenal knew heading into the North London derby in April 2004 that a draw against Tottenham would be enough to crown them champions for a second time in three years, and what better way to win the title than on their neighbours’ ground?
They could afford the draw, but Arsenal were there to win – and led at half time courtesy of goals from Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires sent them in at half time 2-0 up. Jamie Redknapp pulled one back on the hour mark and Robbie Keane equalised deep into injury time, but it wasn’t enough – Arsenal had won the title at White Hart Lane and were champions without yet losing a game all season.
5. Taking Arsenal to the Champions League Final (2006)
The pinnacle of any club manager’s career is to take his team to the Champions League final, and Wenger did just that with the Gunners in 2006 against Barcelona.
A run that had seen them reach the final without conceding a goal in any of their knock out ties was remarkable, and when Sol Campbell put the ten men in front eight minutes before half time, it looked as though this story might have a happy ending.
However, it wasn’t to be, as a Henrik Larsson-inspired took the win courtesy of late goals from Samuel Eto’o and Juliano Belletti. It wasn’t the result they wanted, but Wenger had almost made Arsenal kings of Europe.
4. Winning the Premier League title at Old Trafford (2002)
The league win at White Hart Lane in 2004 might have been for the fans, but this one was for Wenger.
The Wenger/Alex Ferguson rivalry was nearing boiling point at this time, with barbs between the pair commonplace, and a showdown at Old Trafford was always going to be a massive affair.
Man United knew they had to win to stop Arsenal winning the league, and with the visitors missing Tony Adams and Thierry Henry, they must have fancied their chances.
However, they were not counting on Sylvain Wiltord stepping up and scoring the only goal of the game – though the £13m forward was not always the most prolific finisher, he will always be celebrated by Arsenal fans for that moment alone.
3. The win at Old Trafford that set Arsenal on their way to Wenger’s first trophy
Before this fixture in 1998, several bookmakers had already closed the title race odds and paid out on Manchester United wining their third consecutive Premier Leauge title – despite Arsenal being nine points off and havign three games in hand.
Nonetheless, the title was Man United’s to throw away, and the visit of Arsenal to Old Trafford was to be the final nail in that coffin.
Enter Marc Overmars. The Dutch international had arrived in a £7m deal from Ajax the previous summer, and repaid the fee and then some with a late goal to seal a 1-0 win for the away side with around to go. The win was to spur Arsenal on for the remaining nine games while Man United, despite winning five of their remaining seven games, could do nothing about it.
2. Wenger’s first trophies as Arsenal manager (1998)
To those who bemusedly asked “Arsène who?” just over 18 months previously, this was the prefect retort. A comprehensive 4-0 win at Everton finally sealed the Premier League title, before they could take their foot off the gas and prepare for the FA Cup final.
That was to come against Newcastle at Wembley one week after the final day of the league campaign, and goals from Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka ensured that Wenger’s first full season in English football ended on the perfect note.
1. The Invincibles (2004)
Though the Premier League title had been wrapped up several weeks previously, there was still some work to do for Arsenal to ensure that this season was to go down in English footballing history.
Wenger’s side, recognised as one of the best teams ever assembled in England, went the entire league season unbeaten – a feat that had not been accomplished since Preston achieved it in 1899.
38 games, 26 wins, 12 draws, 0 defeats.