“Arsene Who?” ran the headlines when Wenger came through the doors of Highbury in September 1996.
The Gunners’ season had begun in turmoil with the sacking of Bruce Rioch one week before the campaign had even started, and while David Dein and the Arsenal board had at one point been pursuing the legendary Johan Cruyff, they ended up appointing the manager of J-League side Nagoya Grampus Eight.
The “Proper Football Men” of the day scoffed at Wenger’s methods, his cosmopolitan ideas that, to play devil’s advocate, had no place in the tough Premier League. There was a sneering, xenophobic undertone when it came to the new manager, a sort of “who does this foreigner think he is, telling us how to improve English football?” thought process. Banning chocolate, introducing new training methods – then-captain Tony Adams outlined the mood of the Arsenal players at the time:
“At first, I thought, what does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?”
Within two years, however, he had broken Manchester United’s stranglehold on English football by delivering the league and cup double. Make no mistake, this was unlike anything Britain had ever seen before. This was fast-flowing, stylish, exciting football. The English game’s renaissance was well underway, and Wenger was at the forefront of the bold new movement.
In many ways, Wenger was the living embodiment of what the Premier League was trying to achieve. Sir Alex Ferguson is undoubtedly the most successful manager in the modern era, but Wenger represented the multicultural breeding ground that the league was trying to achieve, to convince the world’s top players and managers that England would be just as welcoming to new ideas as Serie A had been in the 80s and 90s.
The intense rivalry with Ferguson, the Invincibles season, building squads that were among the finest that English football has ever seen – these should be Wenger’s legacy at Arsenal. Unfortunately, most of the good memories occurred in the first half of the Frenchman’s 22-season reign in the dugout.
He was a visionary, a trailblazer for English football. Without Wenger, there would arguably have been no Jose Mourinho, no Jurgen Klopp, no Pep Guardiola, no Mauricio Pochettino in the Premier League. Would Ferguson have stayed around as long as he did without Wenger spurring him on in the late 90s, or would he have simply walked off into the sunset in 2002 as he had planned to do, safe in the knowledge that he had no more worlds left to conquer?
The issue with Wenger’s legacy, of course, is that the past has become inextricably linked to the present – and because the bad period has come after the good, that is what is freshest in the memories of many.
Prior to this season, it wasn’t even as if his record was objectively that bad (Tottenham and Liverpool, for example, would have killed for a manager that led them to three FA Cups in four years consistent Champions League qualification).
The big problem with that is that after a period of such strong success, this was clear stagnation from a club that had reached its peak and was now starting to go in the wrong direction. Those who only know the post-Invincibles Wenger won’t have a particularly high view of the manager or his achievements, and will have to rely on the archives for evidence of just how much he has done for Arsenal and the English game as a whole. He was very much a victim of his own success.
In one sense, it could be argued that Wenger lost his way a bit as the years went on. What probably did happen, however, is that the beast that he built had outgrown him. The ideas that were groundbreaking during the first half of his reign were becoming obsolete in the second half. The the rest of the top six have caught up, have evolved, and Arsenal were now looking more and more like a team out of ideas in comparison.
The #WengerOut brigade can call off the dogs now, the hand-wringing outbursts on ArsenalFanTV can come to an end, and that entire fan base can unite as one and celebrate the man without whom they could have been another Aston Villa or Newcastle. He still has the chance to bow out on a relative high with the Europa League, and the hitherto apathetic supporters should now be doing everything within their power to help their manager deliver a long-elusive European trophy in his last-ever act as Gunners boss.
In the years to come, the second decade should be the footnote, the unfortunate sequel to a wonderful blockbuster. Wenger is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the best things to ever happen to the English game – and should be remembered as such.