Arsene with the Double
In the week that marks Arsene Wenger's 20 year anniversary as the Arsenal Manager (which, as I'm sure you will now know, is today) it has been fitting that the players have turned in two performances showcasing the kind of football with which his name is synonymous. The game against Chelsea, and the first hour against Basel, were a throwback to the kind of passing, pace and movement that made the first half (at least) of his reign such a pleasure to watch at close quarters. I am an avowed, and long consistent, member of the "Wenger Out" lobby. However, I believe that today is not a day upon which we should be looking at what is wrong with his leadership, but instead to celebrate the many great things that were right about it.
There can be no doubt that Arsene Wenger massively impacted on Arsenal when he arrived. Moreover, the sort of things he introduced were soon adopted by the rest of the English game as the benefits of his ideas on training, recovery, diet and fitness became apparent. Arsene Wenger provided a revolution in English football and every fan of the game in this country, regardless of their club creed, should recognise that as a matter of absolute fact. As far as bringing in these differences at Arsenal is concerned I think he benefited from the presence of David Platt and Dennis Bergkamp. I feel that they were able to champion Wenger's ideas with the rest of the squad - having played abroad previously they were not unfamiliar with this kind of progressive thinking, and maybe their influence was a great assistance to Wenger. I don't know that to be true, obviously, but I'm really not that certain that our grizzled English veterans would have taken much notice of the bespectacled French football philosopher without someone who already had their respect giving them the nod. In terms of getting the fans on side we had already seen Patrick Vieira in action before Arsene arrived and he had made a massive impression on the faithful - as a first signing from a man who hadn't yet been officially appointed it was a great initial impression to create.
Arsene Wenger is a highly intelligent man. He recognised that bringing in his own formation etc on the pitch should not be an immediate process. He straight away got the passing football started, with more freedom for the defenders to play football than before, but wholesale change was not made until the following summer when his feet were well and truly under the table. By that time his methods had the experienced players hooked and Arsenal was ready to move forward. He was also prepared to make big calls, so Paul Merson became the only victim of any big name cull from the previous era - my suspicion is that Merson failed to adapt to Arsene's way of doing things and was pushed through the door. Ever since then Merson has failed to hide a personal bitterness towards Arsenal and Wenger in spite of what the Club did for him over many years.
What followed over the next ten years was a succession of great football, a number of near misses, a good few trophies, a new stadium, and some of the greatest players and the greatest football this country has ever seen. Petit became the perfect partner for the young Vieira, Manninger a fleeting hero that looked set to replace Seaman, Overmars made us forget Merson in double-quick time, with quick being the operative word. Ray Parlour found a role in a team of technical brilliance that many would have been sure was beyond him. Dixon, Winterburn, Bould, Adams and Keown all saw their careers extended, and glory that they thought had long passed brought back to them in a way none of us could have foreseen. Ian Wright had an unexpectedly short last hurrah, only to be replaced by the sign of what was to come in the pace, power and goals of Nicolas Anelka. Arsenal won the Double in Arsene Wenger's first full season as the Arsenal Manager. I wrote a piece a few years ago about the day we beat Newcastle in the FA Cup Final in 1998 - you can read it here. That season also saw my favourite ever day at Highbury when Tony Adams sealed the Title with that stunning run and left-foot volley against Everton - if there is ever a moment that beats that Double for me (in terms of actually being there) then it will be special indeed. A foreigner had come to England and usurped all of the dinosaurs that ran the national game. Only Ferguson could rise to the challenge as he was the only one, despite his hatred for Wenger at the time, that recognised this French guy had something a bit special about him.
Somehow we went four years without a trophy after that. I will always believe that the 1998-99 side was even better than the one that had done the Double the previous year. They were a Dennis Bergkamp missed penalty away from doing it in successive seasons - if he'd scored at Villa Park I am certain it would have happened for us while the eventual treble Man Utd won would have been a trophyless campaign for them. We managed to be runners-up in the league each season, and also in the 2000 UEFA Cup and 2001 FA Cup. Wenger's boys were becoming known for bottling it and failing to turn superiority in to silverware. Things were about to change again.
After the four year drought Wenger finally decided it was time to shop properly again. Thierry Henry had arrived in 1999 to replace Anelka and was already on his way to challenging Wrighty's record. Arsene brought in Francis Jeffers, Richard Wright and Sol Campbell as three major signings in the summer of 2001. While only Sol would genuinely go on to have a major impact at Arsenal those three big signings meant there was a new mindset and determination. The fans were excited and so were the players. It resulted in another Double for Arsene Wenger with Robert Pires the star turn and player of the year. Bobby won us that Title, make no mistake, although it was left to Freddie Ljungberg to finish it off with the assistance of Bergkamp after Pires wrecked his knee - Overmars had done a similar thing, albeit in just a couple of games, when Dennis himself had his season ended in 1998. They went through the entire season unbeaten away from home. They scored in every Premier League game. Both of these were records. Above all, this Arsenal team played majestic football and seemed destined to dominate. The Title was thrown away the following year amid the physical assault of Allardyce's hatchet job at Bolton late in the season (and the corruption of the FA who suspended Sol Campbell for a wrongly issued red card at home to Man Utd) but the FA Cup was secured again with Bobby getting his own moment with the winning goal against Southampton.
The season that followed in 2003-2004 was, quite simply, the single greatest achievement in domestic English football that there has ever been. I don't need to remind anyone that the league season was completed undefeated, just part of a total of 49 league games without losing (the circumstances of the 50th game will one day be uncovered for the travesty of football corruption that they undoubtedly were). What is easily forgotten is that the Invincible squad also reached the semi-final of both domestic cups, and the quarter-final of the European Cup. The fact is that they should have won all four of those competitions. They deserved to do so. That they did it playing the most unbelievably exciting brand of football that the English game has ever seen is what marks it out as being even more special. Arsene Wenger was the man who devised that style and assembled the group of players capable of producing it, Thierry Henry hitting his very peak at the perfect time. It is often said that he won nothing until 2014 without a George Graham influence but that is a churlish and revisionist viewpoint. The Invincibles squad contained only Ray Parlour from the end of George's reign and he had never been a regular starter until after George departed. The fact is that Wenger had introduced Lehmann, Lauren, Toure, Cole and Gilberto to add to the names I have already mentioned in this piece. The squad players included the likes of Edu, Kanu and Wiltord - the revolution of Arsenal and English football had essentially been completed.
Of course the stadium move has come and gone, and Arsene has only ever come close to winning the European Cup on one occasion - we should have won it but for Henry missing chances and a bad substitution or two by Wenger himself. That is, without doubt, the glaring failure of his twenty year reign as, having been in the competition every year since 1998, only being in one final and one other semi-final is really not good enough. The second half of his tenure has been mostly difficult and, in many recent seasons, a difficult slog where the quality of the playing squad and the football they play has been far lower than Wenger had got us used to. We have had moments and, surprisingly in the end, trophies with the FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015. There have been more near misses too. There has been a fissure in the support of the club caused principally by his continuing presence. However, as I said at the top of this post, today is not the day for that discussion. Today is a day to thank Arsene Wenger for the great memories he gave us, the great players he put on the pitch for us, the great style of football he got those players to produce, and for the great achievements of his trophy wins. Whatever any of us may think of the man and his methods, I think he absolutely believes that what he is doing is right for Arsenal - I don't have to agree with him to respect the man. I will always respect him for what he achieved and for what he won. If the last week can be replicated over a period of months then there may still be glory to be enjoyed. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than for Arsene Wenger to prove the likes of me to be wrong and to lead Arsenal to the Title at least one more time by winning it this season. He is a legendary figure at Arsenal Football Club, one of many, and that should not be forgotten.