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Friday, 18 May 2018

Arsene Wenger - An Appreciation, End of Season Awards

Arsene with his most won silverware

I've been one of many people labelled as a bit of a hypocrite in recent weeks for choosing to remember fondly the good times under Arsene Wenger after years of calling for him to leave as it had all gone wrong. Personally I don't feel there's anything wrong with being able to appreciate what he did for Arsenal, and for the English game as a whole, even though you realised long ago he just couldn't get us there anymore.
I've had a while to think about this piece and unexpected circumstances have given me the time today to sit down and write about Wenger's reign. The way it ended is typical of the end of any "great" dictatorship which sees a leader emerge whom everyone wishes to follow. Eventually they go on long enough to for everyone to see fault and the cracks become deep chasms, eventually leading to the end. Wenger's particular Imperial story mirrors Julius Caesar's ascent and fall in Rome. Having become a leading General Caesar conquered the Britons but saw his leading accolytes marginalised and removed back in Rome. He built his loyal army thanks to his success on the battlefield and marched upon Rome and became the all-powerful leader. In Wenger's case he took his army, the supporters, to support his own assault on power when David Dein was sacked. Arsene became the King of Arsenal and presided over everything. When the woeful Keith Edelman was shown the door Arsene helped to choose his successor in Ivan Gazidis, or Brutus as Caesar might have known him. Over the years that followed Gazidis slowly started to exert an influence while Wenger's own failings made him fair game - Ivan managed to lead a Board revolt. Finally he delivered the killer blow to Arsene who was forced to fall on his sword (as opposed to Caesar who was murdered) though Ivan definitely got his "et tu Brute" moment. If Arteta is the man who follows Arsene Wenger then we also have our Caesar Augustus - hopefully Arteta can reign as long and successfully over Arsenal's Empire as Augustus did. I digress, of course, and that is how it ended which is not the purpose of this post. I merely wanted to illustrate how Wenger's own dictatorship of Arsenal ultimately saw his downfall in the same way it has with most political and military dictators throughout human history.
When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal there isn't one Arsenal supporter, with the exception of David Dein, who could genuinely claim to know much (or anything) about him. This bespectacled, quietly spoken, clearly intelligent man was as far removed from a Brian Clough/Alex Ferguson/George Graham figure as you could wish to see. Stand him next to Kevin Keegan who was riding high at the time and you had to wonder what the hell Arsenal had done. How would our grizzled English pros adapt to listening to this bloke who'd never played at the top level? The fact is we underestimated the man and our English ignorance and arrogance where football is concerned came racing to the fore. We also underestimated the players who, no doubt with some gentle persuasion from Dennis Bergkamp and David Platt, did indeed listen to Arsene Wenger and quickly went along with his methods - Merson being the probable exception and he was quickly shown the door. The signing of Patrick Vieira before Wenger had even been announced must also have had an impact on the players - maybe this bloke might know something about the game after all if he can find a talent like that and bring him to England from AC Milan. Nowadays if a French teenager signed for AC Milan we'd probably all know about it but back then English football and the media was so insular that nobody knew anything about Vieira, even though Italian football was live on Channel 4. In that paragraph alone I've alluded to two or three things that have changed in English football as a direct result of Arsene Wenger's influence. To hear that idiot Neil Ashton from The Sun (he has a journalism degree and is therefore a football expert according to people in his profession) say he doesn't understand why Wenger gets that credit just sums up that cretin and his newspaper. Arsenal should have followed Liverpool and Everton's lead and banned The Sun years ago.
That first (not full) season saw Arsenal start to play a more expansive than we'd seen since around 1992. Wenger stuck with Bruce Rioch's preferred three centre-backs for the rest of the campaign, again a sign of his intelligence to not rock the boat unnecessarily early, and going to Highbury became very entertaining. We beat Spurs on a rainy Sunday with two brilliant late goals from Adams and Bergkamp but it was a dominant performance. This brought Wenger some early credit with the fans, again along with the signing of Vieira, and we were pushing for the Title until relatively late on when home defeats to Wimbledon and Liverpool (including a controversial penalty) just about saw us out of things. Nevertheless it was an encouraging start. What followed in the Summer of 1997 was a revolution.
Arsenal were famed for not spending. It had meant us missing out on Roy Keane, Alan Shearer, Chris Sutton and others in recent years. Bergkamp and Platt had arrived for big money in 1995 but that was very much an exception. Someone, presumably Dein, persuaded the Board to spend out on a huge overhaul of the playing staff. Merson, Hartson, Linighan, Morrow, Selley and other squad and fringe players were let go. Arsene set to work on bringing in a mix of experience and youth, mostly from abroad, that would galvanise the entire club for the following season. Nicolas Anelka had made his debut on the final day of the previous season at Derby. Petit and Grimandi arrived from Monaco, Manninger came in to be the planned successor to David Seaman, Boa Morte, Wreh, Mendez and Upson were young players brought in to bolster squad numbers and, most impressively of all, Marc Overmars was signed from Ajax. Wenger gambled on the Holland man who had suffered serious injuries in recent years. It worked our perfectly and Overmars was a clear upgrade on the inconsistent Merson. Dennis Bergkamp reached his peak and the Dutch pair fired Arsenal to the Double. There was a bad spell in November and December but legend has it that Tony Adams called a meeting of the players, issues were honestly debated and resolved, and the team went on a stunning run to land the Premier League and FA Cup. Petit and Vieira, two Wenger players, formed the most dominant midfield pairing most of us had seen at Arsenal and they went on to win the World Cup in 1998, combining to allow Petit the glory of the last goal in the Final against Brazil. Arsene Wenger had become the first foreign manager to win the English league. That his team did so with such pace and flair made them popular winners. He'd also proved himself far too intelligent to let Ferguson's verbal games affect him and his players. As I said above he was no Kevin Keegan.
It's somewhat of a surprise, then, that Arsenal won nothing for the next four years. The team in 1998-99, now minus Ian Wright, were probably even better than the Double winners to be honest. Somehow they lost that FA Cup semi-final to Man Utd and that ultimately cost them another Double which they would surely have won had Bergkamp scored the penalty at Villa Park. They should have won it all. The Champions League had also been a massive anti-climax and would continue to be so - a feature of Wenger's time is ultimate European failure for Arsenal. Thierry Henry replaced the troublesome Anelka who would never truly fulfil his potential once away from Arsene Wenger, while Thierry became the best player in the World. Wenger was still pulling French rabbits from his magic hat.
The team became perennial runners-up, always second in the Premier League (sometimes by a distance) to Man Utd, a ridiculous defeat on penalties to the scummy Galatassaray in a game we dominated, and then an even more ridiculous loss to Liverpool at Cardiff in the FA Cup in 2001 - that was a total mugging overseen and totally aided by the second most dishonest refereeing display I've ever been witness to by Steve Dunn. If there was anything good to come from it then it was that this was the last straw and Arsenal again looked to the transfer market to freshen things up. Petit and Overmars had gone after the Copenhagen debacle with Pires and Wiltord arriving, along with an unknown Brazilian midfield player called Edu. In the Summer of 2001 they were joined by Richard Wright (another attempt to find a replacement for David Seaman) and Francis Jeffers who came in to try and solve the problem of missing too many chances. Junichi Inamoto arrived to wide acclaim but was only really there to sell shirts back in Japan. Gio Van Bronckhorst arrived from Rangers for big money before Scottish football got rubbish. Most importantly, and most unexpectedly, Sol Campbell arrived on a free transfer from Tottenham. Wenger and Dein had combined spectacularly to pull off such a coup and find the man who was to basically replace Tony Adams.
That season 2001-02 saw Wenger's Arsenal play better football than ever before. They remained unbeaten away from home and scored in every league game on the way to the Premier League again, winning it gloriously at Old Trafford despite Henry, Bergkamp and Adams all being missing from the starting XI. The FA Cup had been secured the previous Saturday on a glorious day at Cardiff. Although it could never erase the pain and disappointment of the Liverpool game the year before the two goals from Parlour and Ljungberg, two fairly limited players who reached legendary heights under Arsene's management, will rarely be bettered in FA Cup Final's. Robert Pires had been the star of the season, cruelly ended with a cruciate knee injury that stopped him being involved near the end and meant he missed the World Cup. Ljungberg came to the fore and, with Bergkamp's unerring ability to find him with the ball, scored the goals that secured wins in tight matches. This was the first of four consecutive seasons that saw Wenger bring silverware to Highbury. The next season, with World Cup winner Gilberto now alongside Vieira, saw old habits return in throwing away our Title at the end of the season, though heavily influenced by Mark Halsey's red card for Sol Campbell at home to Manchester United and then the first of many violent kickings from Allardyce's players as a 2-0 lead was lost at Bolton. It had huge echoes of 1998-99 but this time Arsenal did manage to win the FA Cup.
What came next needs no write up from me. It was, quite simply, the most incredible and unbeatable season in the history of English league football - P38 W26 D12 L0. Invincible. It almost goes unnoticed that the team also lost in both domestic semi-finals (with Wenger throwing away the FA Cup by resting Henry and Reyes on the day) and then also wasting their best chance to win the European Cup by conspiring to lost at home to Chelsea in the quarter-final. That team was so good they could have won everything they entered that season. The fact is that they should have done. They played the most sensational football with Henry mostly unstoppable. Few who were there will ever forget the Good Friday game against Liverpool at the end of the week where they'd lost their FA Cup and European Cup chances and were losing 2-1 at half-time. Pires and Henry took over and lifted the old stadium as a whole. The reaction of the crowd to Henry's solo effort to make it 3-2 is something you will rarely, if ever, experience again. Wenger's Arsenal were truly unbeatable in the Premier League. Chelsea's new found wealth was about to bring an end, really, to a period of Arsenal and Man Utd's domestic dominance of the game. One more FA Cup followed in 2005 as we were battered by United at Cardiff but Jens Lehmann won us the game by getting us to penalties and then keeping out Scholes' effort while Lauren, Cole, Van Persie, Ljungberg and Vieira scored all of ours to give us one final highlight in Wales.
Wenger's ultimate legacy to Arsenal will be the move from Highbury to Ashburton Grove, in the same way the majestic East and West Stand's stood as tribute to Herbert Chapman from his time. Without the period of success, gained with the players and the type of football that Arsene brought to English football then there would have been no success to cause the growth of Arsenal in the late 1990's and early 2000's. Some kind of increased capacity was clearly needed. I will always maintain the move away from Highbury was unnecessary and better brinksmanship from Arsenal's powers that be would have twisted the arm of Islington Council in to allowing development of the Clock End and North Bank. Ultimately the move created a schism between "old" fans and the new breed of Tarquin's that would fill the new ground. Over the next 12 years this was a cancer that would grow and ultimately lead to Wenger finding himself under fire from thousands of Arsenal supporters. We did, of course, say goodbye to Highbury by coming within an ace of winning the European Cup but Henry bottled the chance to make it 2-0 with 15 minutes left and Barcelona finally took advantage of a bad offside decision, Ljungberg's lack of fitness, Wenger's bad substitution of Flamini for Fabregas, and the fact we had only 10 men on the pitch. Things might have been very different this past decade had Henry scored as he should have done. 
Arsene's genuinely great times were over. We still saw occasional flashes of brilliance from his teams and we saw some great footballers like Fabregas and Van Persie and Alexis. Ultimately though the vital ingredient was missing and those players stabbed Wenger in the back by leaving and, even worse, causing trouble behind the scenes in order to force their moves. He would prove his biggest failing was his loyalty to his players who would continually let him down over the years. The recent FA Cup wins have been incredibly welcome and provided a few great highlights late in Wenger's time as boss, but the fact is that it was that first ten years that was a total joy. For that time, the best and most successful for Arsenal since the 1930's, I can only thank Arsene Wenger. He might have lost it, and gone on far too long, and failed to go when he could have gone on a high, but time will heal all that. In ten years from now, maybe sooner, and certainly in the longer term, Arsene Wenger will be remembered for what he won at Arsenal, not what he lost. He will be remembered for changing the game in England. He will be remembered as an all time great. Merci Arsene.

I'll take this chance to do my "awards" for the season as I have a few more minutes available.

Player of the Season
I was thinking I have really three options for this in Monreal, Ramsey and Aubameyang. Until about six weeks ago Nacho would have walked it. However, having given it some objective thought I have decided that my player of the season ought to be someone who was written off last year. A man who had no future at Arsenal it would seem. A man who would end up being Arsenal Captain on more than one occasion and who would drive the team forward when he played and a character who absolutely gets what it is to be The Arsenal. My player of the year is Jack Wilshere.

Goal of the Season
Easy one this, it has to be Aaron Ramsey's back-heel volley against CSKA Moscow.

Most Disappointing Player
Joint winners here for differing reasons. Firstly, and this will be no surprise to anyone who reads my stuff regularly, Mesut Ozil. For six weeks around December and January he was sensational, everything we know he is capable of being. Unfortunately circumstances and his form saw the Board feel it necessary to make sure he didn't leave with Alexis and he was given a huge salary to stay at Arsenal. He's been an utter disgrace ever since and doesn't even have to turn up if he doesn't feel like it. The other is Rob Holding who looked the absolute business in the FA Cup Final last season but, come the Charity Shield in August, turned in to a Sunday League defender. Having signed a new contract I'm convinced he'll be loaned out next season. Shout outs to Iwobi, Bellerin and Mustafi.

Most Improved Player
There was a possible shout for Granit Xhaka here over the last couple of months of the season but the clear winner is Calum Chambers. I thought his Arsenal career was over this time last year but, since Christmas, he has proven to be Arsenal's best centre-back. You could argue that doesn't mean much in view of the competition but he has shown more than enough to deserve an opportunity when the new man comes in. Expect him to be sold in July.

Best Team Performance
Burnley at home? Man Utd at home despite losing? No. It has to be the Tottenham home game. A 2-0 thrashing for the greatest team in English football history. Arsenal played them off the pitch from start to finish and the shadow is still a long one.

Worst Team Performance
Where should we start? Talk about plenty of options. For me it has to be Liverpool away at the start of the season. Wenger got everything wrong, not least the decision to play Oxlade-Chamberlain who he knew would be joining them within hours! Arsenal were beaten before they went on the pitch that day and Liverpool ended up easing off or it could have been another Old Trafford style humiliation.

Surprise Package
Not a lot has surprised us this season to be fair. That being the case I'll go for the emergence of Ainsley Maitland-Niles. If he can keep his head level he might just have a big future at Arsenal. Wenger going could be the best thing that happens to him as someone new might just give him a position and keep him there.

Moment of the Season
No it isn't Wenger's announcement! It is, however, Wenger's final game at home. Him being presented with the Invincible Premier League trophy marked the Club out for the class it possesses and it was a very emotional and special day of thanks for all the stuff I wrote about above. The players turned in a Wengeresque performance to hammer Burnley and the man himself said goodbye in an eloquent and fitting manner.


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