Sian Ranscombe profiles the man who single-handedly changed the culture of a football club.
I appreciate that a profile on a person is normally written without too much emotion or bias. I appreciated this long and hard while writing and rewriting the first paragraph for this profile – and then again as I rewrote the rewrite. I eventually decided it would be far easier to ignore this fact and go for it regardless. This is a profile on Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger, unfortunately written by an Arsenal fan and, worse, one who would most definitely list Mr. Wenger right at the top in a list of ideal dinner party guests. Sorry.
In August 2011, Arsene Wenger was under fire. Journalists, football supporters, pundits and former players alike began adding their voice to the constantly simmering minority in expressing the opinion that Wenger was a man who had taken his job as far as he could. Some were respectful in their criticism, claiming he ought to be applauded for his achievements but equally that he ought to close the door quietly behind him as he bowed out. Others were less diplomatic in their views that he was past it. Football fans, a mildly insane bunch at the best of times, have an incredible ability to take any old fact and suit it to their own agenda. Some Arsenal fans claimed they wanted their Arsenal back. When pushed, few could explain exactly what this Arsenal they spoke and dreamt of was, but it sure sounded better than the current predicament to some.
Arsenal were beginning their 16th Premiership campaign under Wenger, desperate to add a trophy to their be-cobwebbed cabinet, a place that had not seen hide nor hair of a trophy in six (and now seven) long old years. By the end of August 2011 they looked further away than ever in their pursuit. Nevertheless, Wenger was given the backing of the board and was able to continue on without a question mark hanging over his job (except for the one imposed by those journalists, football supporters, pundits and former players, naturally.)
As an Arsenal supporter born in the magical 1988-1989 season and only honestly aware of football from the 1997-1998 season onwards, August 2011 was a truly depressing time for me. Not only had we kissed goodbye to Cesc Fabregas, a player whose departure gutted me more than any we’ve ever experienced, and not only had we lost 8-2 (that’s eight-two) to sometime rivals Manchester United, but it suddenly seemed as though even the most sensible of all the sensible people were turning themselves on my hero, a man who has been in charge of my team since before I knew for sure they were my team.
Arsene Charles Ernest Wenger was born in Strasbourg, France, on October 22nd 1949. Given he is now considered a professor of the game, he had an unremarkable playing career himself. At 6ft 4in tall, he played in defence for various amateur sides while studying at the University of Strasbourg. Ironic that this was his area given the criticism his defensive set-up has come under in recent seasons, and that some are even reluctant to give him any of the credit for the performances of the famous back four he inherited in his early years at Arsenal (Dixon, Adams, Bould and Winterburn), but criticism is something Wenger is well accustomed to by now.
After graduating, Wenger joined RC Strasbourg professionally, in what would be his last team in a playing role. He made 11 appearances in three years, so it is safe to say that as a player he never set the world alight.
A managerial career beckoned afterward, and a three-year spell at AS Nancy was followed by time at Monaco and Nagoya Grampus Eight. He achieved relative success with both, winning the league championship and the Coupe de France in seven years with Monaco, and the Japanese Super Cup and the Emperor’s Cup with Grampus Eight. His time in his home nation won him many French admirers, giving his reputation there a foundation that would only be built on over the next couple of decades. But Arsene Wenger is a man who enjoys a project, and for a project to come to fruition one needs more than a few seasons with a side.
He arrived in North London in 1996, greeted by headlines asking ‘Arsene Who?’ You have to believe the subs that day had an inkling Wenger would go on to be a success, as otherwise they simply look far too silly today. After a nine-year spell under George Graham, Arsenal had sacked Bruce Rioch in spite of his guiding them to a UEFA Cup place that season. You can imagine the scenes as Wenger walked into his first press conference. Even today after 16 years at the top of English football (well, the top four of English football at least), he looks the furthest thing imaginable from an English football manager. Tall, lean, and sometimes bespectacled, he looks more like a business CEO or finance expert – which is exactly what he could have gone on to do. Wenger is a man working in an industry that seems to pride itself on its quota of men barely able to string an intelligible sentence together. Meanwhile he possesses a degree in engineering and a masters in economics, he is fluent in French, German and English, and speaks Spanish, Italian and ‘a little bit’ of Japanese.
Many did not understand him or his appointment when he first arrived on English shores in September 1996. That hardly mattered when, a little less than two years later, Wenger showed more than a rudimentary understanding of English football – delivering Arsenal their first domestic double in 27 years. Since then, he’s won another double in the 2001-2002 season, plus a league title in 2004 and FA Cups in 2003 and 2005. He guided the club to the Champions League final in 2006, and made the semis more recently than that. Though it seems football is about nothing deeper than silverware these days, he made huge changes to the Club’s footballing philosophy too. Boring, Boring Arsenal became Scoring, Scoring Arsenal as his sides out-possessed the rest of the league consistently.
Although not always appreciated by his critics, he has always recognized the value in defenders, calling the quartet he inherited ‘university graduates in the art of defending,’ even if since their departure he has adopted a policy where attack is the best form of defence. Sadly, though the football has been scintillating, the titles have not been Arsenal’s. That 2005 FA Cup final in Cardiff versus Manchester United (won on penalties) was the last sniff of silverware we saw. Many have joked that Wenger sold his soul to the devil in exchange for the Invincibles season of 2003-2004, in which the Gunners went a season unbeaten and on a run that was only eventually curtailed 49 games later by Manchester United. Others have joked that the mirror he broke in the Old Trafford dressing room seven years ago has now dished out its allocation of bad luck and that the cups will start returning from now. Fans get desperate after a while, you see.
As well as titles, Wenger has brought players like Thierry Henry, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Freddie Ljungberg, Gilberto Silva, Jens Lehmann and of course Robin van Persie and Cesc Fabregas to the Arsenal. Henry remains the Club’s highest ever scorer on 228 goals and this is undoubtedly thanks in no small part to Wenger’s insistence he come in from the wing to play as a centre forward after his move to London. The players in the squad when Wenger first took charge saw their lifestyle changed beyond recognition as the Frenchman decided healthy food was the way forward and alcohol and cigarettes were the way to nowhere but an early grave. A tour of the Emirates will tell you he even had a hand in designing the shape of the home dressing room, inspired by what he learnt about shapes and space during his time in Japan.
Speaking of which, it’s been mentioned often that while Wenger has in recent times failed to live up to the success he enjoyed in his earlier years, there is one quite enormous trophy he has brought the club – a shiny bright 60,000 seater Emirates Stadium, a mere five minutes’ walk from Highbury, the old stomping ground that saw so many wins and so many trophies both under Wenger and in the decades before him. No one can genuinely call a stadium a trophy, but it’s a valid point that his ability to guide the team through a period of massive upheaval and financial restriction without once dropping out of the top four spots in the league, is an achievement underappreciated by many. Perhaps the economics degree wasn’t such a waste of time after all.
Since the trophies went away, Wenger has faced heavy criticism for his reluctance to spend money, while teams all around are spending it like it’s going out of fashion. While last summer, money was spent, it was not on the players many dreamt of seeing at the Emirates. Indeed, when the first signings to be made in summer 2011 were teenagers Carl Jenkinson and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, the usual impatient tut given out by many home fans was almost raised to an audible sigh. He went on somewhat of a retail therapy binge after the thrashing at Old Trafford, but people argued that even the additions of Per Mertesacker, Mikel Arteta, Andre Santos, Ju-Young Park and an on-loan Yossi Benayoun could not quite paper over the cracks that had been turned into bloody great craters by the departures of ‘big players’ Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri.
The week after the summer transfer window shut, Arsenal lost 4-3 away to Blackburn, who went on to be relegated this spring. It was September and they were left 17th in the league, no longer worrying about the Manchester Uniteds and the Chelseas and more focused on looking over their shoulder and the very few teams between them and rock bottom. Broken Arsenal crests littered the tabloids as it seemed some found actual glee in the demise of the man once called ‘Le Professeur.’ To me, he simply looked ill.
By the time the January transfer window opened, when it had already been obvious for months that Arsenal were about as likely to win the league as they were to spend £30 million on a player – the arrival of Borussia Dortmund youngster Thomas Eisfeld and even the loan return of the King Thierry Henry could not quell fears that the strengthening so badly needed was not being done – Wenger was still a man in trouble. Arsenal finished the month with not a single point earned. February treated them no better, crashing out of the FA Cup with an away loss to Sunderland and getting utterly embarrassed at San Siro in the Champions League. Throughout it all, Wenger remained steadfast in his assertions he would be judged at the end of the season, and that at the end of the season the team would still be in the top four. Indeed by this time, many were commenting that if he managed to get the team to fourth place after the shambles of a summer it had faced, it would rank among his best achievements with Arsenal.
Arsenal eventually finished third with a ‘nervy-does-not-even-begin-to-cover-it’ 2-3 win away at West Brom, which guaranteed Champions League football next season. Oddly enough, once third was secured all comments about this being an achievement for Wenger and his side disappeared into the background amidst stats illustrating just how poorly Arsenal would have faired without the PFA Player of the Season Robin van Persie’s contributions. It’s interesting that van Persie began to be talked about as if he’d been given to the Club as a gift from a kindly neighbour. What a surprise it was to some that a player playing the role of lone striker scored a lot of goals. Naturally, all talk has now focused on van Persie’s future, with common opinion seemingly that he’ll be following Fabregas and Nasri out the door in pursuit of bigger achievements.
It is down to Arsene Wenger to convince him to stay with Arsenal. The stubborn Frenchman so few other managers seem to get along with, who riles football fans like no other, and who always finds an excuse to deflect attention from how poorly his players have played that afternoon. In spite of the things the newspapers may tell you about Arsenal fans’ views on Wenger, he is still loved by most. In November 2011, Wenger told L’Equipe: “I was thinking about a 10 year old kid who might have come to watch Arsenal for the first time with his dad in 1996. I was thinking that he’d now be 25, and he will have known only one chap on the bench. That makes me think I’m the manager of an entire generation.”
For some Arsenal fans, Wenger is the only manager they have ever known. As a seven-year-old, I genuinely believed Arsene Wenger was French for Arsenal Manager. He is certainly not without fault, but his love for and dedication to Arsenal cannot be denied. A lot is said these days about the loyalty of players, with an argument that the players have no reason to stay with Arsenal if they don’t feel they are likely to win anything with them any time soon. When players leave, it is Wenger’s fault for not giving them reason to believe. When players stay, Wenger should be thankful he’s been given more time to prove he can make his team a success. Few mention Wenger’s loyalty to Arsenal – the man himself has called his current team the club of his life. Many will continue to grumble that his work at the Club has not been good enough, but there is no doubt that one day he will be truly appreciated for the exceptional work he has done over the years. It feels unlikely that this appreciation will come from some until he is a manager of the past. Nevertheless, as one of the fans he spoke about in that L’Equipe interview, I think that if Arsene Wenger is the Arsenal manager of my generation, then my generation is a very lucky one indeed.
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