20 Years of Arsene Wenger – Acknowledging Football’s Finest Facilitator

 

1996 was the year Spice Girls’ Wannabe made it known that in order for you to get on with somebody, you must also, indubitably, get along with the friends. 1996 was the year of the worst/best earworm, the Mission: Impossible theme, the one you smashed buttons to, playing Duke Nukem 3D on your swanky Windows 4.0. 1996 was the year of firsts. There was no Harry Potter overkill (five parts to the Fantastic Beasts saga, really?! The book is 128 pages long!), or Double-decker Domino’s pizza; and Jose Mourinho, Bobby Robson’s assistant at Barcelona, bossed Pep Guardiola around. 1996 was a lifetime ago, when an unassuming, fresh-faced Arsene Wenger found himself thrust into the spotlight of public consciousness, and he has since changed football as we know it.

Arriving in London with complete scepticism. My first league title, my first double. Going from “Arsène Who” to the one who became a pioneer. Being the first non-British coach to succeed in England.”

Player conditioning, nutrition, recovery, rehabilitation, development, micro-management was fast-forwarded 10 years into the future at Arsenal FC. The discipline of the Orient overseen and inculcated seamlessly into the perceived standards of English professionalism. However, English football caught up in time.

“For me it doesn’t represent anything except doing a job that is exclusively turned to the future. Towards the next day. I always live in the future. It’s planned. Tight. “

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20 years later, still at the job is an achievement. When this is a job of a manager at a football club in the modern-day era, it becomes all the more commendable. Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal Football Club has seen its share of highs, lows, trophies, disasters and pretty much everything else in between. When David Dein orchestrated his appointment, Arsene Wenger was managing Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, and appeared as the antithesis of everything people expected in a manager of an English football club.

My relationship with time is filled with anxiety. I’m always fighting against it. That’s why I ignore what’s in the past. The only way to fight time is to not look back too much. If you do, it can make you feel anxious and guilty.”

The most successful overseas manager in England and Arsenal’s longest-serving, who won 7 trophies in his first 500 games in charge, has won only 2 more since (back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015), and faces more than his share of doubters. Questions about signings, about mental strength, about tactics and consistency.

Being questioned on everything that has been done after every single loss, despite the consistency we’ve put in our work at the highest level. The immediate “chuck it all out” reaction. You have to find a balance between your masochistic capability to endure what you’re being put through and the pleasure of accomplishment. Today, my masochistic capability must be bigger so as to express my passion. I’ve reached that point. I do many things that make me suffer.”

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Many of these doubts aren’t unfounded. Arsenal, since 2005, have always been the also-rans, always missing only a few pieces in an injury-cursed puzzle where other, seemingly settled pieces, molded, crafted articulately in the furnaces of the armory at Hale End, traded in comfort for change in their impatience and/or greed. Fans kept on trading their heroes for ghosts. Alas, Wenger was resigned to be in a state of the perpetual rebuild at a time when the club had shifted to a new stadium and finances had to be considered.

I am only a guide. I enable others to express what they have within them. I didn’t create anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My never ending struggle in this business is to release what is beautiful in man. I can be described as naïve in that sense. But it allows me to believe, and I am often proven right.”

He made mistakes, he still makes mistakes, but in our book, despite all my other frustrations about him, his achievement of keeping us in the top 4 in the league with the background of everything that has been going on, should be appreciated at the very least. Of course, we’ve been frustrated at his stubbornness in persisting with the same thing but expecting different results, of course, we were disillusioned when we put ourselves in difficult positions all on our own or lost the chance to win the league in a season that was ours for the taking. Instead, as the narrative would have it, it was Ranieri’s men who got their fairytale and we were left with the still enviable but less desirable position of second best.

The philosophical definition of happiness is a match between what you want and what you have. And what you want changes as soon as you’ve got it. Always more. Always better. Hence the difficulty to satisfy. An Arsenal fan, when you finish fourth, will say, “Hey, we’ve been in the top four for twenty years. We want to win the league!”. They don’t care that Manchester City or Chelsea have spent 300 or 400 million euros.”

It begs the question – Are the club in a loop where the Holy Grail of their first league title since the Invincibles in 2004 will always be just out of reach?

The start of the current season seemed to prove the naysayers right, despite a productive summer of signings that on paper at least added depth and provided necessary cover. Then, things started improving. Slowly, bit by bit, the trademark Arsenal game seemed to be returning. And it couldn’t have been any sooner, for it was when London arch-rivals, Chelsea visited the Emirates that Arsenal produced their sweetest symphony in many seasons, a first at the Emirates since 2010.

I don’t deny that I’m first and foremost an educator. However, I don’t feel like an aristocrat at all. If you had lived with me, loading manure on carts, you would have understood. I try to be faithful to the values that I believe to be important in life and to pass them on to others. As kid from Duttlenheim who went running in the fields every day. Aristocrats had their heads cut off in France. I strive to pass on values.”

 

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It was a fluency and confidence his team carried over and refined in their Champions League game versus FC Basel. It was another stunning half of high-tempo football. 12 attempts on goal (8 on target) and 2 wonderfully orchestrated finishes. Some poor Arsenal finishing and Tomas Vaclik spared Basel further embarrassment, but it was enough to witness Arsenal’s ease of movement and combination play, the creativity of their midfield, how the entire team, especially the front three, showcased a cohesion of purpose and unspoken understanding to execute forward moves with speed and accuracy, creating the necessary space.

There is a kind of magic when men unite their energies to express a common idea. That is when sport becomes beautiful. The unhappiness of man comes when he finds himself alone to fight against the problems he must face. Especially in modern society. Team sport has a value, that of being able to be ahead of its time. You can play with eleven players from eleven different countries and offer a collective work. Today’s sports can show what the world of tomorrow will be. We can share fabulous emotions with people that you can’t talk to. That is not yet possible in daily society.”

However, it’s important to note that Arsenal have had such dominant periods in seasons before (though granted the football they have played in the Chelsea and Basel games was on a different level), and it remains to be seen what they can do on days when the football or finishing isn’t flowing as freely or they face a team that likes to park the bus. Arsenal’s seasons often consist of such scintillating wins; individual victories that should translate into a season that finally proves that promise, yet don’t. A few recent examples include defeating City at the Etihad in early 2015, those Champions League wins against Barcelona, AC Milan, and Bayern Munich, the FA Cup win at Old Trafford and the 3-0 demolition of the same team in the league the following season.

I’ve been called naïf on that level. In any case, there’s only one way to live your life. You have to conform to the values you believe to be important. If I don’t respect them, I would be unhappy. And in any case, I’ve always been a man who was completely committed to the cause.”

Those individual games answered the question of whether Arsenal are capable of beating the big teams, of whether Arsene Wenger can “do tactics”. But what about coping with the stresses of a full Premier League season to emerge victorious? Wenger, if his post-Basel press conference was anything to go by, is aware of not jumping to conclusions so early on in the season. There is still a lot of football to be played and much work to be done.

It looks like the team has interesting potential. We have to be ambitious and prudent. We know exactly how we want to play football and we have to continue to stick to that and get better at it. That demands big focus and some leadership inside the squad. It also requires humility. We’ll start again tomorrow evening and then focus on our next game.

“I feel responsible for the image that football has, and the image that I want to give of my club. And also, football is a celebration. And where I come from, we dressed up on Sundays. I loved arriving in England and seeing the managers wearing suits and ties. As if they were saying, “Listen lads, our goal is to make a celebration out of this moment”. I joined in. I want that fan to wake up in the morning and say, Arsenal are playing today, I’m going to have a good time. That guy starts his day off by thinking that something good is going to happen to him. And to do that, big clubs have to have the ambition to play spectacularly. Of shared happiness.”

Arsene Wenger Illustration by @AGT79
Arsene Wenger Illustration by @AGT79

And as if by magic, their next fixture allowed them to face that very dilemma. Playing away at Turf Moor was never going to be easy. Sean Dyche’s team were expectedly well-organised and defended deep. They broke up play and were determined on the counter. Against a fatigued Arsenal who were missing the option of the injured Giroud, they looked the better team for much of the first half and for parts of the second. Wenger’s men lacked their usual accuracy in passing and it was a team that looked out of sync from the one that had played such a dominant week of football. Yet, to their credit, they persisted and were rewarded with a moment of pure luck deep into Fergie-time (well not really, but still the 93rd minute). The type of jammy, controversial goal teams usually score against Arsenal in the dying minutes of the game.

To win you have to convince. Society has switched from verticality to horizontality. In the 60’s a coach would say “lads we’re going to do it this way” nobody contested it. Now you have to convince first. The player is rich. The characteristic of the rich man is the need to convince him. Because he has a status. A way of thinking. People nowadays are informed. Therefore they have an opinion. And they think their opinion is right. They don’t necessarily share my opinion, so I have to convince them.”

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It was harsh on Burnley, but the visitors had pulled off a victory after most fans had resigned themselves to a draw. It was ironic that on the 20th anniversary of Wenger’s Arsenal career, the team won with more of a George Graham performance than with the aesthetically pleasing, technically accomplished and high-tempo football of Le Professeur’s coaching philosophy. But a win’s a win. They now move up to third, 1 point off the Spurs and 2 off leaders City. With nine unbeaten matches and 5 consecutive wins, they have the momentum going into the international break.

The beauty of football is that special days are special for a reason. For much of the rest, there are good days, and bad or worse days when you either lose or manage to grind out a result. It’s consistency over 38 games that sees you over the finish-line. And, of course, luck features in each and every successful season. The Gunners are yet to provide a convincing answer to whether they can consistently do it on a cold, rainy Tuesday night at Stoke, or at a 7:25 kick-off vs Swansea City for that matter. But as of now, they seem to be chugging along well, with momentum being shoveled into the boiler room firebox, for the long season ahead, a season which could prove to be a scenic one. If it is, that could be the grandest tribute ever paid to the meticulous Monsieur Wenger.

Time is a real luxury. I give myself credit for one thing: I always treated Arsenal as if it belonged to me. I’ve been criticised for it. Because I don’t spend enough. I’m not carefree enough. I give myself credit for having the courage to apply my ideas and to fight for them. I can understand that people don’t agree. My great pride will be, the day I leave, that I’m leaving a good squad, a healthy situation and a club capable of performing in the future. I could have thought: I’m here for four or five years, we win everything, I leave and leave the club on the verge of bankruptcy. For me, consistency at the highest level is the true sign of a great club. Real Madrid didn’t win the title for 21 years before Di Stefano’s arrival in 1953 after all.”

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The quotes are sourced from L’equipe’s interview with Arsene Wenger, dated 7th November 2015.

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Anushree Nande

Published writer and editor. Hope is her superpower (unsurprisingly she's a Gooner), but sport, art, music and words are good substitutes.