“I believe football is not about buying and selling. I believe it’s more about building and working together and going through growing process.” – Arsene Wenger.
On 30th September 1996, Arsenal Football Club appointed a tall slim Frenchman, His name is Arsene Wenger. Skeptics around the world raised eyebrows about this appointment; little did they know that this man was going to be the longest serving and the most successful manager in the History of Arsenal football club. And very little did they know that this appointment is going to be the founding stone of the revolution which will completely revamp the English football.
Unlike other managers who are powerful figures, like a ring master who would try and control everyone around him, Arsene Wenger is a completely different creature. He is humble, calm, firm, diplomatic, and very articulate in answering variety of questions. A man of great analytical intelligence, he does not waste too many words to make his point.
Birth and Childhood
Born on 22nd October 1949 in Strasbourg, Alsace, and grew up in Duttlienheim, France, Arsene Wenger is son of Alphonso Wenger a businessman, restaurateur and a football enthusiast. Alphonso managed the village team in which young Arsene played. He took Arsene to watch games in Germany where Borussia Monchengladbach became his favorite team. Arsene Wenger later recalls “I was attracted by a game of movement, of counter attack based on speed, and dynamism that was what mattered.” We can see that now in Arsenal.
Wenger when young was a very serious person unlike his brother “Guy” who liked to drink and laugh. Wenger was completely in love with football and nothing else mattered. He was a good dribbler, a two footed midfielder who could score goals. But he had such intelligence and such a vision which were his real assets even back then.
Even as a professional footballer Wenger remained in the University to study Economics. When other footballers used to spend their holidays in Club Med, Wenger went to Cambridge to enroll into three week English course. His team mates would call him mad for this. He was a strong minded young man with a character. In an Interview once Wenger said, “The influence I got when I was a child certainly had a big impact on the manager I am now. I learned all the values that my generation had in Alsace. First, work very hard and then work harder again and still maybe it’s not enough. I was lucky enough to have a passion for football and dedication was normal when I was growing up.” Wenger always wanted an international life; he never felt he just wanted to live in his own village.
Manager in the Making
Wenger started his managerial career at Nancy a French league 1 club. In his first season in charge there, 1984/1985, Nancy finished twelfth and at the end of his second season they finished eighteenth and had to win a playoff match to avoid relegation. The following year they were relegated, though it was cited it was not Wenger’s fault since he had no funds to buy players he wanted.
Wenger then joined Monaco where he identified several players to build his desired team. Tottenham Hotspurs midfielder Glenn Hoddle, granted a free transfer, and Patrick Battiston, out of contract at Bordeaux were signed. Striker Mark Hateley left Milan to join Monaco and was “encouraged to learn” his fellow Englishman Hoddle would play in the same side as him. Monaco won the league in Wenger’s debut season, six points ahead of runners-up Bordeaux. He also managed to win coupe de France in 1990-1991 season.
As a result of his work at Monaco, Wenger was sought after by German giants Bayern Munich, who wanted him to be their next manager. Monaco refused to let him leave and Wenger chose to stay, but a poor start to the 1994–95 season meant he was dismissed on 17 September 1994, with the team in 17th spot in the table. In 2001, Wenger said that the impact of bribery and corruption had influenced his decision to leave France, as Marseille were found guilty of match fixing in 1994.
In January 1995, Wenger joined Japanese J- League team Nagoya Grampus Eight. Wenger enjoyed a successful 18-month stint with the club, as Nagoya Grampus won the national cup competition, the Emperor’s Cup, in his first season and he received the J. League Manager of the Year award in 1995. In his final season, Nagoya Grampus finished runners-up in the league.
Wenger did a great job at Grampus. He took over a struggling side and lifted it all up. The biggest highlight of his career there was managing a big star Dragan Stojkovic. Stojkovic was underperforming when Wenger arrived there. He got him playing again to everyone’s delight.
His stay in Japan forced Wenger to find qualities in himself which were not needed in France. He later said that his twenty months in Japan made him more compose and calm and he regarded that as crucial to his development as a manager.
The phlegmatic Wenger was made for the part. Japan’s culture suited his conciliatory style of man management. He is able to control his temper in almost every situation, and since he hates shouting at his players anyway, working in a country where calmness is regarded as strength rather than weakness was ideal for him. This was completely different from the way Alex Ferguson and George Graham used to work at their own respective clubs.
English Premier League in 1990s
The English Premier League was completely different ball game back then. It was plagued with complacency, boozing and ignorance. Nightclubs, gambling and brawls formed the integral part of player’s lifestyle. English football was dominated by FA and managers whose minds were closed to continental training methods. The English considered they were the fittest and had complete apathy towards foreign regimes. The game was built on shallow foundations of limited players whose technical development was woefully neglected. England had exported managers for decades till then, but never imported them for fear of losing their club’s prestigious ‘Englishness’. The English football needed someone who could come in and say “what you are doing is bullshit; we are doing it this way from now on.”
Arsenal players were not far behind when it came to boozing, gambling and making other sorts of news headlines. In May 1990 Paul Merson, Nigel Winterburn and two other Arsenal players were sent home from a club tour of Singapore following a late night drinking session. In August 1994 Paul Merson was under police investigation when he left the scene of car crash. In November 1994 Ray Parlour was involved in a brawl at a club and Mirror gave the headline “Ray Parlour blinded in a nightclub brawl.” Then Tony Adams “The Arsenal Captain” on a TV interview admitted that he is an alcoholic. When you go back and read every detail on the Highbury crime sheet, the full list of misdemeanors by its players, you will think “Can a team that has won six trophies in eight years really be such a gang of boozers, gamblers and outlaws?” This team was getting old and losing its charm. After an unsuccessful 1995-96 season Bruce Rioch was sacked. The turbulent Arsenal was ready to welcome its new Manager. A new era at Arsenal F.C was about to begin.
Arsenal F C – The Destiny
Arsene Wenger was recommended to Arsenal Board by his close friend David Dein. After interviewing many candidates the board finally appointed Wenger for the most Coveted Job of the time. On his appointment Wenger was greeted with the title “Arsene WHO?” Alex Ferguson derided his intellect by comparing him to a 15 year old African boy who like Wenger, could also speak five different languages. Club captain Tony Adams was also unimpressed. He says “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?” But Wenger knew what was at stake. After their first defeat in cologne Wenger said: “I am conscious that I have to win over the supporters because they don’t know me and I am a Foreigner. But if they reject me it will not be because I am a foreigner. They will reject me if I don’t do my job well.”
The Change that was needed
Before his first game in charge, Wenger banned the team from eating chocolate, provoking an outrage: As the team was travelling to Blackburn for their premier league match the players, furious with his decision were chanting at the back of the bus ‘we want our Mars bars.‘ Having grown up in a restaurant, Wenger knew the importance of nutrition and was not going to back down.
According to David Seaman in his Auto biography “The Safe Hands” he said ‘Arsene made it clear that there will be total change straight away. There was no messing around. He told us: “This is how I run training and this is how I expect you to eat and look after yourself.”’
It was actually not that simple. It was not easy for a manger with little achievements to show, to come from an inferior and unknown league and tell the established players of such prestigious club what they are suppose to do. There was resistance for every change that was suggested. Wenger wanted a training session in the evening in addition to their morning training sessions but then he had to compromise for lengthier morning sessions instead. When the players found out that their diet was revolutionized, chips, eggs and other junk food were replaced by steamed fish, broccoli and raw vegetables they nauseated. But very soon the players noticed that these innovations had a positive impact on the whole Arsenal Squad. Seaman in his book says “When Tony, Martin, Wright and I were on England duty other players noticed that we were still flying even after eighty minutes, they started asking what we were taking. They copied what we were doing and carried on when they went to their respective clubs. When this went back to Arsene he warned us to not tell other player what we were doing and taking.” Wenger’s training techniques were distillation of two decades of research practice, observation and careful thinking. Work on the training had pitch became more scientific. Wenger was always out on the pitch with his stop watch and he always knew what he wanted his players to do. Every training activity is scheduled according to his stop watch. Tony Adams says: “He knew each and every player inside out and could tell if the player is fit just by watching him run. He is a thinker, a listener, and he cares a lot about his player’s welfare.”
Assembling The Invincibles
Before Wenger arrived at Highbury, Arsenal was a very English side with just three foreign players, Bergkemp, Viera and Garde. They played defensive football inspired by George Graham. The idea behind that philosophy was to stop the opponent from playing. This resulted in a very boring football, but effective with the kind of technical limitation the players had at that time. While most managers in the premier league believed winning headers and knockdowns in the penalty area was a good way to score goals, Wenger had a different approach to the game. He believed that the most exciting part of the football game is when the goal is scored, and second most exciting part of the game is when possession exchanges opening up many possibilities. He believed a football game is supposed to be attack minded, it should create plethora of chances and if executed effectively it could bring in the maximum points. This would result into more entertainment for the spectators as well. This belief was clearly more advanced and less old fashioned. But to implement this method effectively Arsenal needed more technical players, who could keep the ball and be creative enough to break the opponents’ defense effectively. Over the coming years there was a systematic change in the personnel Arsenal deployed in their team and the way they played which eventually led to “The Invincibles.”
Denis Bergkemp was struggling under Bruce Rioch (Arsenal Manager before Wenger). He hated boozers and whenever the Dutchman had smelled drink on the breath of team mates he would make a point of hounding those players in training matches and giving them hard time to make them wish they had not indulged the night before. Wenger’s appointment was a blessing for him. His methods and Ideas suited Bergkemp Perfectly. Bergkemp was a visionary; he could create chances from nothing. His Partnership with Theory Henry will be crucial in the years to come and will be remembered for ever by all Arsenal Fans.
Patrick Vieira was recruited by Arsenal two months before Arsene Wenger’s appointment as an Arsenal Manager. David Dein had sent videos of each game of Arsenal to Japan and even before Wenger had arrived at Highbury, he had addressed the biggest and the most long lasting problem of Arsenal Midfield. Twenty Year old Patrick Viera was signed for £ 3.5 million, from AC Milan on Arsene Wenger’s recommendation. Viera was not only very creative midfielder with the ability to pass the ball accurately but also very effective in winning back possession. He was a true leader, a motivator, and a gladiator who fought for himself as well as for the team. He was going to be the backbone made of steel in the midfield of a team that will achieve a feat considered impossible by the most in modern era and earn the title “The Invincibles”.
Fredrik Ljungberg caught the eye of Arsene Wenger while playing for Sweden in their victory against England in September of 1998. He was small, energetic, brave and resourceful. He was signed for £3 million which at the time was the highest transfer fee ever for a Swedish player. Ljungberg then reassured Arsene’s faith in him by scoring in his home debut for Arsenal that too against Manchester United. He was to become the key ingredient of The Invincibles.
Thiery Henry was struggling in Juventus, playing in an uncharacteristic position (on wings), against a Serie-A defensive discipline. Arsenal had to sell Nicholas Anelka in summer of 1999 and was in desperate need of a striker. Wenger the former protégé of Henry at Monaco believed that Henry’s best position was as a goalscorer instead of playing on wings. Amid lots of controversies Arsenal were able to complete Henry’s transfer from Juventus for an estimated £ 8.5 million on 3 August 1999, a move that will pay rich dividends in the years to come. At first doubts were raised about Henry’s ability to adapt to the quick and physical English game when he failed to score in his first eight games. After several difficult months in England, Henry even conceded that he had to “be re-taught everything about the art of striking.” These doubts were dispelled when he ended his first season at Arsenal with an impressive goal tally of 26.
Ashley Cole was flourishing in youth system of the club he supported as a child. An injury to Sylvinho, Arsenal’s established left-back, in the autumn of the 2000–01 season gave Cole the opportunity to establish himself in the first team. He remained first-choice in the position even after Sylvinho’s recovery. The rapid progress made by Cole in his debut season for Arsenal surprised Wenger and prompted him to make the defender his first pick. Sylvinho, the player displaced, commented that Wenger’s belief in Cole helped him to develop as a player: “He spoke to [Cole] and said: ‘After Sylvinho you can play left-back. You are one of the best left-backs at the club and one day will be one of the best in the world.'” Cole’s link-up play with winger Pirès and main striker Henry in a 4–4–2 formation effectively made him “a wing-back or winger playing in a back four” because Arsenal’s game emphasized attacking football.
Lauren was signed from Mallorca in summer of 2000, for a fee of £7.2 million. Lauren was a signing that took many by surprise (but just how many signings does Wenger complete without giving the press prior warning, to be fair) and initially it was unclear just where he would play – what with Emmanuel Petit leaving for Barcelona that summer and the Arsenal backline not getting any younger. As it transpired, Lauren ably replaced the veteran Lee Dixon perfectly. Lauren was a supremely powerful and capable player. In the years to come he would be remembered as an integral part of “The Invincibles”.
In summer of 2000 Wenger had sold Marc Overmars and Emanuel Petit to Barcelona for £28 million. This left a void in Arsenal attack. Robert Pires was having a mixed season at Marseille; His second season saw him suffer a spate of on- and off-field problems, which led him to boycott the club at the season’s end. Pirès was signed by Arsenal for £6 million in 2000, after stiff competition from Real Madrid and Juventus, replacing Marc Overmars. He was no speed demon like Marc Overmars, he was so much more. Pires’ languid ’10 past 10’ running style was the opposite of Overmars’ pure pace. He had far more skill, vision and overall ability than the Flying Dutchman. Watching Pires was like observing a master artist at work.
“Best things in this world are free” and so is Sol Campbell to Arsenal. In July of 2001 Sol Campbell joined Arsenal FC on a free transfer from Tottenham Hotspurs rejecting better offers from clubs like Barcelona and Liverpool resulting in severe criticism from spurs fans who baptized him as “Judas” for doing so. This signing was symbolism of dominance of Arsenal over Spurs for over a decade and a decade next to come. Sol knew what he would have to face for his decision. He said after the signing “I’ve made my decision and I just hope people respect it, “Obviously I know what happened to (former Arsenal and Spurs boss) George Graham and what he had to deal with. “It is something I am prepared to face and hopefully it won’t be a major problem for me.” Sol was the exactly the kind of player Wenger wanted to recruit in the Arsenal defense. His daunting physique, unmatched strength and ability to perform even in the most of adverse conditions made him the best central defender in the premier league of that time.
In February of 2002 Wenger made one of his most astute signings till that date and that was Kolo Toure. Toure was signed from ASEC Mimosas (Ivorian Football Club) for a mere fee of £150,000. Toure was previously rejected by Swiss clubs and French Clubs after failing their tests, but Wenger saw something in him others could not. Wenger later recalls “One of the things that convinced me was his sheer enthusiasm for the game and his huge desire to do well. As you know a successful life is about attitude and he had the right attitude.” With Toure and Campbell in defense Arsenal team conceded just 26 goals in their invincible season of 2003-04.
Gilberto Silva caught the eye of Arsene Wenger in the world cup of 2002. His performances played a key role for Brazil to lift the cup for record fifth time. Gilberto joined Arsenal on 7 August 2002 for a fee of £4.5 million. Upon signing Gilberto, Wenger said, “What I like about Gilberto is that he keeps things simple. He can play all across the midfield but the holding role just in front of the defense is what he does best.” Gilberto’s key role in Arsenal was to offer cover for Cole and Lauren. He was the main link between Arsenal’s fluent and dynamic attack and steely defense. Gilberto was an invisible wall in the Arsenal team; his performances would often go unnoticed but were so vital for an attack minded team like Arsenal.
The final addition to be made that would go on to be recognized as “The Invincibles” was Jens Lehman. Record holder for most red cards for any player of Borussia Dortmund as well as for any goalkeeper in the German Bundesliga, Jens Lehman was one hell of a signing Wenger made. The 34 year old German was notorious for his indiscipline and short temper. But he had experience Wenger needed to replace the mighty stopper David Seaman. Lehman played every single premier league game for Arsenal in his debut season of 2003-04 keeping an astounding 19 clean sheets of possible 38.
Arsene Wenger now had assembled a team of characters which had all the ingredients of being champions. Lauren and Cole had pace and the ability to cross in the final third that could break any defense apart. Pires with his vision could get into situations and could finish cold bloodedly. Ljungberg on other hand could read the game well and could end up in a box and finish well. Henry and Bergkemp could sense an opportunity of scoring goals from the most unlikely of situations. Then there was Patrick Vieira who could win tackles and break down the most lethal of attacks in the midfield guarding the Arsenal defense manned by the likes of Campbell and Toure. Gilberto would cover for fullbacks and was instrumental in breaking down counter attacks without much of fuzz acting like an invisible wall in the heart of Arsenal midfield. Right at the back in Arsenal goal was Jens Lehmann always shouting on his team and other team’s players and making sure no one messes with him. His experience and attitude was vital in keeping so many good strikers at bay. One thing common in every individual of this team was an attitude to never give up and to fight for each other till the end. Wenger had said the season before that this side could go a season without losing, but no-one really believed him. Actually he was derided for predicting so.
What this team was lacking was a spark and it was provided by the biggest nemesis of Arsenal, Manchester United. Three games into the 2003/2004 season Arsenal had suffered a humiliating 3-0 defeat at the hands of Inter Milan at San Siro in Champions League. This was followed by a disappointing home draw against Portsmouth. Next was Manchester United at Old Trafford and Wenger was playing for a draw. Apart from a scare from Giggs free kick early on in the game everything was under Arsenal’s control, until 78th minute when Patrick Vieira got his first yellow card of the match. It was very harsh for a tackle on Fortune. Vieira thought he got the ball and even if he missed the ball by whisker it was a free kick and not a card. On 80th minute Ruud Van Nistelroy jumped into the back of Vieira with no intention of playing the ball. After committing the foul which referee failed to spot, Nistelroy jumped back pretending to be fouled/Kicked by Vieira. This time referee Steve Bennett spotted it immaculately and gave Vieira his second yellow card of the match. This infuriated the whole Arsenal team. As if this was not enough, right at the end of the match when only two minutes of stoppage time was remaining Diego Forlan dived in the Arsenal penalty box for a ball he missed completely. TV replay shows there was no contact, no foul on him but referee Steve Bennett gave the penalty. It was taken by the man who started it all and should not have been on the pitch. Nistelroy hit the top bar of the post and was deflected away from goal. Moments later the game ended in 0-0 draw and this was so emotional for all Arsenal players that they started celebrating and some Arsenal player known for their character started abusing Nistelroy right in front of their 60,000 fans. What followed was a castigation of all Arsenal players involved. Arsenal was fined £175,000 and five Arsenal first team players were suspended. In this time of difficulty when it seemed the whole world was against Arsenal the whole team stood by each other. When five key first team players were missing the squad players came in to hold on to many critical games. What followed after that is history. Arsenal went on to win the title that season without suffering a single defeat, something that hadn’t been done for over 115 years. They were unstoppable tearing teams to shreds with their pace, skill, passing and devastating finishing, remaining unbeaten for the total of 49 games. Manchester United had a big role to play in helping Arsenal realize their potential and achieving a feat this big and who would have thought that they would be the one who would end it.
Nine games into the next season Arsenal were still unbeaten and the next match was against Manchester United at Old Trafford. Arsenal was on top of the table, Chelsea was second and Manchester United was 11 points off Arsenal. In 49 Unbeaten games Henry had played 48 and had scored 39 goals. The match began and Arsenal was at its fluent best but the referee Mike Riley was not. In a thrilling move which split open United’s defense Ljungberg was fouled by the last man Rio Ferdinand but referee waved play on. Then Jose Antonio Reyes was brought down by Gary Neville from behind but incredibly referee did not book him. Van Nistelroy’s potentially career ending foul on Ashley Cole was not heeded either. But when Cole clipped Wayne Rooney in United’s half he was shown yellow card. Then Rooney dived in Arsenal penalty area over Campbell’s outstretched leg. There was no contact but referee pointed to the spot. Van Nistelroy scored and the match eventually ended 2-0 in favor of Manchester United. The Invincibles were finally beaten. That match will be remembered forever for one more reason, the pizza gate incident when a pizza was thrown at Sir Alex Ferguson by an Arsenal Fan.
Since the Invincibles, Arsenal under Arsene Wenger has only managed to win an FA Cup. There have been many near misses like Champions league final against Barcelona in 2006, the 2007 League Cup final to Chelsea and finally, the 2011 League Cup final to Birmingham City. But Gooners have kept faith in Wenger for so many years. In the process he has managed to build a new state of the art stadium. Under all adversities he has inspired a young and completely new Arsenal team to finish fourth or above from abysmal positions.
The Premier League has seen some of the best manager’s in the world, and “Le Professeur” is most definitely up there. Despite the recent criticism, we can’t forget what he has brought to the game over the years, Arsene Wenger has transcended his status as an Arsenal legend and he is most definitely a Premier League legend as well.