When a spectacle-wearing slim man with the blandest of blazers walked through the marble halls of Highbury to greet the press, the eyebrows were immediately raised. There was an air of bewilderment and a touch of curiosity.
In an era of the proverbial track-suit wearing manager, Arsene Wenger’s schoolteacher looks only served to heighten the reservations the fans, players and media had. As the Evening Standard headline attested to, it really was a case of ”Arsene Who?”.
A domestic double-winning season later, and the landmark had changed. The questions quelled, the doubts disappeared and with it, the proclamation of ”Arsene Knows” had taken centre-stage.
As the Frenchman calls time on his illustrious managerial career at Arsenal, he has etched an indelible mark on the club’s legacy. He single-handedly weaved a more swashbuckling brand of playing into its fabric and revolutionised English football’s approach to sports science and medicine.
He cleansed the squad of it’s drinking culture and banned pre-match chocolates. He designed training sessions with the ball than without. He gave players the freedom to express themselves on the pitch rather than act as the methodical robots seen in the George Graham era.
The now iconic Tony Adams goal on the final day of the 1998 season encapsulated everything that Wenger had brought to the club. Here was the club captain, stalwart of the famous back four drilled together by Graham, showing a burst of pace to latch onto fellow centre-back Steve Bould’s through ball, before sweetly striking a left-volley into the net.
Adams, the man who was ridiculed by opposition fans years earlier as having the footballing ability of a donkey, scoring a goal any striker would have been proud of. Wenger made his players believe. He dragged out technical qualities that players had been conditioned to stifle. One of Wenger’s greatest legacies will be this. He made the good, great. He made the great, the best. And in his fellow Frenchman Thierry Henry, he made the best, a legend.
Arsenal’s record goalscorer will go down as Wenger’s greatest ever signing. He epitomised the joie de vivre of Wenger’s early years, combining both raw power and natural athleticism with an unflinching ruthlessness in front of goal. Henry had played under Wenger at Monaco and had seen enough of the young gangly forward at the time to sign him for a club record £11million in 1999.
Pre-dominantly a left winger in his formative years, Wenger’s vision was to move him into a more central position so as to use his pace and directness to better effect. 228 goals later, and the manager’s decision was vindicated. Wenger had an eye, both in the transfer market (where his knowledge of the French and African game was unparalleled) and on the training pitch.
He signed Ivorian Kolo Toure for just £150,000 and converted him from a holding midfielder into a title-winning centre-half. He oversaw the development of England’s greatest ever left-back Ashley Cole and stunned North London by snatching Sol Campbell on a free from under the noses of Tottenham. Wenger was a visionary both on and off the pitch and was so far ahead of his time when it came to unearthing untapped diamonds from the foreign market.
And when both the stars on the pitch and up above aligned, came Wenger’s entrance into footballing immortality. The Invincibles. Aside that went an entire season unbeaten on their way to clinching the Premier League title in 2004 and will go down as one of the greatest sides to have ever played the game.
A season earlier, after a 4-1 thrashing of Leeds in September 2002, Wenger had predicted to the world that such an extraordinary feat could be done. He was ridiculed. Arsenal faltered on the home run, dropped a 9 point advantage over Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United and Wenger was left to rue opening his mouth.
Yet at the end of the next campaign, the Frenchman had orchestrated a season of perfection. A symphony of fast-paced counter-attacking football, midfield dominance and resolute defending. It was a side so psychologically demoralising for the opposition, the game was decided in the tunnel. 38 games. 0 losses. It was to be Wenger’s greatest and last Premier League success.
Wenger often spoke of his desire to ensure he left the club in a better place than he had originally found it. Despite the troubles of the past few years, there can be no doubt that Arsenal have become a global superpower under his leadership: 6th in Forbes’s most valuable football clubs, exceeded £400million in turnover for the first time in 2017 and are the 5th most followed team on social media with a combined 60.4 million followers in January 2018. Wenger transformed Arsenal from an English football heavyweight into a globally recognised business machine.
That perhaps is where some of the criticism from his later years come from. Paul Merson’s stinging rebuke of Arsenal’s decline was putting into perspective the lack of world-class players in the current squad.
At Highbury, in a 38,000 seat stadium, Arsenal could boast the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Vieira, Sol Campbell to name but a few. Moving to the 60,000 seat Emirates in 2006 was supposed to be the first step in the footballing revolution of the club. The bigger the stadium, the bigger the club. Add billionaire businessman Stan Kroenke taking a 62.89% controlling stake in 2011, and Arsenal fans were sold the American dream.
What was supposed to be a time of prosperity and challenging for major honours, descended into a yearly pattern of mediocrity and a constant sense of deja vu. The false hope and optimism at the start of a new season; the good beginning being ruined by a brittle underbelly during the unforgiving Christmas period; the annual heart-breaking exit in the last-16 of the Champions League and then finally, enough of a run to somehow salvage a season.
Arsenafan TV have been heavily critical of Wenger in the last 18 months.
So when even Wenger’s long-heralded trophy of a 21st successive top-four finish in the Premier League ended last season, the club was on the precipice. A record 7th FA Cup which left Wenger unrivalled in the competition’s century-old history did little to appease disgruntled and disillusioned fans. If anything, the historic victory at Wembley was seen as the perfect swansong for Wenger to ride off into the sunset.
But this was a man who never took the easy way out. Wenger may have played his cards close to his chest on his pre-match press conference on Thursday, but he has always been open on spurning the advances of some of Europe’s elite.
The likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Paris St Germain on more than one occasion have come knocking, and repeatedly he refused to answer the door. Arsenal was Wenger’s personal project. He had every desire to see it through to the end. Both in the good and the bad. So when Arsenal did finish outside the Champions League places, he was reluctant to leave the club in the lurch. He signed a new two-year contract, vowed to turn things around and as hindsight would show, it was the beginning of the end.
Less than 12 months later, on an otherwise unremarkable Friday morning, news began filtering out that an announcement was coming. The rumours swirled and social media went into overdrive. At 10am, Wenger released a statement that after careful consideration, he would be stepping down at the end of the season. He thanked the staff, the players, the directors and the fans before urging for one last showing of unity to ensure the season ended on a high. The question on everybody’s lips was ‘Why now?’.
If it has the desired effect of galvanising the club into achieving Europa League success, then he will have walked into the club as ‘Arsene Who?’, but bow out, as ‘Arsene Knew’.
How Twitter reacted: