“One Arsene Wenger,
There’s only one Arsene Wenger,
There’s only one Arsene Wenger.”
For one final time, the Arsenal away crowd will sing the most famous of Wenger songs on Sunday. It will be extra special as Huddersfield will join the chanting in the 22nd minute to highlight Wenger’s 22 years at the club. It is not hard to envisage why the 68-year-old, who has endured his worst league campaign to date, still commands that sort of respect on a football field. In a way, he showed English football the light.
The bespectacled Frenchman, who was compared to Jacques Clouseau upon his arrival in 1996, was greeted with extreme parochialism but he won over an entire country. The Evening Standard had this headline on their billboard. “Arsene Who?” Nick Hornby (the author who wrote Fever Pitch), reacted with typical angst. “I remember when Bruch Rioch was sacked, one of the papers had three or four names. It was Terry Venables, Johan Cruyff and then, at the end, Arsene Wenger. I remember thinking as a fan, I bet it’s f****** Arsene Wenger because I have not heard of him and I have heard of the other two. Trust Arsenal to appoint the boring one that you haven’t heard of.”
Club captain Tony Adams was no different. “At first, I thought, what does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks like a schoolteacher. Does he even speak English properly?” To be fair, the only experiments with appointing foreign coaches had gone belly up (Dr Jozef Venglos lasted less than a year at Aston Villa (he almost relegated them) while Osvaldo Ardiles’ time at Tottenham ended in similar circumstances.
Those assessments were all airbrushed rather quickly as the former Monaco manager started implementing futuristic training methodologies. Mars bars were gone, the drinking culture — alcohol was very much used as a bonding agent — was wiped out, fitness was the new king as broccoli replaced burgers on the cafeteria menu. The attention to detail was staggering. The then 47-year-old even changed how the Arsenal players consumed tea. He took a dim view of his players adding sugar but allowed them to continue using it with a caveat. “Stir till it absorbs all the granules.”
Wenger picked up all these traits while coaching Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan. He saw firsthand the effect of fitness on the human body and knew that was the first thing he had to implement at Arsenal. “It’s something that changed me profoundly as well. The vision I have of life changed in Japan. It was absolutely a deep, profound and very, very positive experience. I’m very grateful that I went,” he had once told the official club website. He even oversaw the construction of a state-of-the-art training complex intended to give them marginal gains over their rivals. The marginal gain was such that Sir Alex Ferguson, got worried. So Manchester United-based England players kept an eye on what the Arsenal-based England players were doing during international training.
A change was also taking place in boardrooms as chairmen up and down the Premier League began to appoint foreigners. On May 11, 1997, there were only two non-British managers in the top tier. (Ruud Gullit of Chelsea being the other). On May 11, 2018, only five of the 20 were English. He also had a seismic effect on Arsenal. Chants of ‘Boring boring Arsenal’ and ‘1-0 to The Arsenal’ quickly became relics of a bygone era as Wenger created a team that wouldn’t have been out of place at Hogwarts. Their fans recognised it and coined a new term for the sport. Wengerball.
While a clear divide had already formed between the Arsenal faithful and Wenger — the #ArseneOutBrigade made its presence felt as early as 2012 — there was still a level of respect. That umbilical cord was cut in sensational fashion after a 2-3 loss at Stoke on December 7, 2014. Even as the squad boarded a train at the Stoke-on-Trent railway station, the fans heckled Wenger. There were shouts of ‘f*** off’ and ‘leave’. The video went viral and there were renewed calls to sack the manager.
They had lost thrice in five matches as another league campaign derailed.
The squad was stale and crying out for help as former players openly questioned the level of coaching taking place. The defenders were making the same mistakes, there were no leaders in midfield, transfers were shunned to give perennially injured players another chance while the forward line lacked the oomph factor. Worse still, the big-money signings of Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez had failed to galvanise a flawed manager.
Arsenal, in essence, was the living, breathing embodiment of groundhog day. The Frenchman did not prepare his team based on the opposition’s strengths and weaknesses and that was the beginning of the end. Coaches like Manuel Pellegrini, Mauricio Pochettino, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp knew what to expect.
If the 2-8 at Man United in 2011 was an outlier, big defeats against elite opposition are the norm in 2018. 1-4, 1-3, 0-2 against Barcelona. 1-5, 1-5, 1-5 against Bayern Munich. 3-6, 0-3, 1-3, 1-2 against Man City. 1-5, 0-4, 1-3, 3-4 against Liverpool. 0-6, 0-2, 1-3, 0-2 against Chelsea. 1-2, 0-2, 1-3 against Tottenham. The one genuine theme of the later Wenger years — from the 2012-13 season — was his abominable record against the fellow members of the top six away from home. Three wins, eight draws and 19 losses. Lose once, it’s perhaps hard luck. Do it 19 times in the last six years and Benjamin Franklin had the perfect explanation. “Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
Wenger is a deeply philosophical man and some of his best quips came in a revealing L’Equipe interview in November 2015. To a question on whether he believed he has a mystical power over his players when he is preparing them for a match, he replied:
“I have not created anything. I am a facilitator of what is beautiful in man. I define myself as an optimist. My constant battle in this business is to get out there what is beautiful in man. We can at this level portray me as naive. At the same time, it allows me to believe it and it often gives me reason.”
Those beliefs stood him in good stead for the first part of his reign as artists and artisans in a remote corner of North London came together to make art on a football field. The greatest proof of that will live in the pages of history long into the future. Played: 38. Won: 26. Drawn: 12. Lost: 0.