The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Ali Gokal Headshot

In Arsène We Trust?

Posted: Updated:
Print Article
PODOLSKI
Getty

Sixteen years ago a tall, bespectacled Frenchman flew into north London. The man, fresh from success with Japanese side Nagoya Grampus Eight, was handed the task of overseeing the reinvigoration of Arsenal Football Club after Bruce Rioch's dismissal.

"Arsène Who?" the Evening Standard famously asked. But very quickly Arsène Wenger set about imposing an avant-garde revolution on this club steeped in tradition. New fitness regimes, strict management of nutrition and rules on lifestyle breathed a fresh spirit into Arsenal.

Wenger's appointment quickly reaped rewards. Through a meticulous and regimented diet and training scheme, he earned the respect of George Graham's legendary defensive quartet: Adams, Bould, Dixon and Winterburn, prolonging their careers.

He is most famous, however, for implementing a free-flowing, forward-thinking style of football built around unfamiliar foreign imports. Some were plucked from anonymity; others had their dwindling careers rejuvenated. Within a short period of time both Wenger and his players escaped the clandestine confines of anonymity and emerged as a classy outfit, who were genuine trophy contenders. As he said, "We do not buy superstars. We make them."

'Le Boss's' methodology could best be described as avant-garde. He worked his principles and implemented his now famous philosophy. In his first full season in charge, Wenger's Arsenal won the league. In the season that followed the Gunners went agonizingly close to the FA Cup, the League once more and lost the UEFA Cup Final on penalties.

All the while Wenger remodelled his team. Out went Marc Overmars, 'Manu' Petit and Niclas Anelka. In came Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Sol Campbell. The domestic double was won in 2001-2, and the FA Cup was retained the next year, but this was but a prelude for the crowning glory of the 2003-4 season: the year of the invincibles.

Quite simply, this band of brothers is the best team we have seen on these shores since the founding of the Premier League. With Henry's clinical pace and finishing, Bergkamp's exquisite finesse, Vieira's steel and Campbell's towering presence at the back, Arsenal were magnificent in the League, remaining unbeaten the whole season.

It is remarkable now to look back at that historic achievement. Wenger had said some months previously, when his team had gone 29 games unbeaten, that it was possible. It was a ridiculous statement. In Arsène we trusted. And he duly delivered. Spend two hours of your life and drool over this footballing feast: you only live once, after all.

Seven years on from the 2005 FA Cup and the picture is not so rosy. Wenger has rebuilt team after team, yet none seem to have either the flair or efficiency or the defensive solidity and robustness of old.

The stars of Highbury were in due course replaced by the Emirates' own shining lights: Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Robin van Persie; but in each incarnation of Arsenal since the invincibles too much burden has been piled on the young shoulders of one or two.

Year-after-year Wenger expounds the unparalleled potential of his teams, to the extent it is no longer clear whether he speaks out of conviction or habit. The class of 2007-8 came closest to fulfilling Wenger's dreams, but crumbled under the immense psychological and emotional pain Eduardo's horror leg-break against Birmingham caused. The promise of each set of players has been ebbed by injury or exit.

Wenger's previous strengths now seem his greatest weaknesses. His incessant preference for youth over experience once appeared inspired; it now seems naïve. His financial prudishness used to be a mark of the man; now his refusal to 'splash the cash' appears misguided and woefully childish.

This is the greatest problem with any visionary. To realise their reverie they must have undying, unquestionable, irrefutable faith in that objective, lest they fall short in staying the course and seeing it through. But when the tables turn, when the circumstances change, they rarely can amend, change - forget even commit an absolute about-turn.

This is why perception of Wenger has changed: from innovator, classed 'ahead of the times', to antiquated, stuck in the past. He has gone from Le Professeur, wise and insightful, to the out-of-touch teacher, trapped in his ways.

For the times have certainly changed since the mid-2000s - let alone the 1990s when Wenger landed in London. All teams have adopted rigorous and holistic training methods as commonplace; statistical analysis is part-and-parcel of the game; whilst the hunt for the 'next-big-thing' seems more frantic than ever before.

Surely the biggest change is in the game's financial state. In the era of Abramovich and Mansour, money appears no object to competitors. But for Arsenal, balancing the financing of a new stadium without accepting the repeated advances of a financial backer is no easy business. Commercial contracts were front-loaded in 2004/5 to fund the move to the Emirates. As a result the club short-sold itself for years; a position which has only been recently rectified. The club's hierarchy remain club football's most staunch advocates for Financial Fair Play, putting all their monetary eggs into one uncertain basket.

It seems to me, on the financial point, Arsenal is run as a business, which is where the fundamental problem lies. But a business Arsenal is not, with shareholders who seek dividends, but a football club, whose fans yearn for glory.

Though undoubtedly brilliant, it must be confessed that Wenger does not match Sir Alex Ferguson as the Premier League's greatest manager. Although Ferguson has had greater financial spending throughout his tenure than his French counterpart, the Scotsman has repeatedly constructed title-winning teams.

Wenger's term in north London has seen many peaks and troughs. It is indisputable now though that the club's first priority is qualifying for the Champions League. When Wenger said in the early 2000s that his team could go unbeaten we ridiculed, we scorned at his abracadabra prophecy. We were all proved wrong. For the sake of the sanity of every Gooner, let us hope this is again the case.

Sixteen years on, our trust in Wenger has been built, consolidated and then slowly and repeatedly questioned, with the latest oddity being the substitution of Olivier Giroud for Francis Coquelin at the dying embers of the draw at Villa Park. "You don't know what you're doing", fans chanted. It is amazing that the ecstatic high of a memorable victory in the north London Derby and the miserable low of a draw against Aston Villa can come within ten days of each other. This is commonplace for Arsenal fans these days.

Ultimately we've no option but to trust. He won't be leaving any time soon: all there is to do then is get behind North London's tall, bespectacled Frenchman and hope he comes good once more. In Arsène We Have To Trust.

Around the Web

Arsène Wenger - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Arsène Wenger | Coaching Staff | First Team | Arsenal.com

Arsene Wenger calms fears over Jack Wilshere's fitness | Mail Online

Are we witnessing Arsene Wenger's final act at Arsenal? - ESPN FC

Arsene Wenger - News, views, gossip, pictures, video - Mirror Online

Arsène Wenger believes that youth is the key to Arsenal's future

Wenger defends team after draw

Defiant Arsene Wenger dismisses critics after Aston Villa draw

Jack Wilshere injury played down by Arsene Wenger after problem ankle inflames

Arsène Wenger fails to mend growing rift with angry Arsenal fans