Even at a time when he was not yet a regular punchline, Arsene Wenger still had the capacity to make his audience laugh. “It wouldn’t surprise me if we went unbeaten for the whole season,” Wenger said in August 2002, to a largely derisive response.
The prediction held only until October 19 and a defeat away at Everton, the first of four losses in a row across all competitions. “It will go down under the heading of 'things you wish you had never said' - alongside Alan Hansen's 'you don't win anything with kids' comment on Match of the Day eight years ago,” the BBC reported at the end of the season as Manchester United lifted the league title. The chuckling could be heard all the way from Carrington to London.
But the remarkably bold prophecy was fulfilled just a year later. And as Arsenal consecrated the greatest league campaign in the history of English football with a 2-1 win against Leicester on May 15, 2004, Wenger savoured the moment. With celebrations unfolding all around him, he clutched a t-shirt bearing his own face and reading: “Comical Wenger; ‘I think we can do the whole season unbeaten’.”
This was the height of his imperial period. It was Wenger as visionary: the man who could imagine an impossible feat and then achieve it. A totemic figure who could make his critics wilt.
The Invincible season was the culmination of the grand revolution he forged within Arsenal’s marble halls and beyond, the peak of a cycle of change which transformed the club. A revolution in fitness, player recruitment, preparatory methods, diet, style and, most importantly, achievement: the story of Wenger’s impact on English football has been told and told again, and never diminishes with the telling.
Change was sweeping through English football and society in the summer and autumn of 1996. The fervour of Euro 96 supercharged football in England and then David Beckham beat Neil Sullivan from the half-way line on the first day of the new season. With the Spice Girls, including his future wife, at No. 1 in the charts with Wannabe, this can be pinpointed as the precise moment when the age of celebrity was launched, consuming popular culture.
Arsenal's Thierry Henry & his new manager Arsene Wenger pose for photographs, sitting in the stand at Highbury
Image credit: PA Photos
Wenger was never a convert: it was antithetical to every idea he had about sport. But he had no problem in manufacturing superstars from his Hertfordshire enclave and he always stayed relevant even as the culture transformed around him.
Patrick Vieira, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and so many others were forged by Wenger. He tweaked positions, instructed new roles and the results of his overarching work were manifold: some of the best football English football has seen and three league titles and four FA Cups in the 10 years before Arsenal moved from Highbury. It was the move that would change everything.
Wenger’s vision for Arsenal also included new infrastructure. A new training ground was constructed after Nicolas Anelka was sold to Real Madrid for £23m in the summer of 2000 but the real game-changer was the construction of the new stadium, orchestrated by director Danny Fiszman but designed with the help of Wenger’s instructions, down to the shape of the dressing room.
With season-ticket waiting lists stretching out to a decade for supporters desperate to see Wenger’s cavalier team in action – honestly, go back and watch a DVD of the unbeaten season and just sit in wonderment at the levels of interplay, imagination and technique on show – the need for a move was obvious, but so too were the limitations it would impose on the club’s ambition in the short term.
Denied the huge financial resources that Roman Abramovich endowed on Chelsea in 2003, and forced to sell star players every year to balance the books, Wenger embarked on a project to identify, promote and entrust his hopes in the best young talents on the planet. Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie were the success stories; Philippe Senderos, Denilson and a cast of others the reminder that the transition from potential to product is not an exact one.
When Cesc Fabregas emerged, the dynamic of the team began to change
Image credit: PA Photos
Until this moment the main thrust of the Wenger story is unchallenged, but here it diverts into two narratives.
Wenger’s supporters make the case that he kept Arsenal competitive and in the Champions League every season, protecting the club's elite status even as they sought to secure it in perpetuity with the competitive advantages a 60,000-seater stadium would endow on them. It was a feat of persistent achievement, of fourth-placed trophies.
In the eyes of his detractors, though, Arsenal’s austerity years saw Wenger formulate a response to the “financial doping” of Chelsea and then Manchester City which was too ideologically pure. He would only try and win the ‘right’ way using the ‘right’ methods: which as it turned out involved playing Manuel Almunia in goal and Marouane Chamakh up front.
The revolutionary had become the reactionary, encasing himself in a fortress of his own moral superiority while refusing to accept that outside, the world was moving on without him. It was a retreat into dogma.
If one example can be pulled out of this regressive period, it would be the summer of 2008 when Arsenal saw Gilberto Silva, Mathieu Flamini and Lassana Diarra depart. Rather than signing a new defensive midfielder, Wenger chose to overpromote Denilson to a position of responsibility he was never suited to.
It was the era of ‘playing with the handbrake on’, of refusing to sign new stars for fear of ‘killing’ the youngsters who had been elevated too quickly into first-team positions and lacked the character and substance of some of their predecessors. It was Wenger sticking to his guns through almost a decade of waste.
There were near misses: the title challenge in 2008 being the most painful of all as their hopes evaporated following Eduardo's horrendous injury against Birmingham. But 10 years since the move to the Emirates, the half-way point of Wenger’s reign, Arsenal have adorned the trophy room in their new stadium with just two FA Cups, won in 2014 and 2015. The first, a 3-2 win from 2-0 down against Hull, was likely responsible for keeping Wenger in place, staving off poisonous discontent which was multiplying amongst supporters.
Twin Wembley triumphs have not been enough to rescue his reputation entirely in the late period of his reign – especially when Leicester City lifted the Premier League title last season. Residual discontent has proved hard to dislodge, though spending £100m this summer was a belatedly sensible way to head off anger from fans who pay the most expensive tickets in English football, as well as giving Wenger his best squad in some time as he enters his third decade in charge.
This 20th anniversary invites us to appraise his reign, which can be neatly cleaved into two; Wenger will hope to recapture the glories of those first 10 years as a failure to do so may make his position untenable with many supporters.
Back-to-back FA Cups helped protect Wenger from criticism, for a while
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But in a reign of two halves, there is one common thread, one unifying factor. Arsenal is the club of Wenger’s life and throughout his 20 years in charge he has always devoted himself to its stewardship. Wenger has shouldered imaginable abuse in the name of Arsenal, some of which has come from the club’s own supporters; he has never lost his optimism and idealism, or his good humour; he has turned down England, France, Real Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain; everything he has done is in service of the club.
Single-minded to the extent of being blinkered? Perhaps, but even in the lean years Wenger’s motivation was never self-serving. While the board required sales every summer at the same time as publicly telling supporters that money was there to spend, it was Wenger who uncomplainingly became the lightning rod for fan anger. He could have alleviated the pressure on his own shoulders by demanding big-name signings and playing to the gallery, but it would have sacrificed the club’s best interests on the altar of self-preservation. It was not an option; never for Wenger.
“It’s a love story, and with a love story you never want it to end,” Wenger said in his press conference on Friday. The second part of that sentence will be disputed by those seeking regime change at Arsenal, but the first cannot be. It has been a love story: imperfect and complicated and difficult, but nevertheless complete.