From “Arsene Who?” to “Wenger Out” via an invincible season, an FA Cup record, and a move across north London – Arsene Wenger’s name will forever be synonymous with Arsenal Football Club.
The 68-year-old will leave the Emirates Stadium, an arena he built in every way other than assembling the bricks and mortar, after more than 21 years as the all-powerful manager.
During those two decades the English game has changed almost beyond recognition from when the bespectacled, and largely unheard of, Wenger first arrived at Highbury in 1996.
“Arsene Who?” were the headlines that greeted the appointment of the studious Frenchman, who came to the club from Japanese outfit Grampus Eight to replace Bruce Rioch.
But, it did not take him long to prove that David Dein’s gamble to bring in a largely inexperienced foreign manager was as close to a sure-fire winner as you could have backed.
Wenger was ahead of his time, had different methods, and demanded a level of professionalism from a squad which had underachieved as much as it had overindulged.
He cut the famous Arsenal drinking culture and no doubt prolonged the careers of club stalwarts such as Tony Adams – who would have been shocked at the new approach being introduced by a multi-lingual, well-educated pioneer dubbed ‘the professor’.
In his first full season, the 1997/98 campaign, he delivered the double with some of the best football the early Premier League had seen.
Imports like Marc Overmars and Nicolas Anelka added to talent such as Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, a midfield dynamo Wenger had played a huge hand in signing even before he took office.
He would battle with Sir Alex Ferguson, his Arsenal side the only other top-flight club that could claim to lay a finger on the Manchester United side which won the treble in 1999 and the following two Premier League titles at a canter.
But, Wenger was rebuilding, he was thrifty in the transfer market, but unearthed rough diamonds such as Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires, and Thierry Henry and polished them into winners.
A second league crown followed in 2002, but it was two seasons later, after the title had been wrestled out of his grasp by Ferguson once again, that Wenger would truly leave a lasting legacy in English football.
Not since the Preston side which clinched the first-ever Football League trophy in 1889 had a team gone through a season unbeaten, but Wenger guided his Gunners to that accolade.
Wenger’s side could not, and would not, lose as they strolled to the title to be labelled the ‘Invincibles’ – stretching that run out to 49 games before finally being halted.
But, no-one could have dreamt this would be Wenger’s last domestic title, especially if you had told any Arsenal supporter back in 2004 that he would stay on as boss for another 14 years.
The English game he helped sculpt had caught up with him and, aided by ever-increasing finances within the division, it eventually surpassed him and his dynasty.
The Gunners came close to adding further Premier League titles, but always fell short, not helped by the monetary shackles placed on Wenger as the club erected their new 60,000 home on the Ashburton Grove site.
He would still duel with Ferguson, but he also now had to deal with the likes of Chelsea’s ‘Special One’ Jose Mourinho, and later the Manchester City bosses given blank cheques to deliver titles.
Despite this, his unwavering ability to deliver top-four finishes, and financially-crucial Champions League qualification, deserves a different kind of respect.
In Europe, Wenger always came up short – most excruciatingly in 2006 when he reached his first and only Champions League final, only to see his 10 men surrender a 1-0 lead and settle for a losers’ medal as Barcelona won in Paris.
Even the UEFA Cup, now the Europa League, would slip through his grasp as Arsenal lost on penalties to Galatasaray in 2000.
Wenger delivered a top-four finish in the Premier League every season until his crown truly began to slip in 2017, his last two seasons ultimately tarnishing a reputation he had spent 20 years building.
The lack of Champions League silverware in the Arsenal trophy room will be something Wenger would wish to change when he finally leaves his office at the club’s London Colney training ground.
His record in the FA Cup, however, makes for markedly different reading.
He sits alone as the competition’s most successful manager, having won the famous cup on no less than seven occasions, three of which came in the last five years.
The most important of those came in 2014 when he was under pressure to deliver success after a decade of failing to do so.
That in itself almost sums up Wenger’s tenure and the ever-lasting mark he left on the English game, as more and more fans turned against him in his latter years.
Placards, signs, and banners would be unfurled and held aloft as Arsenal slipped up in their search for more success, with the emergence of social media also giving disgruntled supporters a platform to promote their “Wenger Out” campaign.
The style of football, inept signings and a perceived inability to change his approach all saw pressure mount – with a 10-2 aggregate Champions League defeat to Bayern Munich, numerous losses in winnable contests and a 3-0 thrashing in the 2018 Carabao Cup final to Manchester City doing little to help.
But, even the harshest of Wenger’s critics, and by the end there were several people who could clamour for such a title, will acknowledge what he did not only for Arsenal but for the Premier League and English football as a whole as he made sure no-one will ever ask the question “Arsene Who?” again.
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