The Arsène Wenger era will finally come to an end once the current campaign is up.
In charge at the North London club since 1996, the French boss has called time to his managerial career at the Emirates Stadium. Whether you think it’s a few years too late, or you are sad that he has gone, the man demands respect.
It’s too simplistic to subscribe his time at the club as one period. 22 years is a long time in football and we’ve broken down the various versions of Wenger’s reign and looked at whether they were successful or not.
ERA ONE: 1996/97 TO 1999/00
Average league position: 2
Average points tally: 74.3
Wenger was a relative unknown to most in the Premier League upon his appointment as Arsenal manager in September 1996. He hadn’t achieved renown as a player and had spent his managerial career in France and Japan, making him a fairly unconventional choice at the time.
But it didn’t take him long to make his mark, introducing a modern approach to diet and physical wellbeing in a country whose football culture was not so progressive.
Many of his key signings came from his home country: Patrick Vieira was brought in to dominate midfield, Emmanuel Petit added a refined touch, while Nicolas Anelka quickly became one of the hottest prospects in world football.
Twenty-three league goals in his two full seasons of first team football prompted Real Madrid to splash £22.3 million – more than 40 times what Wenger had paid to bring him to London.
In 1999/00, Anelka was replaced by Thierry Henry, who immediately took to life in the Premier League, finding the back of the net on a regular basis and forming a fast, incisive front line alongside Dutch winger Marc Overmars and versatile Swede Freddie Ljungberg, who were also Wenger signings.
As well as an improved training regime and an efficient transfer policy, Wenger altered the team’s tactics, shifting away from 3-5-2 to a rough 4-4-2 with fluidity in an attack that revolved around the creative gifts of Dennis Bergkamp. The results of these changes were one league and cup double, one UEFA Cup runners-up finish and a regular place in the Premier League’s top two.
Key players: Tony Adams, Patrick Vieira, Dennis Bergkamp
Silverware: 1 Premier League, 1 FA Cup, 2 Charity Shields
In a word: Progress
ERA TWO: 2000/01 TO 2005/06
Average league position: 2
Average points tally: 80.8
Having established Arsenal as half of a two-team domestic hegemony alongside Manchester United, Wenger battled Sir Alex Ferguson year after year for the title while gradually easing out his team’s old guard.
When he had arrived, the Gunners possessed arguably the best defence in the country, but the individuals making up that back line, namely David Seaman, Tony Adams, Steve Bould, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn and Martin Keown, were all approaching the end of their careers.
Wenger combatted an ageing rear-guard with astute transfer market dealings, famously signing Sol Campbell from fierce rivals Tottenham on a free. Other arrivals, such as Lauren and Kolo Toure, and the promotion of a young Ashley Cole from the club’s youth ranks were not so eye-catching, but proved extremely effective.
Overmars and Petit had left for Barcelona in 2000, but Wenger was well prepared and filled the gaps by utilising Ray Parlour alongside Vieira in central midfield and signing Robert Pires to succeed Overmars on the left flank. The French winger would go on to combine beautifully with Henry, creating some of the most exhilarating, dynamic attacking football seen in the Premier League.
After a league and cup double in 2002, Wenger signed Brazilian midfield shield Gilberto Silva to add central solidity and enable his flair players to operate with greater freedom. And, two years later, another league title was won in spectacular fashion – Arsenal didn’t lose one of their 38 league games in 2003/04.
There were some memorable nights in Europe, too. In 2003/04, they ran riot at the San Siro, putting five past Inter Milan in a stunning offensive display. And in 2005/06 they lost in the final of the Champions League to Frank Rijkaard’s Barcelona having knocked Real Madrid out to get there. That run happened without Vieira, however; the midfielder had left for Juventus the previous summer.
Key players: Sol Campbell, Robert Pires, Thierry Henry
Silverware: 2 Premier Leagues, 3 FA Cups, 2 Community Shields
In a word: Invincible
ERA THREE: 2006/07 TO 2012/13
Average league position: 3.6
Average points tally: 72.7
The conclusion of the 2005/06 campaign proved to be the end of an era for Arsenal in several ways. Key players Campbell, Cole, Pires and Bergkamp were sold or retired, and the club left Highbury to move into the Emirates Stadium.
In order to finance the change of location, Wenger was forced to work on a tight budget in the transfer market, and many of his best players were moved on as a consequence.
Henry remained for the first term at the club’s new home but spent a significant portion of the season out with injury. In his place youngsters such as Robin van Persie and Emmanuel Adebayor stepped up, each hitting double figures, but it was not enough to propel Arsenal back into title contention as, for a second consecutive year, they finished fourth.
The years that followed proved troubling for Arsenal, perpetually stuck in transition. Players came, and went quicker, with the turnover off the pitch harming the club’s performance on it.
Within three years of the Champions League final defeat to Barcelona, only three players present in Wenger’s starting lineup that evening remained: Kolo Touré, Emanuel Eboue and Fàbregas.
Fabregas was the symbol of the new era in that he was precocious and full of promise, but would win relatively little at the club and left while still at the peak of his powers. Indeed, between 2006/07 and 2012/13, Arsenal would fail to win a single trophy. At the same time, most of their stars, namely Adebayor, Toure, van Persie, Gael Clichy and Samir Nasri, joined the club’s Premier League rivals.
Wenger’s transfer policy took on a panicked air, as he searched ceaselessly for relatively untested youngsters to come in and replace established first team members. He also altered tactics, moving to more of a 4-2-3-1 shape to remain in line with footballing trends, but some of the results were embarrassing.
Defeat to Birmingham in the 2010/11 League Cup final ensured a sixth consecutive year without a trophy, while an 8-2 loss to Manchester United at Old Trafford the following season was a painful confirmation of the growing gap between Arsenal and the Premier League’s top sides.
Key players: William Gallas, Cesc Fabregas, Robin van Persie
In a word: Transition
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ERA FOUR: 2013/14 TO 2016/17
Average league position (thus far): 3
Average points tally (thus far): 75
The 2013/14 campaign signalled a change in tack from Wenger as he mixed his traditional pursuit of inexperienced prospects with the signature of bona fide superstars.
The additions of Petr Čech, Granit Xhaka and Shkodran Mustafi in 2015 and 2016 were further evidence of Wenger’s waning reluctance to sign finished articles.
However, despite the increasing ambition in the transfer market, Wenger came to appear tactically outdated by a number of his managerial rivals. Antonio Conte, Pep Guardiola and Jürgen Klopp all brought with them fresh philosophies to Chelsea, Manchester City and Liverpool, while Mauricio Pochettino’s intelligent pressing approach saw Tottenham Hotspur threaten to take over Arsenal’s status as north London’s finest team.
Continued failure to mount a serious title challenge or progress beyond the Champions League second round was masked by two FA Cup wins in 2014 and 2015, but a 10-2 aggregate defeat to Bayern Munich in Europe underlined how far Wenger’s side have fallen in recent years.
Key players: Laurent Koscielny, Mesut Ozil, Alexis Sánchez
Silverware: 2 FA Cups, 2 Community Shields
In a word: Underachievement
The 2017/18 season is still to finish and it could end with silverware as the Gunners take on Atletico Madrid in the semi-final of the UEFA Europa League. What a fitting end to his tenure it would be to see the Frenchman lift a major trophy one last time.