Twenty years on and Wenger is still at it

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE -

AR­SE­NAL man­ager Arsene Wenger, for all his ad­mirable qual­i­ties, has faults. He is not gra­cious in de­feat, he is as stub­born as a mule and he of­ten suf­fers from se­lec­tive vi­sion, to name a few.

But as the charis­matic French­man pre­pares to mark 20 years in charge of Ar­se­nal at Burn­ley tomorrow, it could be said his big­gest fault is the cease­less pur­suit of sil­ver­ware by play­ing fan­tasy football – a no­ble un­der­tak­ing prone to fail­ure.

That is why, de­spite giv­ing so much to the English game since be­ing met by head­lines of “Arsene Who?” when he ar­rived in 1996, there are a few con­spic­u­ous spa­ces in the tro­phy cab­i­net.

It would be harsh to crit­i­cise the 66-year-old since he has won three English Premier League ti­tles and six FA Cups as well as steer­ing Ar­se­nal within 14 min­utes of beat­ing Barcelona in the 2006 Champions League fi­nal.

Yet all but two of those feats were achieved be­fore the north Lon­don club left the mar­ble-halled splen­dour of their High­bury home for the Emi­rates Sta­dium 10 years ago.

It is true that the 60 000 fans who fill the gleam­ing new arena en­joy a brand of football that when it clicks, as it did when they tore FC Basel apart for 45 min­utes in a 2-0 Champions League group vic­tory on Wed­nes­day, sets the pulse rac­ing. But since the sta­dium move, one that was sup­posed to el­e­vate the Gun­ners to the sta­tus of Euro­pean giants, back-to-back FA Cups in 2014 and 2015 are all Ar­se­nal fans have had to cel­e­brate.

The team have fin­ished in the top four ev­ery year un­der Wenger but that con­sis­tency has be­come a stick with which to beat him – proof of the bloody-mind­ed­ness of the pro­fes­so­rial French­man for whom the beau­ti­ful game means just that.

If the bench­mark for Europe’s elite is win­ning the Champions League, six con­sec­u­tive last-16 de­feats sug­gest that for all his teams’ flow­ing football, Wenger’s phi­los­o­phy does not cut the mus­tard among the devo­tees of the press­ing game.

He sanc­tioned the sign­ing of French­man Pa­trick Vieira, who be­came the mid­field linch­pin in a suc­ces­sion of phys­i­cally-in­tim­i­dat­ing sides blessed with flair and ex­pe­ri­ence.

Wenger had al­ready in­her­ited Dutch mas­ter Den­nis Bergkamp and livewire striker Ian Wright. But his real skill was teach­ing old dogs new tricks – ex­tend­ing the ca­reers of de­fen­sive cav­a­liers Tony Adams, Nigel Win­ter­burn, Steve Bould and Lee Dixon.

“He had an amaz­ing im­pact on the club,” Win­ter­burn said. “As soon as we trained you knew in­stantly that you were go­ing to like his style of play.

“He made you feel that you were the best player in your po­si­tion. He got us to ex­press our­selves.”

Ad­ding Em­manuel Petit, a per­fect foil for Vieira, winger Marc Over­mars and striker Ni­co­las Anelka into the mix, Wenger’s side won the league and FA Cup dou­ble in his first full sea­son. Over the next three cam­paigns they were run­ners-up in a fe­ro­cious bat­tle for supremacy with Manch­ester United.

Another dou­ble ar­rived in 2001-02 be­fore Wenger’s 200304 “In­vin­ci­bles” won the ti­tle with­out los­ing a game.

“I learned that you can achieve things that you think are not achiev­able,” said Wenger, whose run of suc­cess eclipsed even that of their great man­ager Her­bert Chap­man in the 1930s.

Wenger turned Ar­se­nal into the most watch­able side in Eng­land and their sup­port­ers self- mock­ingly chanted “Bor­ing, bor­ing Ar­se­nal” as the likes of Thierry Henry, who un­der Wenger be­came the club’s record scorer, Bergkamp, Robert Pires and Fred­die Ljung­berg daz­zled op­po­si­tion de­fences.

Ar­se­nal’s loss to Barca in the Champions League fi­nal saw the break-up of the squad, though, with Bergkamp re­tir­ing, Pires leav­ing and Ash­ley Cole join­ing Chelsea, while Henry left for the Cata­lans in 2007 and won the Euro­pean Cup in 2009.

As the big money swept into English football, Ar­se­nal’s purse strings tight­ened as pay­ing off the debts in­curred to build the sta­dium be­came a pri­or­ity. Wenger tried to counter the spend­ing power of Chelsea and United, build­ing a side around Cesc Fabre­gas and Robin van Per­sie, but sil­ver­ware re­mained elu­sive.

The famine ended in 2014 when Ar­se­nal beat Hull City in the FA Cup fi­nal and then de­feated As­ton Villa to re­tain the tro­phy. But Wenger’s con­tract is up at the end of this sea­son and he is be­ing tipped as Eng­land’s next boss, al­though Win­ter­burn says he has un­fin­ished busi­ness at Ar­se­nal.

“It’s been sticky since 2006, but I know he’s very driven still,” he said. “There are some promis­ing signs over the last few weeks. This time seems dif­fer­ent.” – Reuters


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