Arsene Wenger: Charting His Highs and Lows as Arsenal Manager

H Andel@Gol Iath @gol_iathAnalyst IIIFebruary 24, 2012

Arsene Wenger: Charting His Highs and Lows as Arsenal Manager

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    Arsene Wenger is at the crossroad of his Arsenal career according to many critics. This season is the worst of his career there, a career that began in September of 1996.

    The first decade was, by many standards, very successful. The second, now in its sixth year, not very so. The following charts the high and lows of the Frenchman's remarkable career at Arsenal.

1996: Arsene Who?

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    You will find this entry in The Independent, dated TUESDAY 17 SEPTEMBER 1996. It is a mere 13 days before Arsene Wenger begins his long career at Arsenal.

    1996: Arsenal sack their manager Bruce Rioch five days before the start of the new season and announce that Wenger will replace him on 30 September.

    "Arsene Who?" Asked the Evening Standard when this announcement was made. Then just two weeks later, The Independent ran this heading: "Wenger begins on Wright lines." Wenger had begun his Arsenal career on a winning note.

    The scoreline read: Blackburn 0-2 Arsenal, thanks to Ian Wright's brace, whom the new manager described as "not a normal 32-year old."

    He explained: "He is so fit and strong and wants so much to succeed." Hearing those words, one could have been forgiven to think that the manager was describing himself.

    This was a good start.

    On getting the job, Wenger thought the Arsenal board was crazy to hire him at the time. He was unknown, and what was more, Johan Cruyff was favorite for the job.

    When I think retrospectively, it was a gamble by the Board and that is the biggest surprise to me. At that time, to do what Arsenal did, you needed to be a little bit crazy. Crazy in the sense that I had no name, I was foreign, there was no history. They needed to be, maybe not crazy, but certainly brave.

    However I believe I was lucky to find the support I found at Arsenal and that is always important for success.


    The rest is now history.

1996-97: 15-Year-Old and Speaks Five Languages

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    When "Arsene Who?" breezes into town, naturally the town is overtaken by admiration. Think Rango coming into town, only, one person is not impressed...Sir Alex guessed right.

    The word is that Wenger is professorial, and words like "cerebral" are used to describe him. He is austere, they said. He had even written a book on the subject of restrain and control: Shosha No Esprit.

    In a periscope that examined Wenger's transformation from a man of control and restrain on the touchline to a complaining and temperamental one, Jasper Rees of The Telegraph wrote this in 2003:

    Wenger chooses, where possible, not to reveal his character on the touchline. According to him, he doesn't even reveal it in the dressing room. He wrote a book called Shosha No Esprit for the Japanese market. "As a manager," he says in it, "it is often necessary to suppress your own personal feelings. The feelings of the team must take priority. I have become accustomed to not showing my personal feelings. I have made it a habit to think always about the team."

    This is why Mark Hateley, who scored the goals that won Monaco the championship in Wenger's first season there, told me, "You'll never figure him out." Concealment is integral to Wenger's character. The result is that very little is known about him. He is aided, of course, by the lack of an even half-remembered playing career to act as his calling card. In England, when he arrived in 1996, he was as close to being an unknown quantity as it is possible for the new Arsenal manager to be.

    In 1996, Wenger was Mr. Cool himself. And to cap it all, he spoke five languages.

    Sir Alex Ferguson couldn't take the unabashed fawning anymore.

    About to burst with what apparently was envy, he blurted the following out:

    ''They say he's an intelligent man, right? Speaks five languages. I've got a 15-year-old boy from the Ivory Coast who speaks five languages!''

    Like the sheriff in Rango, who can abide an upstart?

    In Wenger's first season at Arsenal, Ferguson does a double over him in the league, but by the time BBC Sport drew this chart of the managers' head-to-head until September 2006, Wenger held the upper hand.

    Incidentally, 2006 was Wenger's final year of real high.

1998: First Double

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    According to Piers Morgan, when Wenger arrived at Highbury "he came in like a hurricane, winning the league, winning the double [Premier League and FA Cup]."

    That's an apt description of Wenger in his first season at Arsenal. Here's how the BBC put it:

    Just two seasons before his arrival Arsenal had ended in the bottom half of the table and their best finish in the preceding five campaigns had been fourth.

    But within 20 months, having missed out on a Champions League spot on goal difference in his first season, Wenger landed the first of three Premiership titles and the first of two Doubles after adding the first of four FA Cup wins for good measure.

    In a piece titled "Wenger Completes His First Double", enthused:

    Eyebrows were raised when Arsenal appointed the relative unknown Arsène Wenger as manager in September 1996.

    Yet just 10 months later the Frenchman had moulded a squad capable of challenging Manchester United's stranglehold on the Premiership.

    Yes, you read well. Manchester United were the standard of measurement then. The giant everyone wanted to dethrone, and Wenger was on his way to do just that.

1999: Third Trophy

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    Sir Alex Ferguson taught Wenger and Arsenal a thing a two the following season, eliminating Arsenal from the FA Cup and winning the league title. To cap it all, United and Ferguson won the UEFA trophy.

    Wenger and Arsenal consoled themselves with the Charity Shield.

    But how big a consolation the Charity Shield is, David Beckham says:

    The Charity Shield, at the end of the day, is just the curtain-raiser - although I have to say, I've never actually seen them curtains being raised - perhaps I've been looking the other way at the time. Victoria says they must be big curtains to go all round Wembley. I'll look out for them today - should be quite spectacular....

    And all the managers, you know, they always say it counts for nothing if you win it - and then if you lose it, they say that it counts for nothing - so, makes you wonder what the point of it is really.

    However little or much this consolation was, the term "trophy-less" had nothing to do with Wenger at this time.

2002: Another Double

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    The 2001-2002 season was a good one for Wenger and Arsenal. The season saw Arsenal and Wenger triumph over their biggest rivals, Manchester United and Chelsea, notwithstanding that Chelsea were still in the shadows of both United and Arsenal at this time.

    The Guardian gushed with admiration:

    It's been a heady few days for Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger. On Saturday his side lifted the FA Cup with a 2-0 win over Chelsea. On Wednesday they sealed the Premiership title with a 1-0 win at Manchester United. And today - inevitably - he was named Barclaycard Manager of the Month for April. His in-form attacking midfielder Freddie Ljungberg completed a red clean sweep by winning the Player of the Month award.

    Arsenal won five games out of five in the Premiership in April, while Ljungberg warmed up nicely for Sweden's World Cup clash with England on June 2 by scoring six of Arsenal's 11 league goals in that time.

    The Barclaycard Awards Panel, which includes representatives from football's governing bodies, the media and the fans, said: "They [Arsenal] have broken the record for goals scored in consecutive games, they haven't been defeated since December and they have only lost three games all season.

    "Better than any tribute, these statistics tell you why Arsène Wenger's side have won the title. His guile, tactical knowledge and will to win have served him well this season."

    Ljungberg received praise too. "You couldn't find a more important player to the Gunners as the season draws to a close," said the panel.

    "When other players have failed to hit the back of the net, he has been there to grab some very important goals. We only hope this form doesn't continue when he joins Sweden for the World Cup," they joked.


    Both Wenger and Arsenal were at the top of their game at the time.

2003: FA Cup Champs

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    To summarize Arsenal's 2002-03 season, let's cue the BBC:

    Bolton 2-2 Arsenal.

    Bolton Wanderers delivered a devastating blow to Arsenal's title ambitions with a stunning comeback at The Reebok Stadium.

    Arsene Wenger's side looked on course to return to the Premiership summit as they cruised into a two-goal lead early in the second half.

    Sylvain Wiltord and Robert Pires put Arsenal in command - but relegation-threatened Bolton did Manchester United a massive favour in stirring fashion.
    Youri Djorkaeff put Bolton back in contention before Martin Keown's own goal gave Sam Allardyce's men an unlikely point.

    Here's the report of the title-deciding match:

    Mark Viduka hammered the final nail in Arsenal's title coffin as the Gunners surrendered their crown in a thrilling Highbury showdown.

    Viduka bent home a brilliant winner two minutes from time to finally end Arsenal's challenge and shrug off the ugly shadow of relegation which has hung over Leeds this season.

    In a remarkable match, Leeds led three times to make a mockery of their league position.
    Harry Kewell and Ian Harte twice put Leeds in front to keep Arsenal on the back foot in a game they needed to win to keep alive their dream of retaining the title.

    Thierry Henry and Dennis Bergkamp hauled Arsenal level on both occasions, but Peter Reid's strugglers had the final say.

    The drama, though, had begun here ('s report). It describes the 2-2 draw between Arsenal and Manchester United at Highbury on April 16, 2003:

    Arsenal had led by as many as eight points in March, but by the time of this game it was on a knife-edge – United were three points clear but Arsenal had a game in hand and a better goal difference, so remained narrow favourites for league glory.

    A classic encounter followed, with Ruud van Nistelrooy giving United an early lead with a stunning solo effort before the game was turned on its head thanks to a Thierry Henry double. 

    Ryan Giggs headed home an instant equaliser and then Sol Campbell was sent off for an elbow on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. A frenetic and tense end to the game followed, with the eventual 2-2 draw meaning fans got all the drama they had hoped for and more but not the definitive result they had expected. 

    Ferguson’s celebrations with United fans after the match intriguingly suggested he thought the point would prove to be good enough, and he was right – Arsenal’s late collapse against Sam Allardyce’s Bolton Wanderers in the final weeks of the season handed United an advantage they didn’t relinquish in a classic title race.

    Arsenal put behind the Premier League disappointment to win the FA cup.

    BBC picks up the narrative:

    Robert Pires eased Arsenal's agony at missing out on the Premiership with an FA Cup final winner against Southampton at the Millennium Stadium.

    Pires - who missed Arsenal's triumph against Chelsea in last year's final because of injury - was the match-winner as Arsene Wenger's side retained the trophy.

    A bit of commentary too:

    Former skipper Tony Adams would have given a grunt and nod of acknowledgement at the scoreline, but any resemblance to the Gunners' previous incarnation and the one that lifted the FA Cup is purely coincidental.

    Gone are the days under George Graham when Arsenal took fiendish delight in snubbing their nose at the beautiful game by grinding out results.

    Back then, everyone was in love with Wenger and Arsenal.

2004: The Invincibles

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    Arsenal's 2003-04 unbeaten run still is Wenger's finest achievement. At the end of that incredible run, the record stood thus:

    Played 49, won 36, drawn 13, lost none. 

    It is a record that may take a long, long time to break in modern football, if at all.

    What is remarkable is that Wenger had predicted this would happen to chuckles of derision. When he achieved this, the scoffs turned to admiration.

    The Invincibles were Arsenal's finest breed, a crop of player that will live long in memory.

2004: 'Pizzagate'

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    October 24, 2004. Arsenal hope to extend their unbeaten run to 50 games away at Manchester in a Premier League tie.

    Arsenal dominate the game whenever they have possession, but Rooney takes a dive—according to Arsenal players and fans—and Ruud van Nistelrooy gives the hosts the lead in the 79th minute. The press calls the penalty "highly controversial." 

    The hosts add the match-winner in the 90th minutes. Arsenal players are livid about the penalty decision and tempers flare in the dressing room after the match.

    The Guardian reports:

    In a scuffle in the tunnel between players and staff on both sides, a slice of pizza was hurled at Ferguson. The former Arsenal defender Ashley Cole describes the shock of the incident in his autobiography: "This slice of pizza came flying over my head and hit Fergie straight in the mush ... all mouths gawped to see this pizza slip off this famous, puce face and roll down his nice black suit."

    Here's how the situation developed as reported by the Telegraph:

    Reliable sources say that as Wenger stood outside the Arsenal dressing room, Van Nistelrooy passed him on his way to the home dressing room. Wenger is alleged to have called him a cheat. The comments did not please the Dutchman. When he reached United's dressing room and told his fellow players and manager what had been said, they were even less pleased.

    Sources say that Ferguson came out to confront Wenger. As the two men faced up to each other, somebody from within the Arsenal dressing room threw a pizza at Ferguson. This splattered on his shirt and he had to change before he could take questions at the post-match interview.

    On December 15, 2004, BBC Sport completes the story:

    Arsenal's Arsene Wenger has been fined £15,000 and "severely reprimanded" by the Football Association for comments about Ruud van Nistelrooy.

    He was found guilty of an improper conduct charge for accusing the Manchester United player of 'cheating'.

    The Gunners manager denied the charge, but told Arsenal's official website he would not appeal against the decision.

2005: The Last Year of Glory

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    Arsenal win the FA cup.

    Patrick Vieira lifted the cup as captain. It was Wenger's ninth year at Arsenal. Now after almost seven years, it has proven to be his final triumph in terms of trophies.

    The BBC reports:

    Arsenal won a penalty shoot-out to lift the FA Cup after a final that was dominated by Manchester United.

    Jens Lehmann made the crucial save from Paul Scholes as the destination of the trophy was decided on penalties for the first time in its history.

    United were left empty-handed after Wayne Rooney hit the post and Freddie Ljungberg deflected Ruud van Nistelrooy's header on to the bar.

    Jose Antonio Reyes was sent off before Patrick Vieira's deciding penalty.

    This year marked the end for some of Arsenal's greats, who would leave the club in the next couple of seasons.

Manager Par Excellence

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    Let's appeal to the eloquent BBC again. Note the following pictures:


    Here's the accompanying commentary to the first picture:

    [Wenger's] net average annual outlay is in the region of £4.5m and the estimated £160m he has spent is less than Jose Mourinho has splurged in his two-year spending spree across London at Chelsea.There have been duds - Francis Jeffers resembled a cardboard box as opposed to the much-touted "fox in the box" - but Wenger has signed and developed legends.

    And here's the digest for the second picture:

    Wenger does not just rely on big-money transfer deals.

    The Frenchman's eye for a bargain runs deep and his trust in the exuberance of youth has seen some of the game's most exciting talent developed in north London.

    Nicolas Anelka, Kolo Toure, Cesc Fabregas and Emmanuel Eboue have all arrived for next to nothing ... and there are more potential gems in the pipeline.

    A failure to bring on English stars while grooming African, Spanish and French players that benefit their national teams has also drawn complaint. His response? "We represent a football club which is about values and not passports."

    Some of the big names of modern football started at Arsenal. Isn't that remarkable?

2001-2006: Building for Tomorrow

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    While Wenger's first decade at Arsenal was remarkable for its harvest of trophies, including real near misses, the second has been as remarkable for its drought of trophies.

    Arsenal and Wenger have become the Midas of football, with this difference: they haven't hoarded the cash, they've built a state-of-the-art stadium. That's where the money that could have been used to buy players has gone into.

    A few fans now see this as a negative, but it isn't, actually.

    The stadium has positioned Arsenal as one of the richest clubs in the world. They are certainly the second richest in England. Once the debt is reduced to a minimum, the advantage of having this stadium will become evident quite quickly.

    As it is, it is one of Arsenal's main avenues of cash, unlike Manchester United who earn the bulk of their revenue through their brand name.

    When all is said and done, overseeing the move from Highbury to the Emirates while remaining competitive in England and Europe has to be recognized as one of Wenger's major achievements. 

2011: Coach of the Decade

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    Now out of favor, this news made little impact:

    Arsène Wenger has been named World Coach of the Decade.

    The Arsenal manager edged out Sir Alex Ferguson and Jose Mourinho to take the award handed out by the International Federation of Football History & Statistics.

    The organisation conducts an annual Coach of the Year vote. Results from the last 10 polls were aggregated to find an overall winner. Wenger ended up with 156 points, Ferguson 148 and Mourinho 135.  

    The Frenchman will receive a certificate and golden trophy at the World Football Gala later this year.

1997, 2000, 2001: Mini Droughts, but No One Cares

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    Wenger's trophy-less years in his first decade are spiced up by his incessant feuds with Alex Ferguson and other coaches.

    He assured Ferguson, for example, that his was the prettiest wife.

    Follow this link to see a summary of these feuds.

    Beside Galastasaray in 2000, what is funny is that Manchester United seem to always be on hand to cause Arsenal some misery.

2006: Beginning of the Downward Spiral

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    Wenger calls the 2006 defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final his biggest regret. Hear him talk about it:

    Of course it is the biggest regret. When a referee makes a decision like that he has to be ­absolutely sure.

    You cannot kill a final that one billion people watch. Yes, we have regrets. I do not say we could not win the game. Thierry had two good chances. But it was not the game that everybody expected on the day.

    We had a fantastic season in the Champions League, we only lost one game and that was the final, in the whole season. The game was not there. Eleven against 11, it would have been a fantastic game.

    Then we had to take Pires off, and he still hates me today! We took a great player out who could have added to the quality of the game.

    You never forget completely about the game and in a Champions League final you know you will not get back there necessarily the next year. You never forget it, but you have to focus on what is in front of you in this job.

    I did an interview recently about ten years at Arsenal. I was surprised at how much I remembered from every single little disappointment. I thought I had forgotten but every little detail came out in my head.

Of Falls and Humiliations

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    1. Barcelona PlayStation

    As it was in 2006, so has it been ever since. Barcelona has dashed Arsenal's chances of Champions League glory.

    The 2010 defeat of Arsenal at the Nou Camp stands out.

    Arsenal had snatched a 2-2 draw at the Emirates in the first leg, and even scored first in the return leg, only for Lionel Messi to shift into a gear called "wonderful" to smash home four goals, all by himself.

    The defeat at the Nou Camp made Arsenal seem like boys. And boys they mostly were.

    "He's like a PlayStation," Wenger said of Messi after the match.


    2. The Busacca Dance

    In 2011, Arsenal and Barcelona reprised the previous year's drama. This time Arsenal managed to beat Barcelona in the first leg, in a thrilling comeback.

    In the second leg, Arsenal are camped in their own half unable to get out, sucking up wave after wave of Barcelona attacks. They are unable to muster a single shot on the Barcelona goal. But they are winning 3-2 on aggregate, until Massimo Busacca struck by showing Robin van Persie a second yellow card for shooting at goal after the referee's whistle.

    Arsenal are reduced to 10 men and they promptly concede two goals. Wenger is furious and continues to fume days after. His post-match clash with Busacca earned him what eventually becomes a two-match ban that almost proved costly the next season.

    It is another low for Wenger.


    3. The 2008 Collapse

    Scott Anthony wrote the following for The Guardian:

    James McFadden's stoppage-time equaliser from the penalty spot and a horrendous injury to Eduardo Da Silva brought a traumatic week for title-chasing Arsenal dramatically to a close....

    However, having recovered impressively in the second-half thanks to a brace from Theo Walcott, the Gunners were denied victory in the dying seconds by a dubious penalty decision after Gaël Clichy's challenge on Stuart Parnaby was adjudged a foul by the referee Mike Dean. McFadden converted the penalty to leave a seething Arsenal captain William Gallas in tears and once again raise questions over the Gunners' apparently fragile mentality.

    Notice the contradiction. A team snatches a draw via a dubious penalty kick, yet the author chooses to stick with his cliche—fragile mentality. Or perhaps he meant the William Gallas meltdown after Eduardo Da Silva's leg break early in the match?


    Arsenal's title chances were over after this.


    4. Tumble at Wembley

    February 27, 2011.

    Arsenal's six-year trophy drought seem poised to end as the Gunners took on Birmingham City in the final of the League Cup.

    Matt Lawton of the Daily Mail waxed eloquent as he reported the incident:

    Never again will Arsene Wenger question whether the League Cup amounts to a real trophy. Not after the drama of this astonishing final. After the tears of an inconsolable Jack Wilshere; the heroics of Roger Johnson; the sheer agony of losing a match that Arsenal’s manager desperately hoped
    would launch a new era of success at his football club. 

    Wenger felt that pain, dropping to his knees in the technical area seconds after seeing Obafemi Martins celebrate an 89th-minute goal that was the product of an extraordinary mix-up between Wojciech Szczesny and Laurent Koscielny. A goal Wenger now fears could ruin their entire season.

    The match did ruin the entire season.

    After this, Arsenal fell apart quicker than a pack of cards, after playing some beautiful football earlier in the season. Samir Nasri's decision to abandon ship may not be unconnected to this mishap. 


    5. 8-2 Spanking at Old Trafford

    2011-12 season.

    After Wenger sits on Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri until the last possible moment and then losing them to rival teams, it is too late to buy anything before the new season starts.

    It is no surprise that Arsenal have their worst start under Wenger—a draw at Newcastle United, 2-0 home defeat to Liverpool, and then an 8-2 rout at Manchester United. 

    Wenger cuts a sorry sight, drenched by the rain and clutching his head in frustration. The loss prompts a last-minute activity from Wenger in the transfer market. The media calls it "panic buy."

    The season seemed over before it had even begun.


    6. Booed at Home

    A truly low point for Wenger occurred on January 23 when Manchester completed the double over Arsenal by beating them 2-1 at home. But it wasn't the defeat that riled up the fans, it was the substitution of a certain 18-year-old by name Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain for an out-of-favor petit Russian called Andrei Arshavin.

    Oxlade-Chamberlain had been Arsenal's brightest spark in the match. He even supplied the equalizing assist, only for Wenger to pull him off.

    The fans weren't amused and they let him know it. A few years back, none would have imagined such a scenario, but it represented  Wenger's change of fortunes at Arsenal.


    7. From in Wenger We Trust to in Wenger We Rust

    It is no exaggeration to say that a section of Arsenal fans wants Wenger sacked. The sentiment gathered force a fortnight ago (to this writing) when Arsenal were out-classed at AC Milan and then humiliated in a Champions League clash. The final score was 4-0, and there was little controversial in the score.

    As of this writing, sentiments have turned against Wenger. The fans and the media couldn't care a hoot if he were sacked. In fact both (at least a section of the fans) want him sacked...already.


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    This is the Wenger story, highs and lows. Where it will go from here only history will make certain.

    Your thoughts are welcome.