When Arsene Wenger arrived at Arsenal in 1996 and introduced good dieting to the then mostly English team, the English press greeted this with a level of incredulity and not without a good dose of ridicule and skepticism.
As to the fact that he held two degrees and spoke five languages, new rival Alex Ferguson summed it up quite nicely: “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!''
Anti-intellectualism in football was alive then (as it still is now) and kicking.
It manifests in different guises even today, in England, especially, as relative lack of tactical sophistication, where 4-4-2 is sufficient for all things. After all, it allows the direct and pragmatic kick-and-run kind of style still popular there in some quarters.
Ireland (England’s cousins) against Spain at 2012 Euros exposed the acerbic disadvantage inherent in this style and thinking, a thinking that often manifests in utterances by TV commentators, such as, “why aren’t they ‘hoofing’ the ball into the eighteen?” Well, Ireland, for example, hoofed and hoofed the ball away in an ostensible stupor; it didn’t work.
Back to diet: it was a progressive step that rejuvenated the aging squad that Wenger inherited from George Graham. They won the league the next season.
At a time where a number of teams favored the ultra defensive 3-5-2, Wenger changed the formation of the team (known then as boring Arsenal) to an attacking 4-4-2, which in reality was a 4-2-3-1 of a kind, where the second digit represented the two central midfielders, the third, the two inward-tending wingers (outside midfielders) and the supporting striker cum creative midfielder, and the final digit, the most advanced striker.
Arsenal quickly became known for their dynamic and incessant attacking football, and when in 2003-04 they went an entire season unbeaten, it was said that England had seen one of the greatest sides ever. This wasn’t a team that won by measly single goals and by parking the bus, no. They won by outplaying and outscoring their opponents.
Followers of Wenger and the team would notice a gradual tactical transformation now in play. That’s forward thinking.
In fact, Pep Guardiola may have, perhaps, usurped Wenger as the most admired manager in town, but until recently, Wenger had been the most sought-after manager by aspiring coaches, many of whom came to Arsenal to observe Wenger’s training sessions.
Progressive thinking also meant that it was Wenger who introduced England to true cosmopolitanism in a squad.
When the English press complained about the dearth of English players in an English team, Wenger replied that football is a game of merit, opened to the best talents around the world. Today, almost every team is cosmopolitan.
At a time when even the forward thinking David Dein wanted Arsenal to rent Old Wembley Stadium, Wenger supported the idea of building for the future, hence the Emirates stadium. He adjusted his approach to team building accordingly, favoring nurture over the purchase of stars.
It is—the stadium, that is—what has given Arsenal the edge over Chelsea, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur. It has made Arsenal one of the richest clubs in the world.
A big stadium had given Manchester United an edge over her rivals. It was expedient therefore that Arsenal should leave Highbury to a bigger ground if the club would favorably contend for the future.
Furthermore, it was Wenger who first used computer stats in the Premier League to both analyze games, player performances and to aid him in transfer purchases.
Now stats have become a Holy Grail of sorts. Every Tom, Dick and Harry holds stats sacrosanct, as though they were the trump card for success. They are not, of course.
In essence, it is progressive thinking that has made Wenger focus on youth development rather than on spending huge amounts of cash on ready-made stars. This will yet yield dividend. And as the reader would have observed, other English teams are now following suit.