James McNicholas is Bleacher Report's lead Arsenal correspondent and will be following the club from a London base throughout the 2013/14 season. Follow him on Twitter here.
Arsene Wenger is a man tightly wed to his principles. In recent years, he had seemed principled to a fault: Wenger appeared to value the abstractions of his ethical code above tangible results. However, in the year he turned 64, Wenger showed that he is still adaptable enough to evolve.
In 2013, the Frenchman has looked less like a philosopher, and more like a winner.
As with all evolution, Wenger changed in order to survive. At the start of the year, the Arsenal manager arguably arrived at the nadir of his 17 years in charge of the club. The humiliation of the Capital One Cup defeat against Bradford was compounded by a home loss to Blackburn in the FA Cup.
Within the same week, Arsenal’s hopes of a trophy in 2012/13 were demolished by a brutal Bayern Munich side, that triumphed 3-1 at the Emirates Stadium in a Champions League clash. The Gunners had already fallen behind in the race for the top four.
Wenger came under an unprecedented degree of pressure. This was the low point of a difficult period in which he had fought severe financial restrictions—spinning plates to balance both the books and the team.
His plan had been to build around youth, but the players he developed could never match his commitment to the Arsenal cause. Impatient for success, Wenger’s starlets flew the nest. The Frenchman was left with a series of hastily purchased square pegs thrust into ill-fitting round holes.
The strain took its toll. Wenger’s demeanour in press conferences shifted from charming to cantankerous. His eyes seemed a bit more sunken; his hair a touch greyer; his coat a little more difficult to zip up.
Lesser men than Wenger might have walked. Lesser clubs than Arsenal might have sacked him.
Wenger knew something had to change. Arsenal were still attempting to recreate the free-flowing football of the Invincibles era, but with an inferior calibre of player. They resembled a tribute band—a lurching imitation of their celebrated predecessors.
Wenger also seemed to have forgotten that the Invincibles performance art was conducted on a stage made sturdy by some outstanding defending. Amid the plaudits for Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Dennis Bergkamp, the contributions of the likes of Sol Campbell and Lauren are often overlooked.
Arsenal needed to go back to basics. To rebuild his team, Wenger had to relax his autocracy.
Until this point, his relationship with his new assistant, Steve Bould, had reportedly been fractious, according to Daily Mail's Sportsmail Reporter's interview with Stewart Robson. However, Wenger was now forced to call upon Bould’s defensive expertise. With the aid of his experienced coach, he rebuilt an Arsenal team that could soak up pressure and hit teams on the break.
Under-performing captain Thomas Vermaelen was unceremoniously dropped. The overconfident Wojciech Szczesny was held back from the first team until an injury to Lukasz Fabianski handed him the chance of a reprieve. He grasped it with the most secure handling of his career to date.
Aaron Ramsey was introduced as a second holding midfielder alongside Mikel Arteta at the expense of more creative players like Jack Wilshere. Principles were sacrificed, and pragmatism prospered.
Wenger had no choice. Change was coming, either in the makeup of the first 11 or the identity of the manager.
Wenger rebooted the system, and it needed to work. Fortunately for him, results came immediately. Arsenal’s revamped team won 2-0 in Munich. The result was a catalyst for a 10-match unbeaten run that took Arsenal to fourth place and the Champions League.
Out of the blackness, Wenger had found a blueprint and redemption.
The same formula has taken Arsenal to the top of the Premier League in 2013/14. This summer, Wenger made an unusually lavish signing in Mesut Ozil. Ozil’s wizardry, as well as the twin bonding influences of time and confidence, has brought greater cohesion to Arsenal’s attacking play, but the building blocks remain the same.
The results have been spectacular. No club acquired more Premier League points in 2013 than Arsenal.
Wenger seems humble about his team’s transformation. Perhaps he recognizes that this is a team he stumbled upon rather than one that has come together by design. If necessity is the mother of invention, a paternity test would surely reveal a chance to be its father.
Some Arsenal fans, whose admiration for Wenger borders on the fanatical, have attempted to claim that the current iteration of the Arsenal 11 was always part of some grand plan.
That seems unlikely. Take, for example, the defensive partnership between Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny that has been the bedrock of Arsenal’s recent success. If that was always the long-term strategy, would Wenger have made Thomas Vermaelen Arsenal captain in August 2012?
Similarly, the signing of Ozil was born out of a perfect storm of coincidence. Had Arsenal been successful in their pursuit of Luis Suarez, a move for Ozil might not have even been considered. Having failed to land Suarez, Arsenal were under pressure to sign a big name.
This is not to decry Wenger’s achievements in 2013 as pure luck. Fortune favours those brave enough to gamble. He reinvented his team and put his values to one side to ensure Arsenal could lay the foundations required for success. Now, he is reaping the rewards. Flair is returning to the Gunners’ play. A robust cake is now being beautifully iced.
In 2013, Wenger relinquished his grip over some of his ideals. In 2014, his hands may close around a considerable conciliatory prize: the Premier League trophy.