Arsene Wenger's 20th year in Premier League

Football: Arsene Wenger's 20th year in Premier League

The Frenchman took the reins at Arsenal20 years ago yesterday and, despite leaner times in recent years, his influence is undeniable

LONDON • When you look at Arsene Wenger, what do you see?

A shining light for longevity, the last of his kind overseeing a period of time at one football club that is now unique? A 66-year-old manager who seems past it, his methods overtaken by younger, hungrier, craftier coaches?

A stubborn man? A loyal man? A romantic? A revolutionary? A relic? A survivor?

It explains a lot about him, and how he is perceived, that after an extraordinary 20 years at Arsenal, he can be all of them.

Here we chronicle the seven ages of his time at the club:

Arsene Wenger may not have the world at his feet all the time, but he is probably the last of his kind – a 20-year manager. PHOTO: REUTERS


When Wenger got the offer to join Arsenal in 1996, he gave it considerable thought in his apartment in Nagoya, where he was living while he was manager of Grampus Eight.

The Arsenal opening represented a mighty leap in every way - professionally, culturally, personally.

"I was at a dangerous point and I had to make a decision. I felt that if I didn't come back now (to Europe) I would stay forever in Japan," he explained.

When Wenger arrived with his French lilt and sophisticated ideas at Arsenal, he came into an environment with a deep mistrust when it came to the possibility that a foreigner could succeed in England.

When he made his first public appearance in London, nobody knew quite what to expect.

Unlike Ruud Gullit, who had a global reputation and took over from Glenn Hoddle to become Chelsea's player-manager during the summer, Wenger was a virtual unknown.


It was Patrick Vieira who started the ball rolling. When this rangy and athletic young midfielder was sent on by Wenger, it was a shining light-bulb moment.

Dennis Bergkamp felt the crackling energy sweeping through dear old Highbury.

"When he came on he changed the game. He completely changed the game," the Dutchman recalls.

"And I think everyone in the stadium was thinking, 'What happened here? Did I really see it right?' "

From being an unknown quality when he joined Arsenal in 1996 (above), Wenger has gone on to win the Premier League thrice – the first as quickly as in 1998, and the last one won unbeaten in the league in the 2003-04 season. PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Vieira's appearance made a vital impression. He represented something fresh and different.

As Wenger said: "He is the man who gave me the first credibility. It was a shock to people. He was like a genie from the lamp."

Over the next two seasons, Wenger would introduce a range of new ideas.

Some were based on science - everything from discouraging chocolate bars on the team coach, revising dietary habits and liquid intake and introducing stretching regimes and fitness specialists.

Some were based on style of play, and short to-the-point training sessions designed to create the template for football that was both powerful and expressive.

A knack for signing perfect players to fit the new jigsaw helped.

It all came together beautifully in Wenger's first full season as Arsenal won the Premier League and FA Cup double.

THE WONDER YEARS (1998-2006)

Wenger's first decade yielded convincing, regular success. But it was not without its towering disappointments.

In between the doubles of 1998 and 2002 were frustrating years of being close but not winning.

They were league runners-up each season behind Manchester United and also lost a bunch of painful semi-finals and finals.

But overall, during the period between 1996 and 2006, Arsenal won the Premier League three times, FA Cup four times, reached the Champions League final for the first time and went through the 2003-04 league campaign undefeated.

That the "Invincibles" did not lose a single league game meant a great deal to Wenger personally. "It was one of my dreams," he said. "I learnt that you can achieve things that you think are not achievable."

  • 57%

    Wenger's win rate at Arsenal. Only Alex Ferguson has a better rate among long-serving managers.


    Number of times Arsenal finished below fourth under Wenger


    Number of trophies won by Wenger with Arsenal in the first 10 years. He won 15 in total.


    Percentage of goals under Wenger's reign that are scored by Thierry Henry (226 goals)

MEN AGAINST BOYS (2006-2013)

Wenger loved Highbury. But moving to the Emirates always felt, to him, imperative for the club to push forward.

When Arsenal decided to leave their ancestral home and prepare for a move that would cost around £400million (S$708 million), he knew and accepted that for a time it would compromise his team.

What he did not know was that all Arsenal's plans would be thrown by the impact of oligarchs and billionaires landing suddenly to transform the football landscape.

Arsenal's belt-tightening coincided with lavish spending elsewhere.

"You feel like you have stones against machine guns," Wenger said. "People don't want to know that. They just want you to win the championship."

That period turned out to be more challenging than the club ever anticipated.

Wenger's plan to sail the choppy waters with a modestly priced boat compared to the Premier League's financial powerhouses was to pin his faith in youth.

The idea was brave: find the best young players you can, inculcate them with some club spirit and develop a team who grow together and feel loyalty to one another and the cause.

It nearly worked. Cesc Fabregas in his youth was sensational. In the group that included Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri and Abou Diaby, Wenger was sure he had enough talent to compete.

But project youth eventually crumbled. The damage when Fabregas and Nasri left, followed by van Persie, was felt keenly.

Wenger felt a very personal sense of loss. The ideology he believed in collapsed around him. "You cannot pretend you are a big club," he said.

Rightly or wrongly Wenger always felt if a player wanted to go, it was time to let him go.

The vulnerabilities in his team during these moments made it so tough to compete with the best around.


Several times during his Arsenal tenure Wenger could have left for other clubs. He never did. He stayed put, earning a handsome salary but also absorbing the flak.

Why? Because he started the project to see Arsenal over their expensive move, and he wanted to finish it.

After winning the FA Cup in 2005, Wenger endured moments of immense pressure and blame.

The 8-2 defeat at United was deeply humiliating. There were a cluster of those calamities in recent seasons, piercingly bad defeats that allowed Jose Mourinho to deliver that cutting "Specialist in Failure" line.

"The immense importance of football is sometimes scary," Wenger said. "When you don't win you are responsible for so many unhappy people. Sometimes it's better not to think about it because it could damage your life too much."

Set against that analysis, it was meaningful when Wenger finally experienced the relief of winning again.

The FA Cup final in 2014 against Hull City was a roller coaster. Going 2-0 down was, he said, "surreal" as the thought of losing when carrying so much expectation was unthinkable.

Arsenal rallied and won the Cup in extra time.

"Winning was an important moment in the life of the team," Wenger said. "We had such a feeling of relief and happiness."

The following year they retained the trophy with a swashbuckling performance. The graph was back on an upward curve.

Silverware, and the ability to attract a higher calibre of player - like Mesut Ozil or Alexis Sanchez - made a difference.

Wenger felt bullish again.


Wenger has had to roll with some heavyweight punches but has never got close to stepping out of the ring. What keeps him there is the feeling in his gut that keeps him obsessed by trying to win.

"I can only survive if I have that desire to win," he explained. "If you only fight to win that means you have to forget your life first and foremost."

Whatever his critics make of him, he retains the full support of his club's majority owner, Stan Kroenke, and the board.

In Arsenal's broader diaspora there is black, white and every shade of grey whenever there is discussion about Wenger's ways.

Some supporters frustrated by the ratio between high ticket prices and club honours vent their spleen and hold up banners.

Others feel a sense of loyalty and affection for a man who has given a lot of himself to the club during his tenure.

Many are stuck in the middle.

Wenger often appears reserved in front of the post-match TV camera. What the majority do not see is the personal side of Wenger, and the qualities that have kept him in the same job for so long.

His keen intellect, his sense of trust in those around him (sometimes arguably too much trust), his dedication and his humour all make the man.

He is very funny and has no problems laughing at himself.

"He is such a clever man with such a knack at understanding people. But he could also be a walking disaster," said Ray Parlour. "He would do something accidentally every day."

He could get tangled up in the nets, drop the pudding off his plate without noticing or join in a squad relaxation technique but lie with his legs up against a partition wall rather than a solid one and roll straight through it.

THE FUTURE (2016-?)

After 20 years there is no single perception of Wenger and his time.

We look today at the tall, wiry frame, sometimes bearing that strained expression when things are not going well, at others more urbane, with a ready wry smile and dry one-liner.

In the current era of incessant managerial scrutiny, the pressure is relentless.

But rest assured he goes home knowing that the biggest critic, the force who applies the harshest pressure, is the man in the mirror.

His current deal expires at the end of this season and, as with all his other contracts, the only person who will decide if he signs another, walks away, moves upstairs or tries something completely different is him.

It is, as he says, the club of his life.

"What I like about Arsenal, and I am very proud of, is that the club is a mixture of respecting traditional values while not being scared to move forward," he said.

"I believe in the last 15 to 20 years you have all of that - fantastic periods, difficult periods - I stayed here for the respect I have for all that."

Whatever happens and whenever it happens to end this collaboration between manager and club, Wenger is the last of his kind.

The average time span for a manager in England's professional game is currently 13 months. We will not see a 20-year manager at elite level again.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 23, 2016, with the headline 'An iconic survivor'. Print Edition | Subscribe