Football: 5 highs and lows of Arsene Wenger's near-22 year tenure as Arsenal manager

Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger leads his team's training session ahead of the Barclays Asia Trophy tournament in Singapore, on July 14, 2015.
Arsenal's manager Arsene Wenger leads his team's training session ahead of the Barclays Asia Trophy tournament in Singapore, on July 14, 2015.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger announced on Friday (April 20) that he would be stepping down from his post at the end of this season after almost 22 years in charge of the Gunners.

With three Premier League titles, including the 2003-04 "Invincibles" unbeaten season, seven FA Cups and a 19-year unbroken streak of qualifying for the Champions League, he is the most successful manager in the club's history.

The second half of his tenure has, however, been marked by an increasingly acrimonious relationship with the Arsenal faithful over the club's inability to challenge for the league title and for repeatedly flattering to deceive in the Champions League, resulting in the creation of two camps - "Wenger In" and "Wenger Out".

The Straits Times looks at his top five highs and lows as the era of one of football's last romantics comes to an end:

THE HIGHS

1) 1997-98 The first league and Cup double

Wenger gave Arsenal fans a taste of things to come, guiding the Gunners to a third-placed finish in his first season after joining from J-League's Nagoya Grampus Eight in 1996 - then just the third foreign manager to take charge of a Premier League team.

 

Often credited for revolutionising English football, "The Professor" changed the dietary habits of his players, and made use of plyometrics and psychometric testing - and it paid dividends the following season when Arsenal won nine straight games, including a 1-0 win over Manchester United, to clinch his first league title before defeating Newcastle in the FA Cup final for the double.

2) 2001-02 The second league and Cup double

 

Wenger was the first foreign manager in English football to lift the double before repeating the achievement four years later. He had been fine-tuning Arsenal's possession-based play following several years of United dominance and with the summer signings of Sol Campbell, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg, the club began to play with a panache that would define their style in the years to come. Arsenal memorably won the league title at Old Trafford and capped off their season with the double after beating Chelsea in the Cup final.

3) 2003-04 The Invincibles

 

Arguably Wenger's greatest feat, it was a stirring riposte to critics who had mocked him two years earlier for suggesting Arsenal could go unbeaten. The Gunners ended the season with 90 points and a record of 26 wins and 12 draws to become only the second team to do so since Preston North End in 1888-89.

4) 2005 FA Cup

 

In many ways, the 2004-05 season was the turning point when Arsenal and Wenger's fortunes began to sour. They failed to defend their league title, finishing behind Jose Mourinho's Chelsea, and their unbeaten run was stopped at 49 games after an ill-tempered loss to United at Old Trafford. While a measure of revenge was exacted in the FA Cup final against the same opponents, this would be Arsenal's last trophy for nine years.

5) 2017 FA Cup

 

The trophy was a silver lining in what had been a tumultuous year at the Emirates. The club failed to qualify for the Champions League for the first time since 1998, finishing in a dismal fifth position in the league. Wenger, however, prevailed despite the undercurrent of rancour to become the FA Cup's most successful manager after lifting the FA Cup for a record seventh time.

THE LOWS

6) Failure in Europe

There's no more damning indictment of Wenger than his misadventures in Europe. Arsenal reached the 2000 Uefa Cup final and the Champions League final in 2006, finishing runners-up on both occasions, but those runs have been few and far between. The Gunners suffered their seventh consecutive round-of-16 exit last season, with the 10-2 capitulation to Bayern Munich in the Champions League and subsequent failure to qualify for the competition for the first time representing the nadir of Wenger's reign.

7) Nine-year trophy drought

The English game was changed irrevocably in the summer of 2003 when Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea. From 2005-14, the Blues, fuelled by the influx of transfer funds, went on to claim no fewer than 15 trophies including the Champions League - the first London club to do so - while United continued to win the big trophies under Alex Ferguson and Manchester City emerged as one of the "Big Six". All Arsenal had to show was their spanking new Emirates Stadium and an empty trophy cabinet to the chagrin of fans.

8) Inability to keep hold of big-name players

The exodus of star players - Robin van Persie, Cesc Fabregas, Samir Nasri, Gael Clichy, Bacary Sagna, Alexis Sanchez, Alex-Oxlade-Chamberlain - at Arsenal over the years is another issue that has rankled critics and fans alike. Wenger was not able to take the club forward and fulfil their ambitions of winning football's biggest trophies - the FA Cup notwithstanding - and they all opted to seek new pastures.

9) Record against top-six rivals in the league

The 8-2 loss at United, the 4-0 and 5-1 thrashings by Liverpool at Anfield, the 0-6 hammering to Chelsea, City's 6-3 romp - they are but some of the painful memories etched into hearts of Arsenal fans in recent seasons.

Since 2012, Arsenal have just won three of 33 games at Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, City and United and according to www.transfermarkt.com, Wenger has the second worst head-to-head record of all the "Big Six" managers. The statistics make for grim reading for fans of the north London side.

10) Reluctance to loosen the purse strings

Critics have claimed that Wenger's hubris held back Arsenal, with the Frenchman opting to operate on a platform of financial prudence during those lean years of 2005-13 as opposed to his rivals. While Wenger finally splashed out big money to land Mesut Ozil in the summer of 2013 and a year later on Sanchez, the Gunners are still playing catch-up to their rivals. According to Sky Sports, Arsenal still made a profit of £25.1 million profit despite missing out on Champions League football this term and it begs the question about Wenger's reluctance to use the club's transfer war chest.