The final acts of Arsène Wenger’s Arsenal – A long read

A stroll through the final 12 years of Le Professeur’s time as the “boss”.

While riding the tsunami of success after the Invinsibles season in 03/04, and the six other trophies Wenger and Arsenal plundered since his appointment in 1996, they set out on a bigger adventure as the club announced a new stadium to stand ready in 2006. This is when the final acts of Arsène Wenger’s reign in north London began.

A time Wenger himself described in May 2017 as, “That was, for me, the biggest period of pressure between 2006 and 2014. If you told me today I’d do that again I would say ‘no thank you, I’ll leave that to someone else.’”

It is a tale of a new time, difficult choices, successes and failures, and a surprise ending.

A new time

In the aftermath of the thrilling season finale during the 05/06 campaign, when Arsenal surpassed Tottenham on the last day of the season to grab the fourth spot away from their bitter rivals, and could once again celebrate St. Totteringham’s Day, and reached the Champions League final but lost against Barcelona, an ominous mist consumed the Gunners and their new 60,000 seat fortress.

In the following nine years the Gunners experienced a drought of silverware like no other since the 80s. Arsenal’s move to the Emirates came with a hefty price, £390m was the total cost. A mist of staggering invoices from the bank clouded everyone’s vision, and for a certain someone to guide everyone through this new, uncertain time.

Foggy Emirates

Wenger’s past successes proved him to be the undisputed man to show the way. Even the bank wanted guarantees that the Frenchman would stay at the club before funding the new stadium. In this time, as big loans loomed over the Emirates blocking all sunlight, Arsenal and Le Professeur made a bold decision.

With increasingly faded memories of lifting trophies, Wenger and the Arsenal board chose to pay the bank premiums quickly rather than slowly: To let the sunlight beam over the Emirates’ grass sooner rather than later. A primary way of doing so was through player sales.

A decision that would jeopardise Arsenal’s on-field success, but a decision to be applauded in retrospect. With an ageing squad, Chelsea spending Abramovich’s money like it had an upcoming expiration date and bills thick as binders, the time was ripe for a rebuild in Islington. A fresh team to complement a new state-of-the-art stadium.

From 2005 to 2008 Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, Sol Campbell, Ashley Cole, Freddie Ljungberg, Jose Antonio Reyes and our king, Thierry Henry, left the club. And Dennis Bergkamp retired on top of that.

The consequence of these departures together with the restricted financial power was Wenger’s new approach: Quickly develop younger players for the first team by throwing them into deep water early on, instead of giving the open slots to expensive senior players. Although he was always liberal in giving youth a chance, the more rigid financial structure clearly accelerated his ideology. These three years saw the debuts of Walcott (17 years), Wilshere (16), Ramsey (17), Song (18), Diaby (19) and Denilson (18). The following three years gave Gibbs (19), Szczesny (20) and Oxlade-Chamberlain (18) their first senior games. All having a long and significant impact on Arsenal.

In this period, Wenger’s friend David Dein, who was instrumental in bringing the Frenchman to the club, left the Arsenal board as well. A decision Wenger struggled with. And Stan Kroenke had set his eyes on the club as he bought his first 10% of the Arsenal shares in 2007.

As the club worked hard to shrink the tower of invoices over the years, sunlight slowly became more visible for the people paying the loans but not for the fans watching the games week in and week out from their favourite seat at the stadium or in their living room.

While Arsenal kept paying their loans and the likes of Chelsea and Man United kept out-spending the Gunners, the club’s drought for silverware made the fans increasingly thirsty. Fortunately, the sunlight didn’t quite reach the fans under the mist for them to crave a remedy for their thirst in the hot sun, and fully display their dissatisfaction. Yet.

“Perhaps Wenger’s most under-appreciated performance”

Since moving to the Emirates in 2006, the club won no cup trophies and accumulated five third or fourth place finishes in the first five years of residency. There was still a dark mist over the Arsenal, but it’s evaporation escalated in 2011. Sunlight touched the pitch for the first time when Arsenal beat peak Barcelona 2-1 at the Emirates.

In 2011, Kroenke became the owner of the club when he bought Danny Fiszman and Lady Nina Bracewell-Smith’s stakes, gaining 62.89% of the overall shares. Another big step in Arsenal history, however, not much changed on the pitch.

The following two seasons, while still following the plan to pay the bank quickly rather than slowly, Arsenal profited £21m from player sales. Players such as Fabregas, Nasri, Clichy, van Persie and Song were replaced by Arteta, Gervinho, good-old Andre Santos, Podolski, and Santi Cazorla. 

In contrast, Man City’s net spend in the same period was £71m, Man United spent £102m and Chelsea splashed out £134m.

It was the usual procedure of selling big and investing small. It’s in this time when perhaps Wenger’s best and most under-appreciated performance arose. He managed to keep Arsenal in the Champions League despite economic restraints and a medical room filled to the brim, while other top teams spent up to seven times as much money on new players. The Gunners’ plan to pay the loans quickly wouldn’t have worked nearly as efficiently without the top European competition on their schedule. And all increasingly difficult with the Arabic rise of Manchester City in 2008, adding another top team to the league.

AW shadow

(Photo: Stuart MacFarlane)

Despite this, the discontent among the Arsenal fans was growing. It was a time that truly proved that living up to old expectations and consistent results on the pitch is the only thing that matter, and that patience is fragile among football fans.

2014: The (High of the) Promised Land

The dark mist of financial restraint finally dissolved in 2014. Arsenal could finally free themselves of their long-term commercial agreements with Nike and Emirates which were sub-par to other top clubs, and negotiate new and more lucrative deals. A year Jeremy Wilson of the Telegraph named The Promised Land. Arsenal negotiated a better deal with stadium sponsor Emirates and bargained, at the time, the most lucrative kit deal in British football when they allocated the spot on our right chest to Puma over Nike.

And the good news continued as Arsenal had finally won a trophy for the first time since Vieira smashed in the last penalty in the FA Cup final against Man United in 2005. The Gunners beat Hull after being down 2-0 after eight minutes in an agonisingly cathartic 3-2 over-time win in the FA Cup at the finish line of the 13/14 season.

AW FA CUP

(Photo: Kristy Wigglesworth / AP)

Finally economically competitive again Arsenal crushed their overall transfer record, spending £107m (the beaten sum was £59m) on Alexis, Welbeck, Chambers, Debuchy, Ospina and Gabriel, while only selling Vermaelen, Sagna and Djourou for £25m during the summer of 2014.

The Gunners continued recent success as they collected another FA Cup trophy for the cabinet the next year, this time brushing Aston Villa aside 4-0.

Many thought that with silverware on the last day of either seasons, after a decade of mediocre results, would be the end to Wenger’s reign at Arsenal. In many ways this story should end here. But it doesn’t.

The Promised Land was very much living up to its name. Arsenal wasn’t among the biggest customers on the transfer market, but they were finally in the vicinity of the other top clubs and finally enjoyed the taste of silver once again.

2014-2016: What goes up must come down

The trajectory was pointing up the Gunners. Alexis was an immediate hit with 37 goal points in 52 games in his debut season. Arsenal were winning trophies on a regular basis and spending money like the others.

However, the number of Wenger critics didn’t decrease much despite the recent success. They went into silent hibernation instead, still carrying a fundamental disbelief in the manager: his old-school rhetoric and tactics and his inability to win the biggest games against the biggest teams, thus not winning the league.

As exciting as the 14/15 season was, the 15/16 campaign was frustrating. Arsenal followed up the record-breaking year signing no out-field players, despite concerns about the midfield and striker positions. Arsenal bought Cech for £13m and then shipped in Elneny for £11m in January when the concerns had become more obvious. It was a year when, amazingly, Chelsea, Man United, Liverpool and Man City all under-performed. A ripe time for the Gunners to seize the moment and be crowned champions of England again, for the first time since The Invisibles in 2004.

A season that saw Arsenal lead the league at new-years, struggle during the infamously haunted stage of the start of the second half of the season, to resurface Christmas form and beat surprise leaders Leicester with a last-second header from Welbeck. Unfortunately the climax on that day was premature as Arsenal only won five of the remaining 12 games in its wake, finishing second to Leicester by ten points.

The accumulated disappointment of losing the first close title challenge since the four-point deficit to Man United in 2008 against a significantly smaller club, buying no elite out-field player in a time of financial prosperity, luck of under-performing rivals and being knocked out of the Champions League last 16 for the sixth season in a row dug out the Wenger Out Brigade in its fullest form. It ripped the fan base in two like a wet piece of paper.

AW PROTEST IMAGE

(Wenger Out protest after Arsenal losing 10-2 on aggregate to Bayern Munich)

But perhaps Wenger’s biggest shortcoming was his inability to reinvent the Arsenal side tactically again. Arsenal were famous for ruthless attacking football during the Henry/Vieria era, beautiful passing football captained by Fabregas in his time at the club, but then, when quick passing wasn’t enough and oppositions became smarter and richer, Wenger couldn’t steer the club in the right direction for the first time, after years of over-achieving in difficult financial times with continuous top four finishes. When The Promised Land arrived and the mist evaporated from the Emirates, Le Professeur was out of ideas. 

Arsenal were in a tactical limbo. Struggling to find their new identity in playing a grey, ineffective strategy set at “default”, while other top teams were set at “extreme”. The result was not exciting but not boring football, but never good enough to win the biggest trophies. Wenger’s tactical abilities were exposed as inferior to his fiercest competitors. This was the big turning point for many fans: “He has all the resources to reach the top, but at the end of the season there’s always disappointment.”

The board loosened to money crane again, as Arsenal’s net spend was £87m during the 16/17 season. Xhaka, Mustafi, Perez and Holding joined the club to the supporters initial delight. Additionally, the squad was big and strong with Alexis and Özil in their prime, there was overall more seniority in the team as Wenger had bailed on his prospect-farming project, and finally, what comes with every summer for an Arsenal fan: hope and fortitude, although it rarely endured as the fan base was split and reached new extremes every year.

Wenger changed very little in his tactic folder. Arsenal’s identity crisis grew while the other top teams cemented their identities. The Gunners finished outside of the top four during the 16/17 season for the first time since Wenger’s appointment. A shock that fuelled the fire that the Wenger Out Brigade had already started, and the fire reached new heights when the Frenchman was rewarded a new two-year contract extension after the season. The battlefield that is social media was flooded with inextinguishable arguments. A popular quote from the Wenger Out side was Harvey Dent’s famous saying: “You either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

Catalyst for change: the beginning of the end

In the aftermath of the disappointing 16/17 campaign, and only days after Wenger signing a new contract, Arsenal CEO Gazidis vaguely assured the supporters of a “catalyst for change” at the club. No one knew what that really meant, but in hindsight it’s clear: this was the beginning of the end of Wenger’s reign at Arsenal.

Gazidis

(Wenger and Gazidis)

Gazidis and the board appointed Darren Burgess as a Director of High Performance, Huss Fahmy as a new contract negotiator, Jens Lehmann as a first team coach and announced Mertesacker as the new academy manager after the season.

This confused the fan base. Surely this wasn’t Gazidis’ master plan? No, it really wasn’t.

Towards the end of the of 2017 Sven Mislintat and Raul Sanllehi were appointed as the club’s new Head of Recruitment and Director of Football respectively. The appointments of former Dortmund scout and the previous Barcelona director clarified that Arsenal were preparing for a future without Wenger at the steering wheel, and his latest contract extension was to give the board time to facilitate a new system. A system in which a new manager could be free of the daunting, extra-curricular responsibilities that Wenger had accumulated over 22 years of service.

Arsenal shipped out familiar but plateauing players such as Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Gibbs and Coquelin. Later followed by a hectic January window in which Giroud left for Chelsea and Alexis, with six months left on his contract, was sold to Man United for the price of one Mkhitaryan. The club also broke the transfer record in both the summer and winter window, signing Lacazette for £48m and Aubameyang for £57m.

A lot of parts of the Arsenal body was moving at once. At the end, the only positive on the pitch was reaching the Europa League semi-final against Atletico Madrid. The league performance was even worse than yesteryear’s fifth place finish, coming in at sixth this time.

An increasing number of fans stayed at home instead of attending the games at the Emirates during the second half of the 17/18 season. The supporters had grown a feeling of frustration of never truly reaching the top again over the last decade, and during the spring of 2018 this frustration developed into apathy. Even though the speaker at the Emirates announced sold-out crowds every week, the truth was that about 15,000 seats sat empty. People gave up hope. And owner Kroenke felt the pressure of an uninterested fan base at its fullest.

The catalyst – and au revoirs all around

On April 20th Gazidis announced that the club had come to a mutual agreement with Wenger to part ways. It was sold as Wenger leaving Arsenal with an encouraging whisper in his ear from Gazidis, however, considering the respect for his contracts (one year remaining), saying he’s still hungry to coach, his unconditional love for the club and his wasted opportunities to leave on better terms in the past, he was more likely pushed out the door.

With seven games left of the season, Wenger went on a goodbye tour receiving beautiful gestures and respect from everyone he met. He could finish his tenure at Arsenal with a gift of his own: Winning the Europa League. It was Arsenal and Wenger’s last hope of regaining access to the Champions League. Unfortunately, the Gunners lost 2-1 on aggregate against Atletico, much a consequence of always-reliable Koscielny and his tragic mistake at the Emirates. Koscielny’s stagnating form as an older player and his error against Atletico, which gave the Spaniards their away goal, similarly illustrated Wenger’s fall from grace: A beautiful thing doesn’t last forever.


Twitter: AFCandersen

Also: my interview and profile of James “Gunnerblog” McNicholas

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