George Graham was replaced by Stewart Houston and then Bruce Rioch, both of whom remained in charge on a very short-term basis. Arsenal needed a long-term answer. It was a relatively unknown Frenchman who would come and take the reigns, changing the face of Arsenal and much of English football, forever. Arriving at Highbury in October 1996, Arsene Wenger was the first Arsenal manager from outside the UK. He came after notable success at Monaco, and short stint in charge of Japanese side Grampus Eight.
During this first season, 1996/1997, baring in mind he joined in October so had no time to give his own personal touch in the summer, Arsenal finished a very respectable third. However it was the following year, Wenger’s first full year season in charge, that he would officially arrive, stamping his authority on the team. There was a point during the 1997/98 campaign that the Gunners trailed leaders Manchester United by 11 points. Fortunately, his side showed a turn of outstanding form during the second half of the campaign, and this saw Arsenal crowned Premier League champions with two games to spare. No more than two weeks later, the Gunners added an FA Cup, securing Arsenal’s second-ever Double, in Wenger’s first full year in charge.
As his players soon realised, Wenger was a different breed of manager. The old-school habits of throwing teacups and tantrums were not for him. Instead the squad grew accustomed to nutrition and new training methods.
Not only did he transform Arsenal on the pitch, but Wenger also set about revolutionising his players’ lives away from the pitch. His players soon realised he was a different breed of manager; old-school habits of tantrums and tea-cup throwings were long gone, instead he implemented cutting-edge training regimes and dietary systems which the squad soon grew accustomed to. This trend was to spread nationwide, as he in a sense had a massive impact on the country. Other clubs had to follow suit, or risk being left behind.
The Frenchman was somewhat of a perfectionist with regards to his squad construction, adding the likes of Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit and Marc Overmars to an Arsenal side already boasting the talents of David Seaman, Tony Adams and Dennis Bergkamp. Another Highbury stalwart who continued to flourish under Wenger was Ian Wright. Already closing in on Cliff Bastin’s all-time goalscoring record when the Frenchman arrived, Wright finally scored his magical 179th goal against Bolton Wanderers on September 13, 1997. It was a record that seemed as if it would stand for a long time, perhaps almost as long as Bastin’s had. However Wright’s achievement was to be overshadowed by perhaps Wenger’s finest signing to date – Thierry Henry – who would eclipse Wright’s tally a little over eight years later, racking up 228 goals for the Gunners.
Henry signed in August 1999, just after Arsène Wenger’s side were denied back-to-back titles by Manchester United with one point the difference. At first, the Thierry’s ability to adapt to the Premier League’s physically challenging style was questioned, but having failed to score in his first eight games, the former Juventus man grabbed an impressive 26 goals that season. Defeats in the 2000 Uefa Cup and 2001 FA Cup finals meant that Henry would have to wait until next season before getting his hands on any silverware.
In 2001/02, Arsène Wenger’s team surged to another spectacular Double. Wenger’s second Double in his 5th full season as manager. We finished seven points clear of Liverpool in the Premier League, sealing the title with a win over our most competitive rivals for many years, Manchester United, at Old Trafford, only days a well-deserved 2-0 win against Chelsea in the FA Cup Final, with great goals from Parlour and Ljungberg.
Lifting the FA Cup once more in 2002/03 was yet another success under Wenger, but back-to-back titles would once again elude us. However this disappoint was made undoubtedly resolved when in the following season we would not only win the Premier League for a third time under Wenger, but do it an incredibly and unique manner. An entire season unbeaten. A feat never achieved by anyone else, and also eclipsing Nottingham Forest’s long-standing run of League games without defeat. Played 49, Won 36, Drawn 13, Lost 0. It was a side that were tabbed ‘The Invincibles’, because they truly were. Yet another record belonging to the Arsenal.
Wenger had definitely conquered England with these successes, however Europe still evaded him. A Quarter-Final defeat against the continually-improving Chelsea in 2004 matched the closest Wenger’s Arsenal had come to the biggest prize in European football. This would all change in May 2006 when Arsenal went all the way to the Champions League Final for the first time in their history, beating Real Madrid, Juventus, and Villarreal along the way. We arrived in Paris for the final having gone 10 games with consecutive clean sheets – a competition record. The final would be against Barcelona. 17 minutes in we went down to 10 men after keeper, Jens Lehmann was sent off. However this didn’t stop Arsenal taking the lead, and coming to within 13 minutes of their first ever Champions League glory. However in the 77th minute, Barcelona equalised, and minutes later they got another, both of which should have been dealt with better by an inexperienced Almunia. It seemed as if nothing would go in our favour. Even Henry missed a good chance at 1-0. Never again have we come so close to European success.
In between the Premier League title of 2004 and the heartbreaking Champions League Final defeat of 2006, we managed to claim another FA Cup, beating Manchester United in Cardiff in 2005. This was to be our last success to date, and Patrick Viera, the captain, had the final say when he scored the last kick in the penalty shoot to snatch it 5-4. This was also to be his last kick for Arsenal.
Arsenal were quickly becoming one of the most revered sides in Europe, and this ambition was underlined when, in February 2004, construction began on the Gunners’ new state-of-the-art home at Ashburton Grove, a mere stone’s throw from Highbury. The new Emirates Stadium officially opened its doors in the summer of 2006. And it really was a bold step for Arsenal to take, leaving behind the heritage of Highbury, a ground where all of Arsenal’s successes have come.
This move was to coincide with a new era, a new stadium and a new team was set to be formed. Over the transition period, from 2005 to 2007, Arsenal lost many of the players who had made them so successful in those earlier glory days. The likes of Viera, Henry, and Pires all moved on for their individual reasons. The likes of Cole, Campbell, Ljungberg, Flamini left the club as well, around this time. And Dennis Bergkamp, a footballing magician, also retired. It paved the way for a new team, and Wenger put his faith in a side filled with youngsters, most of whom were foreign. Fabregas was the centrepiece in a team that was developing, but never reached its full potential. Many talents came and left, but no trophies made it hard to keep ahold of the best players as they started to attract the attention of clubs who were having more success (and paying higher wages).
Although since the 2005/2006 season we have remained in the top four, as we have every season under Wenger, our best placed league finish has been third, achieved on three occasions in those seven seasons. With regards to the cup competitions, our best performances in the FA Cup and Champions League have seen us reach the Semi-Final, just the once in each, both in the 2008/09 season, losing 2-1 to Chelsea in the FA Cup, and 4-1 on aggregate to United in the Champions League. We have lost two League Cup Finals, the first one in 2006, a youthful and inexperienced side going 2-1 down to Chelsea, the second coming as a huge surprise in 2010, when a more experienced side lost 2-1 again, in the dying minutes to a Birmingham City team that was later relegated from the Premier League.
This trophyless run has continued since that 2005 FA Cup glory, despite a huge investment into a new stadium. It is however not the first time in Arsenal’s history, that we have won a number of trophies in quick succession before them eluding us for many following years. The Board and Wenger insist on their philosophy and principles with regards to finances and stability, in an era where clubs are spending enormous amounts to gain success, and others are going into administration or worse, and many are in debt. That however is a whole other story, irrelevant at the moment to ‘History’.
But Wenger has always been about more than results and trophies. He has transformed relative unknowns into world-class stars – Vieira, Petit, Anelka, Ljungberg and Fabregas for example. And he will always be remembered for turning Thierry Henry from a talented winger with potential into a one of the best strikers that has ever graced the world.
But perhaps Wenger’s greatest legacy will be the style with which he has brought success. Many clubs have won trophies, but few have managed it with the panache of Arsène’s Arsenal. When appointed in October 1996 it was a case of ‘Arsène Who?’
These days, Wenger ranks alongside the best managers in the world, and sits side by side with Herbert Chapman as Arsenal’s greatest managers.