Arriving in 1996, Arsene brought a decade of success beyond our wildest dreams. Three Premier League titles (one unbeaten), four FA Cups and a heart-breaking Champions League appearance later, fans were in agreement that Arsene was Arsenal’s greatest ever Manager. As well as the accolades, the football produced was spectacular, a mix of strength, pace and aggression matched with technical combination play, meaning our opposition were either dismissed by beautifully crafted goals or were bullied into submission.
The strength of character was rock-solid, best encapsulated by the FA Cup success of 2005 where Arsenal were outplayed by a Manchester United side containing Ronaldo, Rooney, Keane, Scholes and Van Nisterooy but somehow held on for 120 minutes to win on penalties. Big-names weren’t bought but were created; Vieira, Henry, Pires, Ljungberg and Ashley Cole were all bought from relative obscurity or promoted from our academy. Plaudits lauded Wenger’s Arsenal as the most complete team ever, considering the power, pace and technique complimented by steel, aggression and leadership.
If only the referee had allowed Barcelona’s goal to stand and not sent Lehmann off in the 2006 Champions League Final or if we hadn’t run out of steam in the 2004 Champions League final against Chelsea.
But then in 2007, Arsene’s philosophy shifted, presumably because we hadn’t experienced European success (which can be attributed to continental sides retaining possession better than we did.) Arsene moved away from building teams with a range of attributes, taking a purist view that a team could be built focused on technical players (who specialize in combination play) with a strategy to dominate via near total possession. Wenger’s available funds were invested on forwards and playmakers with non-technical qualities that might have come from a commanding centre-back and a defensive midfielder (to balance the creative players) largely overlooked. What followed was a barren spell.
To be fair the lack of credit for the 2007-2012 spell (despite the change in philosophy) is a miscarriage of justice because Arsene’s objectives had changed. Arsene single-handedly kept us in the Champions League with a non-existent budget due to debt built up from the new stadium (an era where fans unfairly criticized Arsene without appreciating the reality of the club’s financial plight). Champions League football in a now-competitive division (with the emergence of Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham) without a transfer budget should be recognized on a par with our earlier accomplishments.
Perhaps most crucially of all, if only David Dein hadn’t departed in 2007 and Wenger had retained his ability to attract top talent (see the Sol Campbell deal) rather than us becoming the team who courted, dithered and ultimately failed to attract the likes of Kante, Suarez and Mbpappe.
Undisputable is that we are witnessing the end of Arsenal’s greatest ever Manager. Thank you Arsene for the trophies, the players, the memories and for taking bullets in the years where the board couldn’t openly confess our lack of funds. The greatest Arsenal Manager of all time and a class and dignified act.