Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal revolution that toppled Man Utd and transformed English football

To the newer generation of football fans, Arsene Wenger might appear to be the villain sucking the life out of football with his controversial plans to overhaul the World Cup format.

But to those who lived through his 22-year reign at Arsenal, he will always be commemorated as one of the Premier League’s all-time greats.

It is no exaggeration to suggest that Wenger helped revolutionise English football as we know and adore it to this day.

Whether it was the integration of players from foreign countries, the adamance to play attractive and exciting football or unearthing young players from obscure parts of Europe, Wenger was a pioneer.

Yet, that was not always the case. When Arsenal made the surprise decision to name Wenger as Bruce Rioch’s successor in September 1996, the London Evening Standard’s back-page headline read: ‘Arsene who?’

Arsene Wenger holds his first press conference as Arsenal manager

At the time, he was a little-known quantity in the UK despite leading AS Monaco to the domestic title in 1988-89. But with no Wikipedia to help for background, very few people would have been familiar with his work with Japanese outfit Nagoya Grampus Eight.

Now, 25 years down the line, it is difficult to imagine what English football would look like without Wenger’s contributions after his success with Arsenal.

Mirror Football pay tribute to the Gunners’ former legendary boss and how his methods influenced English football over his 22 years with Arsenal…

Wenger’s revolution

Wenger arrived at Arsenal as a relatively-unknown manager

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Up until the day he began work as Arsenal’s new boss on October 1, 1996, the club had only ever employed managers from the British Isles. With that in mind, no one needed to tell Wenger about the difficulties he would have in trying to prove he was worth taking a risk on.

“They were crazy in the sense that I had no name, I was foreign, there was no history,” he later said.

“They needed to be, maybe not crazy, but brave. I can show some articles where people tried to prove that the foreign managers can never win an English championship.”

It wasn’t just the fans and journalists he had to win over. Players, such as captain Tony Adams, had their doubts over Wenger’s ability — and even compared him to a “schoolteacher”.

“At first, I thought, what does this Frenchman know about football?” he said. “He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?”

But looks can be deceiving. This was a man who had learned about football in France, Germany and Japan. He spoke five languages. He was a title-winning manager with a blueprint for success.

An underrated aspect of Wenger’s management was his ability to find quality players for reasonable fees. In came Marc Overmars, Dennis Bergkamp and Patrick Vieira, not exactly household names at the time, but with room for improvement.

He also helped improve the English talent at his disposal, with Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Ray Parlour and Ian Wright playing a major part in helping Wenger lead Arsenal to a Premier League and FA Cup double in 1997-98.

Later, from the obscure areas of France, he brought in Gael Clichy and Abou Diaby, and with a glowing recommendation from Francis Cagigao, he snapped up Cesc Fabregas at the age of 16.

But more important was the brand of football that he demanded from his players. Fluid movement, crisp passing and attacking in numbers were the central pillars to his footballing thesis. They became the team everyone hated to love.

Under Wenger, Arsenal became the first team to field an entire starting XI filled with foreign players. They were seen as more technically-gifted and suited to the kind of football he wanted to play. Plus, they were cheaper too, with English players attracting hefty price tags.

Fast forward to the present era and in the 2019-20 season, 63 per cent of the players registered in the Premier League were classed as foreign. Wenger may not have started it, but he made the idea of signing players from abroad seem attractive — and it still is to this day.

The ‘Invincibles’ unbeaten season

Wenger had already overseen two double-winning seasons in 1997-98 and 2001-02, but eclipsing Manchester United’s Treble campaign in 1998-99 would take some beating.

But in the 2003, the stars aligned. Wenger had assembled a squad capable of greatness, with stars such as Thierry Henry, Freddie Ljungberg, Robert Pires and Patrick Vieira, but this was on another level.

It was not just the fact that Arsenal stayed unbeaten for an entire league campaign across 38 matches; it was the style in which they achieved it. This was a brand of ‘total football’, which made their rivals envious and the fans admire them through gritted teeth.

Quite simply, there is no greater achievement in the history of English football.

Considering that Manchester United were so strong under Sir Alex Ferguson and had won the Treble only five years prior, while Chelsea had been taken over by Roman Abramovich and spent £130million on new players — an absurd figure at the time in the summer of 2003.

But they stuck to the brief. They did not waiver from the path Wenger had set them on. They continued to knock the ball around the pitch with the same nonchalance as if it were 1pm on a Saturday in the local park.

They remained undefeated for a full season, home and away, for 38 games. Under Wenger’s guidance, they won 26 of those matches and drew on 12 occasions. In doing so, they finished on 90 points — 12 points clear of Chelsea.

The unbeaten run would last for 49 games until Manchester United’s controversial 2-0 victory at Old Trafford brought an end just before the half-century.

If football fans didn’t know how special Wenger was when he arrived in 1996, they did after this extraordinary run — and given how it is arguably more difficult for teams to win in the modern era, it may never be repeated again.

The bitter end

Arsene Wenger says ‘au revior’ to the Arsenal fans after 22 years in charge

Wenger became a victim of his own success. The culture he had bred at Arsenal meant the fans had become accustomed to winning and demanded that the success continue.

It was the same when he was left without funds for transfers before their new arena, the Emirates Stadium, opened in 2006. For years, Wenger was forced to make do with the squad at his disposal and bring in players on free transfers.

Even despite that, Arsenal never failed to reach the top four and qualify for the Champions League. Of course, there was no denying the Gunners were some way off challenging for the Premier League title, but in the circumstances, Wenger had done everything he could.

Time and time again, the Frenchman was required to assemble a new squad of players capable of competing for the European qualification places and in the Champions League.

Out the door went Emmanuel Adebayor, Robin van Persie, Samir Nasri, Fabregas, Henry, Clichy and Alexis Sanchez, running down their contracts in the process. By doing so, Wenger was left with little to replace them with.

There were some moments to forget along the way. The pain of losing to Barcelona in his only Champions League final in 2005-06. The 6-0 thrashing dealt to his side by Chelsea in his 1,000th game in charge. The 8-2 demolition by Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2011.

In the 2016-17 campaign, Arsenal finished fifth — meaning they had missed out on the Champions League for the first time in 20 years. It was a sad day for Wenger and the club, perhaps signalling the beginning of the end.

The club had been struggling for some time to compete with the likes of Chelsea and Manchester City, and their inability to qualify for the Champions League had led some to call for a fresh approach from top to bottom.

Wenger’s methods that had worked to devastating effect 20 years ago were no longer producing the success Arsenal required and despite his unwavering loyalty to the club, there was no reciprocity from some sections of the fans who held up ‘Wenger Out’ signs at home matches.

On April 21, 2018, Wenger told his players he was stepping down, then it was announced to the world. It truly was an end of an era. Tears were shed and tributes flooded in.

Wenger greets the fans after his final game in charge

A month later, after Arsenal had beaten Burnley 5-0, he addressed the sold-out Emirates crowd at his final home game with an emotional speech.

“I am like you, I am an Arsenal fan,” he said. “This is more than just watching football, it’s a way of life.

“It’s caring about the beautiful game, about the values we cherish, and as well, that something that goes for all our bodies in every cell of our bodies.”

And just like that, it was over.

A footballing genius, a man with incredible intelligence and class, Wenger’s impact on the game can never be understated. As for Arsenal, there may be some regret in how he was treated on his way out of the door — but not for the times they shared together.

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