Arsene's fifth chapter: How will it be known? - Part 1
Arsenal FC - 125 years old this season, a fantastic club with history and class. There was a danger that our landmark anniversary would be marred by a tame season on the pitch and supporter discontent at the perceived lack of progress, there was a sense that the club had long left behind it's values and identify at Highbury only to be replaced by a corporate one that had seemed to have lost touch with its core support.
It has been a difficult transition for Arsenal both on and off the pitch from Highbury to the Emirates, overseen by the clubs longest serving and most successful manager Arsene Wenger. In his 15 year tenure the club has been totally transformed from top to bottom, from training ground to stadium and beyond. The balance between tradition and progression is a delicate one at the best of times, but as the club struggle to find that balance we should all be mindful that innovation has been a strong aspect of our history and something for us to all embrace. The unveiling of three statues during the 125th anniversary celebrations went some way towards resolving the balance of progression and tradition by honouring the past at our new home.
Throughout the club's recent history stability has been a core ally, to mastermind an overhaul of such proportion has required a holistic approach with vision, and absolute conviction. Arsene Wenger has envisaged, championed and delivered reinventing himself along the way as manager, developer, football director and even client. He is a manager that has kept faith to his principles but has remoulded his approach and job specification more than he is given credit for. Formation, style and policy have adapted to suit the situation and through these changes in the phases of Arsene Wenger's career at Arsenal I will explore what may lie ahead for Arsene Wenger's fifth chapter and how history may look back upon it.
Chapter 1 - Proving ground (1996 to 1998)
Arsene Who? In 1996 the game was certainly less global than by todays standards and so when Arsene Wenger arrived from Japanese club Nagoya Grampus Eight many pondered just who was this mysterious aptly named Frenchman. It is worth recalling at the time that foreign management was not the norm, indeed Arsene Wenger is the only foreign manager to have ever held the reigns. The board had only recently disposed of Bruce Rioch whom had lasted just one season; the appointment of Wenger was a gamble for a club with a history of 'playing it safe'.
For Arsene it was a case of proving he was able to be successful in England, and he needed show that early in his tenure. In fact he went a long way towards that feet prior to even being officially announced as the club's new manager, amongst his first pair of signings was a certain Sir Patrick of Vieira and boy did the lad make an impact. Straight away he gave this 'bloody 'ell' moment as supporters watched in awe as a 20 year old unknown quantity debuted as substitute against Sheffield Wednesday, quite literally turning the game on its head almost single handily.
In Patrick Vieira Wenger had got himself a pivotal player, and I suspect he earned himself a lot of freedom and trust from the board from that purchase in those early days. Wenger needed freedom; he lacked funds so freedom was paramount. In his early years Wenger was a remoulder, a rejuvenator and finder of unpolished young gems. On the training ground his methods gave Arsenal an immediate physical advantage whilst extending the careers of his schooled but ageing defence as well as finding himself a new player in Ray Parlour. In the market the signings of Petit, Overmars and Anelka were archetypal examples of his approach, one that was inexpensive and gave room for immediate improvement whilst balancing out experience and potential. It took just one summer of signings and one pre-season for Arsene Wenger to build his double winners, key to it all was brining out the best in Dennis Bergkamp.
Chapter 2 - Sustained success (1999 to 2001)
Arsenal had come from 13 points behind in the 1997-98 season to land Wenger his first title in England and in so doing bloodying the nose of Manchester United to set up a rivalry that would last a decade. Although Arsenal were unable to repeat the success in the next three seasons they had firmly established themselves among England’s biggest powers, indeed it was just one penalty kick and one league point that meant the difference between back to back doubles and missing out entirely.
Wenger repeated his gem trick once more to bring Fredrik Ljungberg to Arsenal in the summer of ’98. His scouting network had enabled him to buy Vieira, Anelka and Ljungberg for a total of less than £8m in the ‘unpolished gem’ category and Marc Overmars for a mere £5m. But the cat was out of the bag as clubs all over Europe soon caught on to Wenger’s ploy, and such bargains at age 18-20 have proven a greater rarity. If Wenger’s market knowhow was his biggest alley his second was his methods on the training field. Arsenal had enjoyed a head start in that regard but our manager’s gift to Arsenal soon became a gift to English football.
The loss of those two advantages and growing financial might of Manchester United meant that Arsenal would drift further behind their rivals for the next two seasons. Nikolas Anelka and Marc Overmars departed in successive seasons, looking for greater things. As it transpired it proved to be so, but for the club rather than the players.
An investment of £5.5m had not only helped land Arsenal the double but also a tidy profit of £23m and £19.5m on the two players respectively. The fees enabled the club to: build their own new state of the art training complex, begin to replace the old defensive guard with Sylvinho and Lauren and most importantly bring in to the club two of the club's greatest ever players, Thierry Henry and Robert Pires. Wenger bought henry and Pires for a total of £16.5m, less than the profit made on Overmars's sale alone. It may not have been planned but the story was such: sell big and buy better replacements for less.
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