Arsenal – The Wenger Era in Three Stages
Arsène Wenger’s 22 years at Arsenal are often split into the trophy-laden years up to 2005 and the barren years after. In Stage One, his innovative methods, in terms of both coaching and lifestyle, unsurpassed knowledge of footballers around the world and eye for talent quickly turned Arsenal into serial Premier League and FA Cup winners while playing breath-taking attacking football.
The post-2005 years are more accurately divided into two parts – Stage Two in 2005-2013 and Stage Three in 2013-2018. In Stage Two, there is some context to the lack of trophies as Arsenal had to fund the new stadium and oil-rich rivals came in the shape of Chelsea and then Man City. During this time, the media constantly reminded everyone of the number of years since Arsenal had won a trophy (something other ‘big clubs’ like Spurs and Everton never faced despite their much longer dry spells), enthusiastically adding another year when Arsenal’s season faltered, often around February or March.
Wenger had raised expectations in Stage One to his detriment in Stage Two. He was managing under financial constraints and Arsenal could not pay top dollar for established players like their rivals could. They played the long game, paying off the new stadium debt while – with the benefit of hindsight mistakenly – putting their faith in the UEFA Financial Fair Play Regulations. At times, most notably in 2007/08, the Wengerball was as good as it was during Stage One. Later, given some of the sides Arsenal fielded, getting into the Champions League every year was actually an impressive achievement.
However, the strategy to prioritise a top-four finish (Wenger’s 2012 statement that “The first trophy is to finish in the top four” was a sign of the lowered expectations) often meant Arsenal missed opportunities in the cups to get the trophy monkey off their back – for example, the mistake to bench Andrey Arshavin in the 2009 FA Cup semi-final versus Chelsea then see him fire four brilliant finishes in an ultimately meaningless league game at Anfield a few days later. On the other hand, the 2011 League Cup loss to relegated Birmingham was a choke with no excuses.
When the financial shackles came off in Stage Three (signified by the £42m signing of Mesut Özil in 2013), Arsenal still could not mount a serious league challenge and still got dumped out of the Champions League in the first knockout round. Despite the fun days out at Wembley, the three FA Cups in four years did not hide that Wenger had let things drift. His once-innovative methods had been overtaken, he had lost his touch in the transfer market and was now buying expensive misfits instead of unearthing gems, and he did not give his coaching staff more power to address obvious tactical faults, particularly defensively, as Alex Ferguson did throughout his Man Utd reign. Fifth and sixth place league finishes in the last two seasons confirmed the decline.
*** This is an extract from the book Caviar and Sausages: Arsenal in the Time of Wenger. Click here for more details and where to order your copy ***