Against Chelsea last Saturday, Arsenal played their best 45 minutes of football in a long time. A blur of slick, attacking movement, decisive passes pinging around with intent, menace in the final third; and, as they soared and scored, a joy to watch, irrepressible, irresistible, one realised again that this is what Arsene Wenger had brought to Arsenal – and, indeed, to the English Premier League – 20 years ago.
It has been so long ago, and so much has changed in this period, that it is now easy to lose sight of the fact that neither the Premier League nor Arsenal had ever seen anything like this before Wenger – urbane, funny, fluent in several languages, obsessed with data – arrived to take charge in north London in September 1996.
In pictures | In Arsene we trust: Shades of Wenger through the years
Managers in England at the time were mostly English. The football culture was insular, self-congratulatory and scornful of new voices. Winning the league and FA Cup in his first full season, Wenger quickly transformed the club’s drink- and fast food-addled culture. He made popular, among other things, an attention to detail in terms of diet, scouting players from across Europe, and a sense of joie de vivre in the play. But however fluent their attacking, the best Wenger teams always married silk and steel.
Then there were those signings. The names sound like an Arsenal hall of fame: Patrick Viera; Freddie Ljungberg; Robert Pires; Emannuel Petit; Nicolas Anelka; and the club’s all-time top scorer Thierry Henry. Armed and able, Arsenal became the team to beat in the league. Through the late 1990s and the early 2000s, the fierce rivalry between Wenger and Sir Alex Ferguson was the Premiership’s most defining contest.
It was too good to last. Goodness is not meant to last when it comes up against Russian oligarchs. Just as Arsenal entered a period of austerity to fund the move from Highbury to the Emirates, Roman Abramovich splashed out his oil dollars to turn Chelsea into the new potent force. All the things that Wenger had introduced – sports science, data, diet, scouting in Europe – had gradually become par for the course for all elite English clubs. Wenger ran to stand still; the others overtook him.
It is now common to see Wenger’s Arsenal career as a tale of two halves: the first, glorious one from 1996 to 2006 (two league and FA Cup doubles; the season of the Invincibles when they won the title without being beaten once – a feat without parallel in the Premiership; and a Champions League final); and the muted, sombre, on occasion shambolic phase from 2006 to 2016 (selling talismanic players such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin Van Persie; winning not a single trophy between 2005 and 2014; being routinely knocked out in the last-16 stage of the Champions League).
When Wenger reached his last major milestone of a thousand games in charge in March 2014 (a game in which Arsenal was handed a dismal 6-0 thumping by Chelsea), the statistics were revealing. In his first 500 games, Wenger had won seven trophies. In the next 500, he had won none.
It is in this phase that certain undeniably Wenger-esque qualities came to define him. Looking at a top-four finish as though it were a trophy. Tetchiness when asked about spending. An inability to attract truly top talent. An infuriating stubbornness. A refusal to pay more than what he thought was right while bidding for players. An example: Wenger has known for years that he needs a truly marquee centre-forward. And yet, he has, being determined to not pay above the odds, let slip from his grasp Luis Suarez, Karim Benzema and Gonzalo Higuain.
With the billions of pounds of TV money sloshing around in the league, the market in England has changed. Wenger has not changed with it. This prudence has swelled the club’s coffers and earned Wenger the admiration of Arsenal’s majority shareholder Stan Kroenke. But it has been a different story with the fans.
Every season, there are games such as the one against Chelsea last week when we are offered a glimpse of how sublime Arsenal can be. Every season, at one point or another, the banners are unfurled: “Thanks for the memories, Arsene, but it is time to say goodbye.” This duality now resides at the heart of the second phase of Wenger’s reign.
The seasons, too, have begun to follow a pattern. A few dazzling games. The hope of challenging seriously for the title. A collapse and a clutch of injuries in December or March. A final, spirited rally in the dying stage of the season to finish reliably in the top four. Some fans feel that not finishing outside the top four in 20 consecutive seasons in arguably the most competitive league in the world is a colossal achievement. Others wouldn’t mind inconsistency as long as their team won more trophies.
Wenger is likely to remain the last of his kind: a truly revolutionary manager who ran a club with a free hand for so many years. Equally, he is likely to be the last manager at a top club in Europe who has been allowed to stay on despite having last won the title in 2003-04.
He has one more year left on his contract. As always, he will countenance no discussion about whether the contract will be renewed next season. We’ll miss him when he goes. That tall, gaunt frame; the grimace when things are going badly and the quick, easy smile when his team scores a goal; the half-pirouette with the raised, clenched fists; the fluency and flair of his teams. (At least the zipper of his winter coat does not get caught any longer. Another inimitably Wenger-esque trait.)
What will his legacy be? Players, administrators and club officials will talk about the new stadium and its facilities, the financial model on which he so successfully ran the club, the results. We fans, though, will look through nostalgia-tinted glasses at that first decade of his tenure, a period when anything, really, seemed possible. And we shall cherish forever the manner in which a succession of his teams could light up our evenings, offering us unfettered delight.