The end of the George Graham Era

Towards the end of George Graham’s tenure as Arsenal manager, the Gunners built up quite a reputation as a defensive team. After early cup exits in the 1991-92 season, Graham made changes to his tactics, sacrificing some of his more attack minded players to make Arsenal a harder team to beat. Following his appointment in 1986 to 1992, Arsenal averaged 66 goals per season (the First Division had 22 teams over this period), which brought two league titles. The period following that from 1992-1995, however, Arsenal could only average 48 goals per season; including a paltry 40 goals in the inaugural Premier League season in 1992, lower than any other team in the division. The club had league finishes reading 10th, 4th, 12th and 5th over the same period. The change wasn’t purely negative, however, as it resulted in Arsenal becoming known as cup specialists as they won the FA Cup and League Cup double in the 1992-93.season – the first team to achieve this. This new defensive identity came to a head in 1994 as fans coined the chant “One Nil to the Arsenal” in the second leg semifinal tie of the Cup Winners’ Cup against Paris Saint-Germain. Arsenal went on to win the competition with another 1-0 victory over Parma. This turned out to be Graham’s last trophy as Arsenal manager as he was sacked a year later in February 1995 after it was discovered he accepted an illegal payment of £425,000 from Norwegian agent Rune Hauge following Arsenal’s acquisition of John Jensen and Pal Lyderson in 1992, two of Hauge’s clients.

The search for Graham’s replacement began in earnest as Stewart Houston took over as caretaker manager for the remainder of the season. Then vice-chairman David Dein had recommended unknown Frenchman Arsène Wenger but the board instead went with Englishman Bruce Rioch following a successful stint at Bolton Wanderers. Unfortunately, he would only last one season. A dispute over transfers was the final nail in the coffin following a deteriorating relationship with players and board members. Rioch went as far as to move star striker Ian Wright to the left wing, resulting in Wright tabling a transfer request. Rioch would not start the 1996-97 season and the hunt for the new Arsenal manager had begun anew.

The Beginning

On September 22, 1996, Arsenal unveiled Arsène Wenger as their new manager. Despite the late Johan Cruyff being seen as the favourite for job, the board acquiesced to Dein’s request and appointed the Frenchman on his recommendation. Coming from Nagoya Grampus Eight in Japan, Wenger was an unknown entity in English football. The tall, bespectacled Frenchman looked more fit to be a school lecturer than a football manager but once he began to share his philosophy with the players and the board, that opinion quickly changed. Wenger officially began working on October 1st and from that day on, he began imprinting his identity on Arsenal Football Club. Everything from the tactics used on match days, to the facilities in place at their training ground was influenced by the Frenchman. ‘Le Professeur’ as he came to be known went on to revolutionise football in Britain on a whole. Players such as Ian Wright and Tony Adams have even gone on record saying Wenger extended their careers by a number of years due to the changes he implemented at Arsenal. Their diet, sleep cycles, and lifestyles were adjusted to become more befitting of the athletes they were. Wenger viewed football as a 24 hour profession, and impressed that upon his players to get the absolute most out of them. The results of these changes speak for themselves.

Arsene Wenger has his first press conference as Arsenal manager on September 22, 1996
London, England – Arsene Wenger has his first press conference as Arsenal manager on September 22, 1996.

Over the course of the next 10 years in charge of Arsenal, Wenger enjoyed much success. Highbury was decorated with three league titles, four FA Cups, winning the double twice, and four Community Shields during that period. Chief among these trophies was delivered by, of course, the ‘Invincibles’ in 2004. Having gone the 2001-02 title winning season undefeated away from home, Wenger had ludicrously made the proclamation that his team could go undefeated for an entire league season. After being ridiculed by the British media for making such a claim, Arsène led his team to the unthinkable with a record of 26 wins, 12 draws and 0 losses, amassing 90 points in the 2003-04 season. The sky seemed to be the limit for Arsenal and Wenger at that point. The club was playing free-flowing attacking football with some of the finest players the country had ever seen which resulted in massive success on the pitch. The man from Duttlenheim had become one of the premier names in world football and the board at the time could not be more pleased with him.

Like every club, Arsenal had their own challenges to navigate in their own way as well as contend with the competition around them and that’s what their success is ultimately measured against. Although Arsenal were successful on the pitch, there was still one area where the club was lacking: revenue. For all the success it had seen, Highbury could only survive for so much longer in the modern world. With a seating capacity of 38,419, the club would always be limited by the match day revenue they could take in. Being unable to expand due to being blocked by the Islington Council, the only option for the club was to build a new stadium.

Ashburton Grove

From as early as 1997 the board began exploring options for relocating to a new stadium. In 2000, an industrial waste disposal estate was purchased in Ashburton Grove and a year later, the Islington Council granted permission for Arsenal to build their new stadium. Over the next five years, the board would secure a number of sponsorships and loans to fund the new stadium. Among these was a 15 year contract with Emirates Airline worth approximately £100m. The deal which was signed in October 2004 also secured naming rights to the new stadium for the airline. On July 22, 2006, after significant delays, Arsenal finally opened the Emirates Stadium. With modern facilities, an in-house shop to sell club merchandise and a seating capacity of 60,432, Arsenal’s new stadium would be the platform upon which their future success would be built. Having secured a £260m loan from a group of banks led by the Royal Bank of Scotland, Arsenal knew that their hands would be tied while having to repay the bank, including interest. Original projections for the Emirates saw the stadium costing £250m. However, this budget would be exceeded, with costs rising to as high as £432m. For the next 10 years, Wenger and the board would take on different challenges and expectations were adjusted to match the constraints that would come both on and off the pitch. In order to balance their books to avoid making a net loss each year, and service their debts, Arsenal were unfortunately required to sell some of their most talented players before they would have wanted. As well, Champions League qualification became a must each season.

London, England - A general view of Emirates Stadium before the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United on April 28, 2014.
London, England – A general view of Emirates Stadium before the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Newcastle United on April 28, 2014.

What made matters even more challenging for Arsenal was the change in the football landscape following the emergence of Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea as a major team in England. Prior to that point, Arsenal’s chief competitors for the title were Manchester United led by the legendary Sir Alex Ferguson. However, the Russian billionaire pumped considerable money into the West London club to catapult them to the summit of English football, winning the title in 2005, two years after buying them in June 2003. Money was the one thing Arsenal couldn’t compete with during that period. The club had no real marketing and merchandising machine in place to rival other top clubs, nor did they have a ‘sugar daddy’ owner like Abramovich to pump funds into the club to make up for the short fall. This resulted in Arsène undertaking a new initiative to remain competitive. Wenger implemented a youth project to unearth young talents across Europe to nurture into future stars. Unfortunately for the Frenchman, this would not quite go according to plan. That Manchester City would do the same as Chelsea following their August 2008 acquisition by the Abu Dhabi group only complicated matters further.

With many of the club’s senior players leaving in the years spanning the closure of Highbury and the first seasons at The Emirates, the young charges that were being brought in to replace them were not given the best platform to succeed. The lack of experienced heads in the dressing room led many to accuse Arsenal of becoming soft and the manager along with them. It is open to debate as to whether Arsène could’ve gotten more of out some of the young talents he had at his disposal. For every Cesc Fàbregas, there was a Denilson whose talent would simply not be realised while at the Emirates. Many of the youngsters flattered to deceive at different times which would ultimately see Arsenal struggle to remain competitive for titles and as such the enforced period of austerity coincided with a nine year wait for silverware following their FA Cup triumph in 2005 over Manchester United.

St. Albans, England - New Arsenal signing Mesut Özil at London Colney on September 12, 2013.
St. Albans, England – New Arsenal signing Mesut Özil at London Colney on September 12, 2013.

As the debt was lessened and became more manageable, Arsenal had more bargaining power with some of their endorsements and in November 2012, a new five year deal was signed with Emirates Airline for them to remain as main sponsors for kits and training gear. The deal was worth £150m which would be paid to the North London club over five years, a considerable improvement over the deal which was signed eight years prior. This contract also extended Emirates’ naming rights for the stadium to 2028. Seven months later, a five year kit deal worth £150m was signed with Puma, the most lucrative of its kind in British football at the time. With more funds to be made available to Wenger for the squad, contracts for key players could be secured. Of even more significance was that the summer of 2013 was the first summer Arsenal did not have to sell one of their star players in order to balance the books. Instead, the club went in the opposite direction, smashing the club’s transfer record to bring in German superstar Mesut Özil for £42.5m on transfer deadline day. This was seen as a landmark signing for Arsenal and was to signal the end of their years of austerity. This point was driven home even further when the dreaded trophy drought came to an end with the 2014 FA Cup won in dramatic fashion over Hull City. After going 2-0 down within the first eight minutes, the Gunners rallied back to send the game into extra time. The stage was set for someone to be a hero and up stepped Aaron Ramsey, a benefactor of Wenger’s youth project. After the final whistle, Arsenal fans within Wembley, and indeed around the world, went into delirium. Players fell to the pitch in joy and relief; a massive weight had finally been lifted from their shoulders. But none was more relieved than Arsène Wenger. Arguably the hardest period of his career had come to an end and it would take a cruel man to begrudge him for indulging in the celebrations that followed. 

London, England - The Arsenal squad throw manager Arsene Wenger in the air after the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull City at Wembley Stadium on May 17, 2014.
London, England – The Arsenal squad throw manager Arsene Wenger in the air after the FA Cup Final between Arsenal and Hull City at Wembley Stadium on May 17, 2014.

The following summer, Wenger added further established quality to his squad in the form of unwanted Barcelona star Alexis Sánchez for £35m. With the trophy drought now but a memory, the time had come for Wenger and his team to assemble a squad that would be capable of mounting a challenge for the title once again, something Arsenal fans waited far too long for. Further FA Cup success followed the following season, with a resounding 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.

His Legacy

Conveniently, Arsène Wenger’s time at Arsenal can be split into two 10 year periods. In the first half of his tenure, Arsenal never finished lower than 3rd in the league, winning 11 trophies. The Frenchman had set the bar high not only for himself, but for Arsenal fans. Supporters had never known this level of sustained success at Arsenal; that it was done while playing scintillating football was simply the icing on the cake. All that was missing was a Champions League crown. The Invincibles were as good as any team in Europe at the time and really should have secured Arsenal and Wenger their first Champions League. That he would lead a lesser team to the final two years later in 2006 only to lose to Barcelona will remain one of his great regrets. Still, Arsène had transformed the club into a major contender within England, and a global name within football but not even he would have envisioned that the same standard he had set for himself would come back to haunt him during the second half of his tenure. 

After the Emirates move, and the trophies dried up, fans slowly began to turn on Wenger. He had spoiled the fan base with his early achievements. Qualifying for the Champions League every season became a given and was no longer anything to measure a successful season against as far as some sections of fans were concerned. The longer the trophy drought continued, the more fans became vocal with their protests against the manager, and the more the media criticised him for being unable to sustain a title challenge for a season. Criticism was at its zenith following the 2015-16 season. All of Arsenal traditional rivals were either woefully off form or rebuilding. It was the perfect chance for the Gunners to secure their first league title since 2004. Unfortunately for Wenger and his squad they fell short, finishing second to surprise package Leicester City. Frankly, it was an inexcusable and sorely disappointing end to a season that promised so much but both manager and squad simply failed to deliver. Calls for Wenger’s head were at an all time high, culminating in a protest against the Frenchman at a home game against Norwich City. 

London, England - Arsenal supporters hold protest banners during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016.
London, England – Arsenal supporters hold protest banners during the Barclays Premier League match between Arsenal and Norwich City at The Emirates Stadium on April 30, 2016.

In both halves of his Arsenal career, Wenger showcased different skills to meet the board’s expectations. With quality players at his disposal, silverware came with regularity. Conversely, when he no longer had world class players to call upon and a massive debt to navigate, Wenger put his master’s degree in Economics to good use to ensure this club managed their debt well while also staying in the top four for 20 successive seasons. This came at the cost of on-pitch success which has seen him roundly criticised, despite not being in total control of the situation he found himself in. That said, however, the Frenchman is not without blame for some of Arsenal’s on-pitch failings during the trophy drought. Wenger’s stubbornness in relenting with some of the players brought in through the youth initiative, while admirable, would also be his undoing. It takes a gargantuan effort for Wenger to lose faith in players, even when their performances are comfortably below standard. Naturally, this led to questions about how he prepares his teams both tactically and psychologically. The narrative had emerged that all you needed to do to beat the Arsenal kids was to “get in their faces” and the rest would take care of itself. Wenger has since sought to address his tactics, opting for a more defensive set up in big games, however, their mentality is still a topic for debate.  

Now in 2016, Arsenal have a team capable of challenging for the title, having made key signings to the spine of their team in Shkodran Mustafi, Granit Xhaka and Lucas Pérez. With world class managers and players now all coming to England to ply their trade, the Premier League is as competitive as it’s ever been. October 1st, 2016 will represent the beginning of Wenger’s 21st season in charge of Arsenal Football Club. With one year remaining on his contract, there has been much debate as to whether this will be the Frenchman’s final season at the Emirates. His performance between now and May will determine if his story ends as a comedy or a tragedy. Given his decades of tireless service and some of his achievements, one would think that respect for Wenger would be a given but humans can be quite fickle at times. To borrow a quote from Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight: “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain“.

London, England – Arsene Wenger manager of Arsenal climbs up to collect his winners’ medal after winning the FA Cup Final between Aston Villa and Arsenal at Wembley Stadium on May 30, 2015.