London (AFP) – Arsene Wenger announced his arrival as a revolutionary force in England by overhauling a culture of booze and bad diets but the Frenchman’s inability to maintain his own high standards prompted a parting of the ways.
Arguably the most significant agent of change in the Premier League era, the 68-year-old’s achievements in revitalising both Arsenal and English football will be celebrated in his final few weeks in charge.
But for many Arsenal fans his exit is not before time after 14 years without winning the Premier League and facing the real possibility the Gunners could miss out on Champions League football for a second consecutive season.
– Arsene who? –
Few overseas stars plied their trade in England at the time when Wenger left Japan’s Nagoya Grampus Eight to join Arsenal in 1996. Tabloid headlines sneered “Arsene who?” while Wenger’s professorial looks were easy fodder for doubting fans and some cynical members of an old-school squad.
Given Wenger had no Premier League experience and first came to Arsenal vice-chairman David Dein’s attention not for his managerial acumen but for his skill at charades during a dinner party, it was a significant gamble by both parties to let the Frenchman loose on English football.
It proved a masterstroke and, after coming third in the Premier League in Wenger’s first season, Arsenal never finished outside the top two for the next eight years.
Overhauling Arsenal’s dietary and fitness regimes and introducing sports science and data analysis with remarkable results, Wenger was feted as the most innovative manager of his generation.
“Nutrition was a big deal for Arsene,” said former Arsenal defender Martin Keown. “We started feeling superhuman during games, fitter and stronger than ever.”
In his early days in charge, Wenger also had the right recipe in the cut-throat world of the transfer market.
His knowledge of the French market saw Patrick Vieira, Nicolas Anelka and Emmanuel Petit arrive as unknowns and leave as superstars, while he rescued Dutch forward Dennis Bergkamp and Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer Thierry Henry from difficult spells in Italy to form the most fearsome strike partnership in the club’s history.
During that golden period, Arsenal won three Premier League titles and four FA Cups with a smooth-passing style that raised standards in a league previously more enamoured of a physical game.
The high point of Wenger’s era came in 2003-04 when Arsenal’s “Invincibles” became only the second side ever to go undefeated in the English top-flight.
Two years later they came as close as Wenger ever did to European glory in losing the Champions League final 2-1 to Barcelona.
– Emirates a false dawn –
That season was also Arsenal’s last at Highbury and proved to be the turning point in Wenger’s reign as the promise that moving to the 60,000-capacity Emirates Stadium would allow the club to compete financially with the biggest spenders in England and the continent failed to materialise.
Henry left to fulfil his dream of winning the Champions League at Barcelona, paving the way for a succession of stars developed by Wenger such as Cesc Fabregas and Robin van Persie to also turn their back on their mentor to go and win trophies elsewhere.
Confronted by the new-found wealth of Chelsea and Manchester City, Arsenal never finished higher than third between 2005-06 and 2014-15.
With a masters degree in economics, Wenger was criticised for treating Arsenal’s money like his own by refusing to get involved in an escalating arms race for the Premier League’s top talent as his side began to fall further behind.
“Wenger is a very pragmatic man and I would love to see him throw his economic principles out of the window for one season and see what happened,” added Keown.
– ‘Wenger out’ –
Qualification for the Champions League for 19 straight seasons kept Wenger in a job, as did a run of three FA Cup wins in the past four years to end a nine-year trophy drought.
However, Arsenal fans’ frustrations at their failure to go toe-to-toe with their main rivals in the Premier League and Champions League continued to simmer, with “Wenger Out” banners becoming commonplace.
That run of Champions League qualification came to an end last season and Arsenal are on course for their worst-ever Premier League finish under Wenger as they sit in sixth, 33 points behind champions Manchester City and 14 off north London rivals Tottenham.
The fans have spoken with their feet in recent weeks with swathes of empty seats for home games against City, Watford, Stoke and Southampton.
Wenger does though have one last shot at a happy ending. Winning the Europa League would end his wait for a European trophy and qualify Arsenal for next season’s Champions League in the process.
By announcing his departure now, he will hope to have united the fanbase for the first leg of their semi-final against Spanish giants Atletico Madrid next week.
“I urge our fans to stand behind the team to finish on a high,” said Wenger.