Arsène Wenger was one of the most successful football managers in England.
He oversaw a period of success for Arsenal, the team he managed for 22 years. He took over a club that was going nowhere, playing bland, unattractive football, and turned them into one of the most dynamic football teams in history.
This culminated in one of the most incredible seasons in living memory when Arsenal went through the whole 2003–04 Premier League season without losing a single game.
38 matches without a single defeat led the team to become known as The Invincibles. This feat had only been achieved once before in English football. It is unlikely to be repeated anytime soon.
However, following this season Wenger and Arsenal failed to scale the same heights. From 2005 to 2014, the club did not win a single trophy, falling behind the other top teams in the country.
Wenger’s fortunes improved with further trophies in 2015 and 2017, but he was unable to match the achievements of the past. This resulted in disquiet among the club’s supporter’s who were itching for a change.
At the end of the 2017–18 season, Wenger announced he was stepping down as manager of Arsenal. His early legacy tainted by the failures of his later years.
How did Wenger go from revolutionary manager to antiquated dinosaur in just a few years?
On 22 September 1996, Arsène Wenger was unveiled as the new manager of Arsenal following the dismissal of Bruce Rioch a month earlier.
The appointment was largely unexpected. Few people in England had heard of Wenger before. This led one newspaper to come up with the clever headline, “Arsène who?” to underline the bewilderment at his appointment.
It wasn’t just the media and the wider public who were bemused by Arsenal’s decision to hire Wenger. Arsenal captain Tony Adams was also uncertain about his new manager.
“At first, I thought: What does this Frenchman know about football? He wears glasses and looks more like a schoolteacher. He’s not going to be as good as George Graham. Does he even speak English properly?”
Under George Graham, Arsenal had been one of the dominant forces in English football in the late 1980s and early 90s. They won two league titles, the FA Cup and the European Cup Winners’ Cup, playing a brand of cautionary and defensive football.
Wenger quickly set about stamping his authority and image upon the team. He banned his players from casually drinking together, promoted pasta as a pre-match meal and promoted a brand of attacking football which was the opposite of the team’s previous ethos.
Wenger’s methods slowly began to bear fruit and they ended his first season in charge in third. The following season, Wenger reaped the rewards of his earlier efforts. Arsenal completed a league and cup double with Wenger becoming the first foreign manager to achieve this feat.
More success followed during the 2001–02 season as Arsenal again won the Double. However, his crowning achievement was to come two years later.
Wenger led his team to a league title without a single defeat — an accomplishment last achieved by Preston North End 115 years before. They finished the season with 26 wins and 12 draws from 38 games, finishing 11 points clear of second-placed Chelsea.
Instead of ushering in a prolonged period of success, their undefeated season was the beginning of the end of Wenger’s glory years.
They finished second the next season, 12 points behind eventual winners Chelsea, while they lost the 2006 Champions League Final 2–1 against Barcelona after leading for the majority of the match.
Wenger was unable to turn his team’s fortunes around as time wore on. Arsenal slipped further and further from the sublime standards they had set themselves. Despite his achievements, tension and disunity started to seep into the once united fanbase.
Where did it all go wrong for Wenger? How did he fall so far from grace?
Success Is Never Guaranteed
The main reason for Wenger’s downfall was his refusal to depart from his principles. He believed in possession-based attacking football while promoting youth players from within Arsenal’s academy.
This was at odds with the way football was heading. Big money signings were becoming the norm, while teams were becoming more pragmatic and adaptable and not wedded to rigid tactical structures.
Wenger was usurped by a new breed of coaches who saw the direction football was heading in and jumped along for the ride. Wenger was left behind solemnly looking into the distance as his rivals sped ever further away into the sunset.
One of the hardest things to do in life is to change. Whether it is changing a winning formula in the face of new competition, or making the necessary changes to provide a platform for success, adaption is a vital skill we all need.
The world is an ever-changing place. Today’s hottest property is forgotten tomorrow. You need to be open to change and embrace it when the time comes.
Principles and methods have their place, but sticking to them rigidly in the face of change is a recipe for disaster. The best among us can see the change coming and adapt accordingly.
The comparison between Wenger and his great rival Sir Alex Ferguson, a former manager of Manchester United, is a key point. Wenger and Ferguson were in charge of their clubs for 22 and 27 years respectively.
However, the way they departed was completely different. Ferguson left victorious, securing a thirteenth league title in his final season, able to dictate the terms of his departure. Wenger, on the other hand, left under a cloud of criticism with the supporters that once adored him demanding his exit.
One man adapted to the times, the other one resisted, believing in his principles until the very end.
The ability to adapt and avoid stagnation is an underrated trait we should all look to develop. It will serve us well in a world that is changing at a ferocious pace.
It is along these lines that I am reminded of a quote by William S. Burroughs:
“When you stop growing you start dying.”
If you want to be successful and continue that success for as long as possible, you have to be receptive to change and development. Otherwise, you will find yourself looking on with Wenger as everything changes around you, but you.