I mentioned yesterday that I think there have been four distinct versions of Arsene Wenger. Four “seasons” of Arsene, if you grant me some rather cliched poetic license. A “spring” Wenger, young and spry, full of new ideas and yet connected to the past. The summer Wenger, that which was the culmination of his spring plantings, the Invincibles. The fall version of Wenger, when the trees pulled back all of their resources and the leaves fell to the ground. And now this winter Wenger, cold and hard, grey, with sharp clouds traveling quickly across the sky. In each season of Wenger we saw him have to build and rebuild the team in a new image, key players left, new key players came in, and the team started anew.
Wenger’s spring was from 1997-2001. When Tony Adams lifted the trophy that Arsenal won at Old Trafford, it was symbolic of the passing of an era. Campbell was the starting center back on that day and that old George Graham crafted side was almost all gone by 2002. I consider that Adams side Wenger’s first side. He took the traditions of Arsenal and added his own flair to them. It wasn’t a wholesale revamping of Arsenal, not right away. It was, like so much about Arsene Wenger, a slow march toward his perfect vision. But in attack, this was a team which relied heavily on quick wide players like Overmars, players who could get in behind the back 3 of most opposition teams. In October of 1999, Wenger fielded his pacy 442 and whipped Everton’s 352, 4-1.
Wenger’s best side was that team from 2001-2006. The foundations were laid with the purchases of Campbell and Henry but it was really the retirement of Adams and promotion of Vieira to captain which solidified the new version of Arsenal – this was Vieira’s Arsenal. If Wenger’s first team was very British at its core, the new version of Arsenal was openly Gallic: Vieira, Henry, and Pires were the stars. Vieira’s power drove that team forward from his place in midfield; Henry’s swagger made the team feel invincible; and Pires’ ability to craft gold from iron put the lustre on the title. Wenger coached his team to be direct with the ball, to move quickly up the field like a ladder, Campbell to Vieira, Vieira to Bergkamp, Bergkamp to Henry. There was width, but this wasn’t the same type of team that played wide in order to win. This team played direct, quickly, straight up the pitch, epitomized by Vieira’s goal at Tottenham, which set the team up to win the League at White Hart Lane.
In fall, trees recall all their resources back into the trunk of the tree, turning all of their summer’s hard work into sweet sap which will tide them over through the hard winter. Wenger did the same. Setting out to make a team full of young, promising players, he let Vieira go, he let Henry go, and he eventually gave the captaincy to Fabregas. Fabregas was a young Catalan player who was raised in the Barcelona style. He brought that style to Arsenal and from 2006-2011, Wenger’s team competed for the League title on a shoestring transfer budget while playing possession-based football. This was a remarkable change. To go from a team which liked to sit deep and play directly up the field to a team which liked to set up camp in the opposition half. Of all the things that Wenger has done in his career, this one was probably the most audacious. It runs counter to everything we know about English football: that you need power and pace to win games.
And yet, Wenger was unlucky not to win the League with that team. It was the injury to Eduardo which probably most killed the chances in 2007/08. A run of four draws after Eduardo’s injury, plus the loss to Chelsea, saw Arsenal drop from first to third.
That team could have gone on to win something but for Fabregas leaving in 2011. Wenger struggled for a few years after that to find an identity for his team. Van Persie took a page from Cesc’s book and demanded a trade in 2012, and so every season it looked like Arsenal were going to lose a big player. Wenger’s youth team plan had failed, the tree had been chopped down by the twin axes of Fabregas and van Persie, and it looked like he was still stuck with a tiny transfer budget. One year later, if Cesc and van Persie could have stuck around for just one more year, came Özil. Then Alexis. And now Arsene is finally able to build a team around the talent of another superstar, this time it’s Alexis Sanchez.
In a way, this team plays similar to the Invincibles, though much more cold and calculating, as befitting a team I would consider Wenger’s “winter”. Verticality and quick counter-attacks are the meat and bread of Arsenal these days. But there are some small wrinkles of difference: I don’t remember the Invincibles being a high press team. This Arsenal like to play with Coquelin (the defensive midfielder) in an advanced pressing role. Wenger is also taking a page from the first version of Arsenal and has speed and width on the wings with Walcott and Iwobi. Wenger also has Alexis Sanchez playing as a false 9, along with Özil playing as a false 10, this is another new idea from Arsene Wenger. He tried it a little with Fabregas but didn’t like the system since Cesc lacked speed. Now with Alexis and Özil he has multiple creative players who can hit passes to each other or to their pacy wing partners.
This is the strength of Arsene Wenger. He demands that his players change, adapt, and grow. And he clearly demands that of himself. Arsenal have been lucky that over the last 20 years, we haven’t had just one manager, we have had four. This is the secret to his longevity. Managers like Mourinho and van Gaal get stuck with one single managerial style. Thus they have to move from team to team in order to “freshen things up.” But Wenger has proven to be more adaptable. This isn’t just about “the board being lazy” or “afraid of change”. The board took the radical decision to field Wenger’s youth team experiment, that’s hardly indicative of a board that is afraid of change. No, the management at Arsenal have stuck with Wenger because he’s been able to change with the times. They don’t need a new manager, because Arsene Wenger simply reinvents himself.