The four seasons of Arsene Wenger

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.




  1. This is beautiful, Tim. Thank you.

    Combining your writing and Wenger’s love of classical music. I think this calls for some Vivaldi in the background. (Vivaldi to Arsenal January transfer rumour?)

  2. Halftime at Basel, really promising start to the Xhaka-Ramsey partnership imo. There have been some spacing issues between the two, on many occasions they are too flat, while other times they both get caught trying to get forward. And they’ve also given the ball away cheaply in midfield on occasion. But Basel’s forwards have been working very hard to cede space to the CB’s and shut down our central midfield, so naturally Xhambo haven’t found much space, and I do believe those spacing issues will largely sort themselves out with familiarity.

    And its very promising to me because of Ramsey’s intent. He’s been pretty conservative in possession and working hard to track back. Reminded me of early-2013 Ramsey, when he was finding his feet after recovering from injury, and focusing on simplifying his game. When Rambo plays like that, he approaches a “complete” midfielder, defending, attacking, and a goal threat.

    If he can keep that up, Xhambo could be a very effective midfield partnership, with power, stamina, and technique. Dare I say, the sort of midfield that can win titles.

    1. I was working on a presentation while the match was on in the background so I didn’t get a nuanced feel for how well the midfield combo worked. My superficial impressions were that it made us more dynamic in midfield but also left the back door ajar once or twice. Ramsey’s chalkboard shows that he did exactly what we hoped he would; get back to basics. His passing was nice and tidy, he made three tackles, all in his own half, and only took one shot. By contrast, Xhaka was a stat stuffer in this game with 3 interceptions, 3 tackles (two in the opposition half), two clearances, one aerial won, and one chance created. He also completed a lot more passes than Ramsey.

      Both Ramsey and Xhaka are vulnerable to speed through the middle, so that’s another aspect that bears watching if this is to be our partnership through the latter half of the season. My guess though is the boss will reinstate Coquelin at Ramsey’s expense against Stoke, who we should be battering at home.

  3. To be fair, I don’t think van Gaal’s United was anything like van Gaal’s Ajax. van Gaal’s United just didn’t quite work out.

    1. By the way, I read Swiss Ramble’s recent blog post on Champions League finances. A great nugget buried there though is that United’s killer $75m/year kit deal with Adidas can diminish by as much as 30% (!) if they fail to make the Champions League two or more years in a row. That’s why they fired LVG when he failed to make fourth, they can’t afford to miss it for a second consecutive season. And yet they may do so anyway.

      1. Sorry, it’s actually 75m pounds a year, but I don’t have a pound sign on my keyboard.

      2. Man. I am glad to hear that. They made a deal with the Devil for this and now even the Devil can’t seem to help them out !

  4. Ludogoretz just made the day by drawing with PSG. Now just not to get Munich for the next round.

  5. Impressed by Xhaka’s vision from deep. Especially how it turned defense to attack and got us out of tight spots.

    Well done, lads.

  6. Tim’s article is a great springboard to be thankful for our Arsenal, and on a day like today it’s hard not to feel like the football gods have maybe started to smile upon us for the first time since 2005. More on that anon. First, let us consider the Champions’ League Group A table:

    Arsenal are first (!!). But it’s more than mere luck, the result of an odd, unexpected twist in Paris. Arsenal have played 6, won 4, lost none. We scored 18 goals while conceding just 6. Our goal difference (12) is twice that of PSG’s, and only bettered in the entire CL by… Barcelona! (BVB are tied with us on 12, but have to play Madrid tomorrow). Among teams who have played all 6 games, only Atletico and Barcelona have more points than we do (both have 15 vs our 14). Arsenal have played really good football in the CL this season, a certain night at the Parc de Princes excepted.

    The CL group phase has always been the site of some of our best football. The opposition tends to leave more space to operate, the referees call a tighter game and the standard of competition is often subpar. Yet, we haven’t topped our group in 5 years. I can recall weary away trips on final matchday to Greece where, with little to play for, the likes of Justin Hoyte would be put the slaughter, then never heard from again.

    How lovely then that, instead, Arsene had the luxury to select his second choice left back (who promptly contributed 1.5 assist in the opening two goals), his seldom seen summer striker signing who only goes and hits a hat trick (nothing like Alexis’, but a hatty’s a hatty), and a backline also consisting of raw Rob Holding, a second choice Ospina and an out of position Gabriel pretty much holds it together behind a nascent and inevitably leaky Ramhka/Xhamsey partnership. Basel and their fans were up for this; they had the Europa league to play for. Perennial Swiss champions, they’ve beaten United (when they were actually good) and City at this ground. But we went and spanked them with a rotated team and not because they were poor.

    The Ludogorets result was not the first thing this season that made me think maybe, finally, our luck is turning (knocks vigorously on nearby wooden objects). How likely was it that they would hold PSG in Paris, thereby allowing us to win the group? Not at all. Probably about as likely that we would score a 95th minute goal vs. Burnley that Ox kicked into goal off Koscielny’s arm. Or that Ox and Giroud would combine for an 88th minute equalizer at Old Trafford. Or that Alexis Sanchez would suddenly look like a world class striker in less than half a season playing there for Arsenal. If this is to be Arsene’s swansong, it’s a beautiful one indeed. And it may just have a fairy tale ending.

  7. Quite an inspired post today – thanks for that and the continued good form of 7 am Kickoff. Is Wenger a “man for all seasons”? He’s teacher first and foremost and so this quote from the play to remind his public, us of his special qualities:

    “Sir Thomas More: Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
    Richard Rich: If I was, who would know it?
    Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.”
    ― Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons

  8. I think we just saw Keiran Gibbs, channeling Cazorla play his best 90 minutes of football in an Arsenal shirt.

    Wow. Just wow!

  9. You have not given such a glowing endorsement of AW for quite a while Tim. You are quite obviously happy with what you are seeing on the pitch currently as the rest of us.

    Finally we have a genuine superstar playing up top for us. Credit to AW for coaxing that striker out of Alexis Sanchez. The intelligence, patience and above all the tenaciousness required to put in such a shift over twenty years simply amazes me. I hope to draw inspiration from AW’s story in my own journey.

  10. Well, the blog (post and comments) are in inspired form today. From the post itself to the double vivaldi entendre to ‘A man for all seasons’ reference which will be a perfect ode to Le Prof is we win the PL/CL (am I stretching it?)to the Gibb channeling Carzola comment to the Madonna comment. Thats without factoring the Ludogorets draw with PSG!!!

    Tim, I agree, if this team is not more calculating/ruthless/colder than the invincibles, it is at least so. I did a quick check and I think they scored 5 hat tricks in 02/03 – 4 in the league and 1 in CL. We have 4 already with a lot of footie to play. We may all be doffing chapeaux come May.

  11. The post is so pretty, I read it twice!

    And from where I stand, I do hear Wenger chuckle to himself when people say he hasn’t got a Plan B.

    This season alone, we have played possession football, camping at the opponents half. We have played the quick transitions and the high press. Defended deep, countering and quite often it is a cocktail of these that we do.

    Our all conquering exotic team that spanked Chelsea 3-0 is transformed into an all conquering team with dazzling verticality. Exit Santi Carzola, enter Granit Xhaka.

    By the way, Ozil is at his world best when the menu offered is quick transition.

  12. The pleasure of watching this Arsenal vintage is the continually teasing hint of great possibility. As well as we’ve played on occasion, you always feel there are spare gears to be engaged. With all due respect to a really fine Chelsea side under the impressive Conte, you don’t quite get that feeling with them. It’s as if their accelerator is pretty close to the floor with the way they’re playing. Can Batshuayi deputize ably for Costa and Oscar for Hazard if and when injuries and suspensions strike? We shall see.

  13. I haven’t been to this site very often, but…

    Combine a love for Arsenal, an appreciation for what Wenger has achieved even in the “barren” years with the brilliant compositions of Vivaldi and sayings by Thomas More on single webpage!

    Gents, I think I have found my spiritual home!

  14. This post. Straight from the postman’s heart. A touch of class to state the least.

    Putting this in my eternal archives.

    Thanks Tim

  15. What a wonderful article. I’ve been a fan of this site since I found it 5 years ago and this article might be some of your best work yet (along with you comparing Henry to a lion after the Arsenal v NY Red Bulls in 2014). Thoroughly enjoyed.

  16. What a lovely piece of writting. I really did like the final section on how adaptable Mr Wenger has been when the general consesus is he wont change.

Comments are closed.

Related articles