Arsene Wenger was born in 1949 in Strasbourg on the French border with Germany. He was brought up in a series of small towns like Alsace, where his parents had a bistro, locals helping to raise him in a communal atmosphere he once likened to a kibbutz.
Arsene was a midfielder in his playing days but his career on the pitch never really soared and by his late 20s when he was with RC Strasbourg, attention had turned to coaching. After an apprenticeship coaching the Strasbourg youth teams and a spell as assistant at Caen, he was appointed Nancy manager in 1984. Despite being relegated in his final season, he moved from Nancy to Monaco in 1987 and that was where his reputation really grew. With players like Glenn Hoddle, Patrick Benson, Mark Hartley and Claude Puel, they won Ligue 1 by six points in his first season. In the summer of 1994, Bayern Munich tried to recruit him, he wanted to go but Monaco refused to release him only to sack him after a poor start to the following season.
A couple of so-so years in Japan as Nagoya Grampus Eight manager followed before the Arsenal job came calling. Johan Cruyff was the front-runner but the club’s then vice-chairman, David Dein, favoured a man who he had invited to dinner in 1989 after Wenger had visited to watch an Arsenal game. That night, Wenger joined in with a game of charades and Dean began to believe in fate. “I was convinced Arsene would become our manager from the first day I met him”, Dein later said. “I tried to watch the Tottenham match on television in my hotel yesterday but I fell asleep”, Wenger said on his appointment, ingratiating himself early on but from the start some players were suspicious.
No foreign manager had ever won the English league title and he began to change things – diet, discipline and the increasing number of French players began arriving – Remi Garde, Emmanuel Petit, Patrick Vieira and Nicolas Anelka all arrived in his first couple of years – but he kept the famous back four that had become watertight under George Graham. This mix of old and new proved wildly successful – Arsenal won the league in his first full season going on an extraordinary unbeaten run in which they only dropped six points in 18 games culminating in a thrashing of Everton to secure the title. Manchester United had been such heavy favourites that one bookmaker had paid out on them winning the league with two months left. Arsenal added the FA Cup to that title but the following seasons were dominated by Manchester United as Arsenal struggled to reach the same levels. “If you eat cavier everyday, it’s difficult to return to sausages” said Wenger after the adverse reaction to a defeat.
By 2001, he had again built a team that could destroy sides featuring the brilliance of Dennis Bergkamp, Thierry Henry, Robert Pires and Freddie Ljungberg. Once again, things were slightly sketchy until December but following a defeat at Newcastle just before Christmas, they didn’t lose another game all season. Sylvain Wiltord scored the goal at Old Trafford to secure the league and a few days after, a second double had been won by beating Chelsea in the FA Cup final.
Then came the Invincibles season.
Before the 2003/4 campaign, Arsenal only made one significant signing, Jens Lehmann replacing David Seaman. 26 games were won, 12 drawn and none lost, they clinched the title at White Hart Lane but little did anyone know it would never be that good again.
The following 14 years would see some moments of success – 4 more FA Cup wins, the Champions League final, European qualification every year but ultimately, disappointment. The costs of their new stadium was blamed for a lack of spending in the transfer market. Eventually, they lost their best players left and dispiriting defeat became more and more predictable.
Wenger should probably have bowed out much earlier but he clung on, to the point that he would leave Arsenal lower down on the table than when he found them. He left with good wishes, but the question now is what he does next. “Ferguson has his horses, I don’t have horses” he once said when asked if he would retire. This is a man consumed by football.