On the back end of the last decade, Arsene Wenger started to divide the opinions of the Arsenal faithful like no other. While fans recognised that the North London side were financially handicapped due to the commitment to the Emirates Stadium, success was still expected.
Even with those struggles, Wenger still managed to deliver constant Champions League football but always fell just short of true success. Countless quarterfinal and semifinal cup exits with the occasional runner up place left the Gunners heartbroken on more than one occasion across multiple competitions.
Add in the tendency for Arsenal to be able to start the league season off strong then fade traditionally in February, paired with countless injuries and soon the idea of #WengerOut was born.
Before long, Arsenal became a bit of a laughing stock among the traditional top four teams as more people started claiming that Wenger’s ultimate goal was the fourth place trophy. Fans started to believe that Arsenal was becoming a team with a meager budget, injury problems and embodying a small team mentality against the title contenders.
Though a portion of the North London faithful were starting to give up on Wenger, one very important person did not; Ivan Gazidis.
The Arsenal chief executive was always sympathetic to Wenger’s situation as it was that pair that pioneered the long term project of constructing the Emirates.
Their hope was long term success and Gazidis himself knew that it would be 2014 before the team could look to compete with the best in the world.
True to that word, in 2014, Arsenal ended their nine-year trophy drought with an FA cup victory, something that was repeated the very next season. Many distinct developments of Wenger’s style of management contributed to this as he started to claw some of his doubters back on his side.
Though the climb back to true competitiveness took a good few years, Arsenal finally made it. Three particular areas of Wenger’s leadership evolved to facilitate this success; his transfer policy, his intense loyalty towards his players, and his tactical adeptness.
Wenger has stated that this trophy drought has been the managerial period that he has been most proud of due to his competition with billionaires. Many fans would disagree with that, citing the Invincibles season as the shining star of Wenger’s era. This is especially the case when one looks at Wenger’s transfer troubles during the trophy drought era.
Bringing up names such as Yann M’Vila, Gonzalo Higuain, Stevan Jovetić, David Villa, Sami Khedira, and many more will make most fans wince. At one time or another, all of these names seemed certain to join Arsenal and all of whom, seemingly slipped out the hands of the North Londoners.
Instead the Arsenal faithful had to be satisfied with signings that showed an immense lack of ambition. Relevant names in this vein included Mikael Silvestre, Marouane Chamakh, Sebastien Squillaci, Andre Santos, and Park Chu Young.
This is the sort of disappointing quality that the Gunners were largely limited to in the era of penny pinching in the effort to get over the hill on stadium payments. That however, all ended on the deadline day of the 2013-2014 summer transfer window with one name: Mesut Özil.
Wenger parted ways with a hefty £42.5 million to obtain the services of one of the best German play-makers in the world which predictably, sent the fans into a frenzy.
This was a definite sign that Arsenal were well and truly back with marquee annual signings of world-class players. The subsequent transfers of Alexis Sánchez and Petr Čech proved that Wenger’s supposed lack of ambition was never the fault of his own but having to cope with financial circumstances.
Čech in particular was an important signing that indicated Wenger’s development in another aspect of his management style.
Loyalty to players
Wenger has always been somewhat of a master of keeping all of his squad players happy, regarding the role everyone plays and the subsequent minutes that everyone should expect to have.
Even before signing Čech, Wenger said that he had three world-class keepers at his disposal and though that was a stretch, he did have two starting XI quality shot-stoppers. And so, it was surprising to see Wenger’s ambition to bring in a keeper of enough quality to eclipse both Wojciech Szczęsny and David Ospina.
The signing of Čech forces one of these keepers to resign himself to very few minutes next season or to seek a position at another club, a rare move from Wenger. This ruthlessness was signaled last season as in an almost unprecedented move for Wenger, he dropped Szczęsny after a series of errors from the Polish international.
Ospina gained the nod from the boss as a result as Szczesny had to make due with FA Cup football for the rest of the season. This was a great sign of a changed Wenger as he had always been reluctant to make mid season changes in his starting XI prior.
Barring injury, the Gunners have gone through seasons with a near identical starting XI between August and April. As a result, most fans welcomed this fresh ruthlessness from the manager. This willingness to change the starting XI up was a sign of Wenger’s last big development in his managerial ability.
While replacing a struggling goalkeeper with a fresh alternative was a seemingly obvious change, Wenger has developed his adaptability to influence all areas of the pitch, sometimes even mid-game in recent years.
Ever since the physicality of Arsenal left with the likes of Patrick Viera, Lee Dixon, and Martin Keown, the Gunners became known as one dimensional with a tiki-taka style which attempted to emulate Barcelona.
Soon after the Arsenal style of “tippy-tappy”emerged, their competitiveness against top teams started to slip thanks to their tendency to get out-muscled and figured out. Arsenal were even seen to gain an affinity for potential complacency later in matches in which they lead, leading to a lot of unnecessarily dropped points.
While these issues were each manageable on their own, when tied together with the squad’s lack of adaptability against teams who exploited these weaknesses, Arsenal were tactically exposed.
This image which Arsenal have bred is starting to wear off however, and Wenger has shown (in this past season in particular) that Arsenal are very much a multi-dimensional team again.
As much as the Gunners still favour attractive flowing, passing football, they have been shown to hammer out gritty 1-0 or 2-1 victories when required. Arsenal have been able to transition from an all out attacking team all the time to one that also has the ability to hold the ball for a half in hanging onto a tight win. This will be all the more achievable with a goalkeeper like Cech now between the sticks.
Wenger has also been able to interchange short, direct passing techniques with an over the top ball that finds the feet of a quick, penetrating winger. Most importantly, Arsenal have shown that they can also once again be physical.
This adaptability has been lacking for a few years now but with the right squad at his disposal, Wenger has been able to make the Gunners unpredictable again and a wealth of successful results have followed.
Arsenal have even broken their curse of losses against big teams with wins over both halves of Manchester this past season, also being denied a win at Anfield thanks to a last minute equalizer.
It has been a while coming but it has been a joy seeing this Arsenal team develop from one that looked destined to be stuck in fourth, to one that could genuinely challenge for the title. That has been as much due to progression from the team as it has been from the big boss in Wenger.
If the progression continues, the Gunners could be looking at their fourth Premier League title rather than a fourth place spot in the league.