Ten years of Arsene


ARSENE WENGER (in pic) has revolutionised his club from the moment he arrived at Highbury. He transformed the training at London Colney and instigated a previously unknown attention to diet.

Twice in the week when he approached his decade in charge of Arsenal was I able to watch them in action; a very comfortable 2-0 win against Porto at the splendid new Emirates Stadium, a somewhat uneasy 2-1 win over a previously struggling Charlton at The Valley. I must confess that it took me some time to be convinced by Wenger, and even as late as last season, I felt that his largely and highly successful domestic record was blemished by Arsenal's failure ever to get beyond the quarterfinals of the European Cup. But in 2006 they finally did it, and were surely somewhat unlucky to lose to Barcelona in the Parisian Final.

There can be no doubt that Wenger has revolutionised his club. From the moment he arrived at Highbury, ludicrously lampooned in some papers as "Arsene Who?" when he had spent years of success in Monaco, he transformed the training at London Colney — where he would later have built a splendid state of the arts new complex — and instigated a previously unknown attention to diet.

One of his earliest captures was that of Patrick Vieira, then no more than a fringe player at Milan, but destined to become a dominant if ever combustible figure in the Gunners' central midfield. Yet, the manner of Arsene's appointment, however inspired, was somewhat controversial. His friend David Dein, the Gunners' vice-president, ever a mover and shaker, wanted to bring him to the club from Japan where he'd been coaching since Monaco impatiently sacked him after five years. But there was contract in existence, to be renewed by the actual incumbent, Bruce Rioch, of which he had signed his part. Arsenal, however, owing to the fact that Chairman Peter Hill Wood, of that long Arsenal dynasty dating from the 1920s, had been on holiday and therefore not signed his. So Rioch was told he wouldn't be re-engaged.

Rioch's Highbury years had been indifferent but he left behind one previous and vital legacy: Holland's Dennis Bergkamp, whom he had shown great initiative in buying from Inter. For years to come, indeed till 2006, Dennis would be the fulcrum and the inspiration of the Arsenal attack, though his fear of flying would arguably have much to do with the team's failures in Europe.

In his early phase Wenger had to face down a repugnant and grotesque whispering campaign alleging paedophilia, but this he duly and properly did. He inherited a team predominantly composed of English players but as we well know in recent years his penchant for foreign talent has seen Arsenal teams without a British player even on the bench. Arsene's response to that would be that British players by and large simply don't have the technique of foreign stars. Yet, to what extent is this an implicit indictment of the Gunners' hugely expensive youth academy, which is all too tempting to see as a black hole where British talent is buried, suggesting that they should perhaps see a sign above the academy entrance: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here?

Then, inevitably and embarrassingly, there is the matter of indiscipline. Arsenal's disciplinary record under the sophisticated Arsene has bordered on the horrific; incurring dozens of red cards with the resulting suspension of key players. Vieira, more than anybody. Wenger's response to criticism of this failing has been cavalier and dismissive. He has also become famous for not having "seen" embarrassing moments on the field.

If Vieira was his first major transfer coup, it was surpassed by the acquisition of Thierry Henry, who had been under his aegis as a youngster at Monaco, then moving unhappily to Juventus as an outside-right. Wenger brought him to Arsenal and turned him into one of the outstanding centre-forwards of his era. But other Gallic transfers have been less successful, notably that of the lanky and disastrously accident-prone centre-back, Pascal Cygan (�2.1 million), whom Wenger stubbornly kept in the team despite such fiascos as the own goal he so powerfully headed at Highbury in a European Cup game. The abrasive little French midfielder Gilles Grimandi was another doubtful acquisition, yet he remained in the team or the squad for several years.

Generally humorous and sophisticated, commendably ready to attend all post match Press Conferences, by sharp contrast with the dour Alex Ferguson of Manchester United, with whom he has had his ups and downs, Wenger last season twice let the mask slip. Once at a post match conference when, against all evidence and logic, he inveighed menacingly against the journalists present, of whom I was one, because he had been quoted as calling Chelsea's provocative coach Jose Mourinho "stupid." This he had surely done and quite justifiably, even if Mourinho himself was not named, after the Portuguese had outrageously referred to him as a voyeur.

Very late in the season, Wenger exploded when Spurs, in a vital Premiership game, went on to score after two Arsenal players had collided and fallen, accusing the totally innocent Spurs manager Martin Jol of being a liar.

And there was one notorious occasion when his tactics made no sense even if they proved grimly productive. That was the 2005 FA Cup Final in Cardiff against Manchester United when, seeming transfixed by the strength of the opposition, he absurdly used the veteran one-paced Bergkamp as his solitary striker, with predictable ineffectuality. Though in the event, the Gunners earned a tainted triumph on penalties.

Broadly speaking, however, this was no more than an isolated aberration, in sharp contrast to Wenger's penchant for flowing, creative football.