With each new loss, Arsene Wenger faces the humiliating task of denying the weekly rumors of his impending doom. Obviously, with one of Arsenal’s worst starts in ages, Wenger is under an enormous amount of stress and pressure, and his gray hair, furrowed brows, and unchanging tight frown make him appear much older than his actual age of 61. Despite his lanky figure and grandfatherly image, the name Arsene Wenger is synonymous with youth and quickness. This is Wenger’s legacy: developing undiscovered young talent and transforming kids into superstars, implementing them into the Arsenal system that he created, one that features quick passing, fluid movement, and possession control.
In 1996 Arsenal hired the unknown Arsene Wenger from an equally unknown Japanese club named Nagoya Grampus Eight. Wenger would be the first non-English Gunner’s boss in team history. Shortly before officially taking over the team, he requested that the club sign a man named Patrick Vieira.
After his first season, Arsenal ended third in the league. A year later, Arsenal won both the league and the FA Cup (97/98), and already Wenger’s legend was growing. Arsenal would win The Double once again during the 2001/2002 campaign, and follow that up with their Invincible season two years later, not losing a single game during the 03/04 campaign.
These achievements all helped build Wenger’s reputation as being a manager who had an eye for young talent and was capable of developing new players into experienced champions. Soon, as Arsenal’s form continued to grow and the team racked up more wins, his reputation solidified.
Unfortunately, the legacy of Wenger’s success has trumped the reality of what made some of his most successful Arsenal football teams win. For example, Wenger’s early titles with the club were largely credited to his signing the young Patrick Vieira, but a largely forgotten element of those early years is that Arsenal had a veteran team that surrounded the young new signings.
During the 97/98 championship season, Arsenal’s defense was anchored by veterans Nigel Winterburn (age: 34), Lee Dixon (33), Tony Adams (31), and Emmanuel Petit (27). And although Vieira (21) and Anelka (18) were amazingly young to be featuring for such a large club, they were coupled alongside Dennis Bergkamp (28) and Ian Wright (34).
The 01/02 Championship season featured the magnificent Thierry Henry, and although he may have seemed like a youngster at the time, he was 24, two years older than Theo Walcott is currently. The only regular Arsenal starter younger than the age of 24 was defender Ashley Cole (21).
During Arsenal’s famous Invincible season (03/04), most of the team was considered veteran by today’s standards, and the youngest regular starter on the team was once again Ashley Cole (23).
Amazingly, Arsenal’s best teams under the management of Arsene Wenger have been veteran ones. Despite this, Wenger has warmly accepted the youth stereotype that has been attached to him, and he’s based his recent career on a youth-based system.
Unfortunately, this system hasn’t brought Arsenal any trophies, and the club has come frustratingly close, but always short, on numerous occasions. Gunner fans are split between love and hate for Wenger. Many see Wenger as the sole reason for any success they’ve had, while other see his insistence to rely on youth as the primary cause for the team’s recent trophy drought.
Despite the recent uproar surrounding Wenger’s management style and sub-par results, team owners insist that Wenger still has their full confidence. Although a top-four finish seems increasingly unlikely for this season, Wenger will probably have one more chance next year to prove himself capable of producing results. Otherwise, Arsenal may be forced to abandon their Wenger-built youth system. This system has already proved to be incompatible with the new era of big spending, million-dollar contracts, and super-inflated transfer contracts. If Arsene Wenger doesn’t adapt quickly, Arsenal may become irrelevant, and similar to this year, they may transform into a feeder program for the “Big Clubs.”