The long wait for trophies at Arsenal continues, yet many fans still resolutely back their manager and believe that he will be able to lead them to glory once again.
However, murmurs of discontent are starting to ripple around the Emirates stadium and losses to Bradford and Blackburn in the two domestic cup competitions have not been kindly received, particularly as a league challenge is impossible and the Champions League looks beyond the possibility of the current side.
Will Wenger be able to lift the Gunners out of their slumber and return to the days of the ‘invincibles?’
Arsenal are a team that has changed beyond recognition since Arsene Wenger took charge in the summer of 1996, The Frenchman, at the time a relative unknown, arrived from Japan with a vision for transforming the club into serious title contenders. He wanted rid of the ‘boring, boring arsenal’ tag often associated with the numerous 1-0 victories they were famous for and to bring a bit more flair and attacking play to their game.
The core of the side was built around English players, which seems unbelievable considering how things have changed since those days, but they were ageing and supposedly set in their ways. No-one was going to be able to change the culture and habits of a side containing Adams, Keown, Seaman, Dixon, Winterburn, Parlour and Wright, and the press were sceptical that the new man would last very long at the helm.
17 years on and the manager remains the same, albeit with a few more trophies in the cabinet than when he arrived. He has witnessed the club move into a brand new stadium and training complex, overseen the development of the club’s youth academy, and implemented a sensible approach to transfers, which has allowed the club to be in a healthy financial position and not strangled by millions of pounds worth of debt. One man alone has slowly but surely made his own footballing philosophy that which the club now claims as its own, and a process of developing players and teams that entertain the crowd whilst also winning has become the desired result.
In Arsene’s second season as manager he led the team to a league and cup double, proving that he did have the required ability to implement his plans for the Gunners. Nicolas Anelka was instrumental with his goals during this season and the teenager is still the best piece of business done by Wenger since arriving on English shores; he signed the 17 year old for £0.5m and sold him two years later to Real Madrid for close to £23m.
Wenger has always tried to sign players not already at the peak of their powers but with the potential ability to become a world beater. He has done this on several occasions but undoubtedly the finest example is provided by another Frenchman, now regarded by most fans as the greatest ever player in the club’s history.
Thierry Henry was struggling at Juventus when Arsenal came calling in the summer of 1999. Played as a winger during his time in Italy, his tally of 3 goals left a lot to be desired and it seemed like a perfect opportunity for all parties involved to allow him to move on. Wenger saw his potential as a striker and thought that if he could utilise his devastating pace then his team would be at an advantage over the rest. During an 8 year period Henry managed 254 appearances and 174 goals, justifying the belief shown in him by his manager, and helping the club to more silverware and a first appearance in the Champions League final in 2006. Ironically they lost to Barcelona, the team that Henry was to join only a season later after expressing his desire to try pastures new before the end of his career.
When Arsenal finished runners up to Barcelona they were beginning to enter a lean spell regarding silverware. After doing the double in 1998 and again in 2002, a further league title was added to the collection in 2004 as well as a couple of FA Cup victories in 2003 and 2005. That was to be the last trophy collected by the club and in the years since they have grown ever further from title aspirations. The emergence of Chelsea and Man City, funded by extremely wealthy foreign owners, combined with Man Utd’s continual presence at the top of the game, has meant that 4th place has become about the best they can expect. Evidence of this has never been as obvious as during the past few seasons when the club has sold Adebayor, Nasri and Clichy to City and Van Persie to United. All of the aforementioned have requested a move as they have disagreed about the direction the club is taking and become frustrated at not challenging for titles. Cesc Fabregas, club captain for many years, decided that enough was enough and re-joined childhood club Barcelona, where he has now been joined by Alex Song, also a former Gunner.
Despite losing many key players, Wenger has signed others to replace them, and often emphasises the need to be patient with younger or as yet relatively unknown players whom he feels will eventually have something to offer. He has managed to convince the board of directors and the fans that the philosophy instilled in the club is the correct one and that they just need to have a bit of faith to see the club reap the rewards of all the years of hard work. Indeed qualifying for the Champions League for 15 consecutive seasons is no mean feat, although some would say that a victory in a competition, even a domestic cup, would mean much more to them than getting through knockout phases only to return to London empty handed once more.
Talk of replacing Wenger seems premature but if they fail to overturn a two goal deficit against Bayern Munich then 4th place in the Premiership is all they will have to aim for. This would not be seen as a sign of success and fans are already growing weary of the promises of future glory when year after year the club fails to deliver.
Have Arsenal become a selling club only capable of sustaining their current position, or will they once more manage to push onward and upward in the pursuit of titles? Wenger still has time left on his contract but doubts are rising as to whether he will be offered an extension.