Arsene Wenger arrived in England 19 years ago as something of an unknown quantity, now he is a Premier League legend and has changed the face of English football. The much adored and much maligned Frenchman turns 66 today as he looks to win his fourth Premier League title.
It's been an incredible two decades in north London filled with despair, joy and frustration but it's a journey Arsenal supporters should appreciate. All the Gunners have now is because of one man and that man is Arsene Wenger. Here we take a look at why he is the best manager in Premier League history.
Wenger is often criticised for his insistence on buying young players and not splashing the cash on the bigger stars, until recently that has been a very valid criticism. However, just one glance at the players he has nurtured during his time as chief Gunner and it is clear to see that his policy has brought the club an incredible array of footballers.
The main men to look to here are the likes of Thierry Henry and Cesc Fabregas. These are players that already had all the materials but just needed to be shown how to use them. Wenger was that catalyst. He took Henry from an exciting but frustrating winger and turned him into the best striker in the world, and arguably the most impressive marksman the top-flight has ever seen. With Fabregas, along with his scouts he identified the Spaniard’s talent and threw him into the firing line at 16, bold but massively effective management.
In the current crop you need look no further than Hector Bellerin. Much like Fabregas he was poached from La Masia and in recent weeks has shown that he could potentially be a world class operator.
Sir Alex Ferguson had his Class of 92 and his youngsters developed on the pristine pitches of the Cliff but Wenger was, and still remains the greatest managerial talent scout out there.
The Arsenal manager’s techniques were hard for many to comprehend when arrived in 1996. After somewhat surprisingly beating Johan Cruyff to the Highbury hotseat, the former Monaco boss turned up from Japanese football with professorial looks and a European aura that had never truly been seen on these shores.
Sure, we had foreign players and managers but what Wenger would go on to do would revolutionise the English game and take the Premier League to an unprecedented level.
The Frenchman changed everything at Arsenal’s training ground. He started with the menu, encouraging fresh food and vitamins, he then brought in a stretching regime that is widely credited with prolonging the careers of the infamous Gunners rearguard that he inherited. That was just the beginning. A state of the art gym was introduced, he shackled the drinking culture that surrounded English football and was the catalyst for the influx of talented foreign players into the country.
Upon his soon to be arch nemesis’ arrival Ferguson quipped: 'What does he know about English football, coming from Japan?’. Ironically the blueprint set by Wenger would soon be followed by the rest of the teams in the Premier League, Ferguson’s included. To say he single-handedly made the transformed football in this country may be a little bold, but he certainly spread up the process that led to a significant increase in quality.
We all know Arsenal haven’t won the title since 2004. The whole Emirates Stadium project tied Wenger’s hands in a lot of ways, his dedication to value players also potentially has held the side back, as well as his insistence on a certain style of football. However, let’s look at something he did that no other man had done in over 100 years.
In 1889 Preston North End completed an incredible campaign that saw them go a whole season without losing a single game. It was an achievement never to be repreated, it simply couldn’t be. In the Premier League era where a team at the bottom of the league could spring a surprise and defeat the champions and with so many club capable of mounting a title charge, no one thought it possible.
The only man who believed it could be achieved was a sophisticated chap from Strasbourg with a penchant for fiddling with his zip. Indeed, in 2002 Wenger spoke of the possibility of going unbeaten for an entire season. It was a throwaway comment, a pipe dream.
Nevertheless, in the 2003/04 campaign Wenger’s greatest side defied all the odds. They completed 38 games without a blemish. It came in the shape of 26 wins and 12 draws and it was a joy to watch. Never has a team played such attractive football and won the title, never has there been a more popular team that has won the Premier league – even if that side did include Ashley Cole.
That season was Wenger’s masterpiece and for numerous reasons too big to go into here he has never quite been able to scale those heights again. However, that nine months of invincibility has to go down as one of, if not the, greatest managerial achievement in English football.