Life and Times… Arsène Wenger – The Early Arsenal Years

In pondering how to start this article, I wondered how many directors made acquaintance with their next manager whilst playing charades at a party. Can you imagine Mourinho playing Pictionary at Abramovich’s or Sacchi singing home karaoke with Berlusconi? Actually, I can picture that last one. Of course, David Dein didn’t meet Wenger at his home party, but he got to know him there; Dein himself has talked of how it was at that moment that it dawned on him this was the man he wanted to take Arsenal into the future.

It’s unlikely, however, that either man knew how good a fit it would be, arguably surpassing Arsenal’s previous golden era under George Graham. Wenger didn’t just become the club’s most successful manager ever, he got to redefine the club; in doing so, he also got to reshape the paradigm of English football, and mould the Premier League era more so than anyone else apart from Sir Alex Ferguson. So how did he do it?


After departing Monaco, however, Wenger wouldn’t set his course for Highbury, but the Land of the Rising Sun, taking over Nagoya Grampus Eight. For the Alsatian, it worked as a learning trip as well as a coaching job. The culture trade was as positive an influence on Japanese football as on the French manager.

“I was a cog, a part of their plan”, Wenger writes in his autobiography. “That tells you all you need to know about how they relate to time, about their staying power and their determination”

Nagoya Grampus Eight was owned by Toyota; for the motoring giants, hiring the Frenchman was just another step to develop the club. They told Wenger they planned to turn their outfit into the biggest club in world football in the next hundred years. For a young, football-crazed Arsène Wenger, who talks of feeling actual physical pain with every loss, and suffered at the hands of the Marseille match-fixing scandals, the possibility of working with sights on something that is well beyond those present-day struggles was both a gift and a lesson.

However, Wenger quickly realized he was in a country that had none of the footballing culture he had grown up in, and this was a barrier he had to learn to traverse to do his job effectively. “I also learnt to compromise, to adapt my values and my coaching to their traditions, their beliefs. And I learnt to express my demands differently so that they would really hit home and be even more effective”, Wenger points out in his autobiography. “At Monaco and other clubs, I had probably been a bit inflexible, hard, authoritarian. I adapted, I sought ways to compromise and understand, and this process of thinking about the game, about the best possible coaching methods, the particular culture of each country and even each club, enabled me to progress, to be more precise, to improve my coaching methods, to understand how better to communicate the messages that really needed communicating […] and what I could adapt or change, the principles I could afford to drop”.

Wenger’s Japanese adventure wasn’t only important as a self development experience; it also cemented his friendship with assitant Boro Primorac, who would become a key member of his staff at Arsenal

How well would’ve Wenger adapted to footballing culture in England without this lesson in timelessness and adaptation? How capable would he have been of building bridges with the multiculturalism of his later sides without it? It stands to reason that his time in Japan was one of the most important steps in the Frenchman’s career. 

Vitamins and stretches

For all the reverence he had encountered in Japan, and for all the appreciation he received on his farewell, he got none of that upon arriving at Arsenal. The now infamous “Arsene who?” headline has come to embody the very first moments of Wenger’s Arsenal. Neither was there much support for the Frenchman among his players. English football culture, the good and the bad, was deeply ingrained at Arsenal. Most unhealthy aspects of it were represented by the Tuesday Club, social gatherings where some of the most important members of the Gunners’ squad would meet after training on a Tuesday to drink as much as they could find. 

Still, Wenger soldiered on. He went above and beyond, hiring specialists in neurosciences, nutrition, physiotherapy and psychology to improve the player’s environment and help them progress and sustain their level. He cut the drinking, and imposed strict nutrition regimes on the whole squad, with a focus on the fish-heavy diets he had come to know in Japan. Much in the same way, he revolutionized training, modernizing methods with shorter, more regular sessions, strengthening exercises and massages. The capability for adaptation the Frenchman had picked up in Japan paid dividends. “I knew I had to progress in small steps, gradually taking the team in hand, applying diplomacy and psychology, without relinquishing my convictions”, writes Wenger.

Wenger got Arsenal’s experienced English core to buy into his methods; both players and manager reaped the rewards

However, no amount of tact and communication skills would’ve ever done the trick had the French manager not achieved his primary goal. Managing a respectable third-place finish in his first season, with a squad that contained many of the players who had struggled under Bruce Rioch the previous season, went a long way to proving the efficacy of his methods, and the players could feel it. “I played under him for just under a year. It was the fittest I’ve ever been”, said Paul Merson. “The vitamins, the diet, everything we were doing was like clockwork. He got us to buy into that, in a very, very strong dressing room. Straight away the training was enjoyable, it was fun. We used to go away with England and the Arsenal lads would do these stretches. Other players would say ‘What are you doing? What are these?’. He was so far ahead of his time it’s unbelievable”. It stands to reason that it wasn’t Wenger that was ahead of his time, but rather English football that was lagging behind; regardless, the impact of his training methods was massive.

Another of the aces Wenger had up his sleeve was his recruitment skills. It’s no coincidence the first player he ever signed for Arsenal became the bedrock of his best sides. This is Patrick Vieira, of course. As Christopher Weir writes in an article for These Football Times, “If Thierry Henry was Arsenal’s superstar, then Vieira was its nuclear soul, an irresistible force of nature that made the midfield his personal, unconquerable universe”. Vieira’s debut against Sheffield Wednesday was so impressive that Ray Parlour thought he wouldn’t play again. Together with a defensive force (first Emmanuel Petit, then Gilberto Silva), he became the fundamental cog of every Arsenal side until he left for Juventus in 2005.

From Left to Right: Freddie Ljungberg, Martin Keown, Ray Parlour, Lauren, Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires and Gio van Bronkhurst; six of them, Wenger signings. The Frenchman’s eye for talent became worldwide famous

And it wasn’t simply Vieira. Petit, Anelka, Overmars, Ljungberg, Wiltord, Pirès, Henry; the Alsatian seemed to be able to find talent under the rocks of his garden. Even Dennis Bergkamp, who had joined the season before, became the first of Wenger’s “like a new signing’” as he found form like he never had since leaving Ajax.

The Modern Arsenal

The era was marked by the Arsenal-Manchester United rivalry. Wenger had proved he could get under Ferguson’s skin in his first season when some comments on United’s schedule sparked a response from the Scotsman: “[Wenger] has no experience of English football. I think he should keep his mouth shut. Firmly shut”. In the Frenchman’s second season, Arsenal would get the upper hand in their rivalry, beating United home and away on their way to their first double of the Wenger era.

Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger, the two era-defining managers of turn of the century. The fathers of the Premier League as we know it

United would quickly regain dominance of the league, winning three consecutive titles, including their historic treble, but those titles cemented Wenger as more than a quirky continental coach with some interesting tricks up his sleeve; he had now conquered the league and the public.

With his feet firmly set on English soil and his aptness for the job no longer called into question, Wenger was able to pursue his ideas even further. He had been smart to make use of the backbone of George Graham’s Arsenal, adapting his methods and extending their careers. However, as those players began to retire, Wenger started the process of replacing the irreplaceable. He would do it on his own terms.

What once was a team with an English core and continental flair sprinkled on top by the likes of Bergkamp, Overmars and Vieira, became a multicultural squad; one that much closely matched the ways of top tier modern European football, and the path the Premier League was on. Without that unifying sense of English tradition in the club, Wenger did a great job of finding players who would gel on account of their fierce personalities. It was a squad that was defined by their strong will and their determination to succeed. Vieira led by will and by example, but characters like Thierry Henry’s, Gilberto Silva’s and Sol Campbell’s weren’t far behind.

Thierry Henry wouldn’t just become the most prolific striker in Arsenal’s history, he would also set up the blueprint for modern football’s new breed of strikers.

The team that won Wenger’s second double in 2001/02 was a much more modern team, shaped in the mind of their manager. They played a more expansive and free-flowing style of football; by the time The Invincibles came to lift the Frenchman’s third Premier League title, they were almost unrecognizable from the Arsenal Wenger took over.

However, much like their defeat at the hands of Everton in October 2002 derailed their title defence, the defeat against Manchester United two years later (almost to the date) in October 2004 broke a spell that Arsenal side could never quite recover from. “We knew that the good times were over”, writes Wenger, “that unique moment, the time without fear, had passed, and we knew it would be hard to recapture that state of grace”.

Shifting styles

From the moment Wenger’s first Arsenal team walked on a pitch, they did so in a very clear 4-4-2. Whether it was the influence of English football culture, an adaptation of the shape he previously used in Monaco or simply a better fit to the squad he had at his disposal we’ll never know, but this would be the shape he’d play for the remainder of his early years at the club. The style of the team, however, did shift. As the team moved from the English core to that multicultural squad, Wenger looked to play ever more expansive football.

Arsenal shifted in style and personnel

With the historic back four of Dixon, Adams, Bould (later Keown) and Winterburn, the team had a solid foundation at the back, with little in the way of flair, but also very effective. Thus, Wenger relied on wide men Marc Overmars and Ray Parlour to provide width and attack the flanks. Down the middle, Vieira ruled the midfield supreme, covering the entire pitch, and aiding both recovery and build-up, with a defensive option (often Petit, but also at times Platt) holding the space.

As Arsenal start a counter, Vieira receives in the middle of the pitch and spots Parlour running into space on the right (1). He instantly puts a swerving pass into the run of his teammate (2 & 3). Wenger’s side were great at launching quick, sharp counters

Up top, Dennis Bergkamp functioned as the focal point of the attack. He would move into channels and drift along the 3/4 mark, looking for gaps to receive the ball with time and space and either play a pass into a runner or create for himself. Ian Wright would spearhead the attack, creating space for the Dutchman to operate by going on darting runs that drew defenders, as well as being capable of holding defenders and beating them on the one-on-one. 

Bergkamp was never far when Arsenal were attacking

Later into Wenger’s tenure, much of this would change. The unit of Lauren, Campbell, Adams (then Toure) and Ashley Cole was a much more attack-minded, versatile block. Wenger would have his fullbacks, particularly Cole, push higher and higher up, providing width to the attack like Valery and Petit had done at Monaco.

This, in turn, meant he could have more purely creative figures on the flanks, with Pirès and Ljungberg often cutting inside, playing passes behind the defence or arriving late to finish moves. In the centre, even Vieira took a more creative, less discipline-demanding role, unleashing incredible passing range to add to his dynamic runs and box-to-box style. As Petit left the club, Wenger moved Parlour to a central role, before finding the perfect replacement in Brazilian Gilberto Silva.

A quick interception by Lauren puts Bergkamp in space with the ball; as he dribbles forwards, he spots Ljungberg, not yet on frame, cutting inside from the left (1). The Dutchman plays a quick pass into space (2) for the Swede to finish on the bottom right corner (3).

At the front, Thierry Henry’s unbridled genius released Bergkamp of goal-scoring duties, which helped prolong his career as he entered his thirties. With the Dutchman as more of a pure creator, Henry took responsibility as the lead man and thrived, producing one of the best seasons of football ever in 2003/04. Starting slightly to the left to cut inside on his majestic right foot, he caused havoc on Premier League defences.

Their general approach to play would also shift slightly, with the earlier teams much more dependent on long balls and quick transitions, mostly through the flanks. Whilst Arsenal wouldn’t drop the fast-countering style well into the Emirates era, later teams would look to favour a more controlled approach, more often building slower from the back, and moving much more coordinatedly in the fast attacking transitions. It also meant Arsenal did a lot of interplay at the last third of the pitch, with lots of interior movement.

Arsenal’s build up play improved vastly as the Wenger era progressed

In defence, Arsenal would often press as a midfield block, with the strikers dropping alternatively behind the ball, and the team looking mostly uninterested in closing down their opponents on early build-up. Instead, Arsenal’s press would trigger mostly as their rivals moved into the halfway, looking then to exploit the space created.

On Football Manager 2022

For this recreation, I decided to aim for the more mixed style of Wenger’s second double-winning side, as it more closely resembles the Alsatian’s overall football vision. Like I said last time out, with every tactical recreation we do we need to take it with a pinch of salt, looking to recreate the spirit of a setup and round off the details. When it comes to the spirit of Wenger’s early Arsenal, that spirit has a name, Patrick Vieira. 

Replicating the dynamism and quality of Vieira’s game is something Arsenal has been struggling with since he left. He was capable of operating at a very high level and possessed a very complete skill set, allowing him to dominate games physically, mentally and tactically. In order to find someone who could do the job, I looked for a player with high technical ability, the necessary physical qualities and the right mentality. With players at top clubs (as always) out of the question, I decided on Torino’s Rolando Mandragora. He’s got the complete skill set required and also boasts the Dictates Tempo Player Trait, which will become important as you’ll see.

I also found good players to fit other key positions in the tactic, like former Leicester City Belgian Dennis Praet who can pull off a convincing Bergkamp impression, and a lethal striker to play the Henry role in the team’s star, Andrea Belotti.

In the end, this is what I had…

At the back, we have a pair of safe centrebacks to provide defensive cover. We could go for ball-playing defenders, particular if aiming for a style closer to that of the Invincibles, but I often feel that role more closely mirrors the trend of current elite defenders who tend to play long passes to beat the first press (like Van Dijk does), and not so much defenders who are just comfortable on the ball and don’t panic when they’re press. It’s been almost 20 years after all. As wide defenders, we use wing-backs to replicate the active movement of Lauren and particularly Ashley Cole, leaving Dixon and Winterburn’s more cautious movement.

In the middle, Rincón and Mandragora are slotted as a CM-S and a BBM. I didn’t want to use an overly defensive role as neither Petit nor Gilberto Silva were as far from attacking moves as a BWM-D or CM-D would’ve been. I also felt a higher mentality would aid them in working as ball recirculators. However, the CM-S has been instructed to Hold Position and Dribble Less to improve defensive positioning. 

For the Mandragora on the Vieira Role, I was torn between a BBM and an RPM. Vieira’s dynamism often took some shine off his attacking output, and I wanted to get the complete picture. In the end, I felt an RPM might’ve been a little too offensively inclined, so I settled for a BBM with instructions to Take More Risks when passing and Dribble More, to emulate Vieira’s playmaking and darting runs. I hoped that, together with Mandragora’s Dictates Tempo PT and his high work rate and teamwork, would do the trick.

Two Inverted Wingers replicate the roles of Pirès and Ljungberg, who would often cut inside and look to create or dribble into the box. The Frenchman’s role was much more creative, so I weighted using a Wide Playmaker, but I didn’t see players in that spot do enough on the ball, so I moved to an IW-S with the instruction to Take More Risks, looking for that classic Pirès ball into the final third. For Swede’s role, it was always going to be a dynamic and aggressive IW-A to move into the box, create or finish moves. Upon reading my first draft, fellow gooner FM Grasshopper suggested an IW-A might not go on as many central runs as Ljungberg used to do. I agreed, with my take being that should an Inside Forward role exist for the MR/L position existed, it would have probably been my choice for that role.

Finally, up top, the Trequartista was always my option for Bergkamp’s mobile and deadly 9-and-1/ 2 role. Having used the STC Treq on the Italian Roles article, I had good memories of how it worked but was eager to see how it worked on a two-striker setup. For the Henry role, there was little question; the Number 14 was the complete package, so it had to be Complete Forward on Attack. I was simply hopeful Belotti would be able to carry it out to its full extent.

As far as instructions go, it’s a fairly simple tactic. A positive mentality looking to play expansive, offensive football, together with Team Instructions to Play into Space to break on the counter, Work Ball into the Box, to mimic Wengerball’s deadly backpasses and Be More Expressive to encourage creative freedom with the team. In transition, we’re simply looking to counter and have the goalkeeper distribute short to build from the back, whilst on defence we ask the line of engagement to drop and higher intensity to favour that midfield trap style of press.

Pjaca (ML-IW/S) cuts inside and spots Brekalo (MR-IW/A) running into space; he puts a ball behind the defence (1) for a quick put back from Brekalo and a Belotti goal.

On the pitch, I was very happy with our results. We quickly saw that interplay at the final third, with our most creative players getting together to combine and break down the defence.

Praet (STCR-T) receives with his back to goal and quickly turns (1) to assist Aina (MR-IW/A) (2) who puts a low cross for Sanabria (STCL-CF/A). It was ultimate wengerball.

The combo of Inverted Wingers and Wingbacks on the flanks was also highly effective, despite sub-optimal personnel, particularly on the position of Ashley Cole.

Mandragora goes on a deep run, dribbling past a couple of defenders (1) before putting a cross into the box (2).

I was also very interested to see Mandragora go on deep driving runs to get into the box and generate risks. He was also quite capable of creating from long range with his passing.

Mandragora receives in the middle and spots Singo (DR-WB/S) overlapping on his right (1). Singo puts a low cross to create a chance of scoring (2).

It was overall a very cohesive and effective system, capable of scoring both on fast breaks after regaining the ball or building up play from the back. Of course, it can only improve the longer we go with a save, as (like Wenger did) we put together a team with the right qualities and adjust any inconsistencies.

Closing Comments

Had Wenger’s Arsenal tenure ended in 2006, after that Paris final, we’d look back on it in a different light. It’s quite possible that we’d put it, at least on a purely managerial scale, on the same level of Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan tenure or Johan Cruyff’s Barça stint. I’m not being hyperbolic here; he reinvented English football. The revolution he brought in 1996 is now standard procedure for Premier League clubs.

Not only that, but he did it whilst fighting every prejudice, and a resistance that neither Cruygff nor Sacchi had to face. As the quote from “Moneyball” goes, “the first guy through the wall always gets bloody”. Wenger was that guy, in many ways. He was just the fourth foreign manager ever to take over an English top-flight side, and only the second to do so without the leeway of “club legend” status. He was the first foreign manager to win the top flight and even did it challenging the status quo. In much the same way, he was the first to challenge the idea of what was possible during a season, and the tools you could use to manage it.

Ultimately though, he had no say on the matter. As part of the loans Arsenal took to finance the construction of the Emirates Stadium, he was made to sign a five-year deal, as it was only with him at the helm the banks trusted Arsenal to be able to repay their debts. With offers from some of the biggest clubs in Europe on the table, Wenger acquiesced and fused his life with Arsenal. Not that he did it unwillingly. “With hindsight, all in all, I am happy to have been able to say no to more glory, more money, and to have been guided only by the idea of loyally serving the club during that period”, he writes in his autobiography.

What followed was an era of self-control and disappointment, which forever remains in the shadows of Wenger’s early tenure. The damage it did to Wenger’s legacy is unquantifiable; even now, as time seems to finally be closing wounds, the scars will forever remain. But that’s a story for next week.

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  1. Seattle Red

    “It stands to reason that it wasn’t Wenger that was ahead of his time, but rather English football that was lagging behind.”
    Tremendous point. More broadly, I always hated it when my club played against Wenger’s Arsenal. Thank you (?) For reminding me why!

    Liked by 1 person

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