Life and Times… Arsène Wenger – The Later Arsenal Years

In 1989, directors Robert Enrico and Richard T. Heffron put together one of the most ambitious historical films in history, “La Révolution Française”. It was an enormous multi-cultural production, made to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. The film was split into two parts, “Les Années Lumière”  (translated for the English version as “Years of Hope”), and  “Les Années Terribles” (which became “Years of Rage”). The first part focused on the early stages of the revolution and the fight for a better life under its ideals, and the second encompasses the reign of terror and the fall of said ideals.

In many ways Wenger’s French Revolution at Arsenal can be read in the same way. Not that the Alsatian became a disjointed paranoid and started ordering executions; however, there is clearly an early, happy (and successful) first era and a second, painful (and less successful) one. Did Wenger, like the leaders of the revolution, betray his ideals? How did one of the most influential managers of his era become a ridiculed figure?

Tied hands and broken ankles

As humans, we like to put markers on things; we like to draw lines, to make clear cuts. Most things defy this custom, with long drawn processes that shift gradually below our feet. Still, we persist, and sometimes we manage to pluck one single bit of information that manages to embody a whole array of underlying changes. As such, perhaps no move symbolises the transition from the good old Wenger days to the new era more than Ashley Cole’s transfer to Chelsea on Deadline Day of 2006. Arsenal had lost players before; however, in losing Cole, they lost the player touted to be their next great captain, and they lost him to a Premier League rival.

The beginning of the end. Also, is there anything more 2000s that José’s watch?

Unlike the players they would lose in the coming years, however, Arsenal failed to retain Cole not on account of lack of silverware or uncompetitiveness. It was a matter of simple money; when it was time to renew his contract, Cole was offended by the club’s initial offer and sought pastures new where his skills were properly rewarded. Arsenal lost the capability to challenge their rivals’ economic might at the precise moment when the Premier League became inundated with funds.

Still, change is slow and meandering. Arsenal’s post-Highbury era wasn’t instant doom and gloom. The arrival of Czech international Tomáš Rosický from Borussia Dortmund was meant to counterbalance the departure of Robert Pirès, and even with Thierry Henry leaving for Barcelona in 2007, the following two seasons would be some of the best the club would have that decade. Fàbregas came to his own and developed into one of the biggest forces in the league. Guided by the Spaniard, Arsenal led the way for most of 2007/08 before a harrowing injury to Eduardo shocked the team and killed any momentum. The next season, Arsenal would push all the way to the Champions League semifinal.

As season’s progressed, however, the stranglehold the new stadium loans had on the club started to feel more apparent; transfer market activity became reactive and almost damage-control motivated. In 2007, the loss of Henry, Ljungberg and Reyes, three Invincibles, was countered with the signing of Eduardo da Silva and an increase in minutes for highly promising Theo Walcott. By 2011, Fàbregas’ departure brought the acquisition of Mikel Arteta and a loan move for Yossi Benayoun. Even when Arsenal spent, it seemed unrealistically bargain-like; at a time when €30M+ transfer fees were becoming the norm, the Gunners broke their transfer fee record by signing Andrei Arshavin for half the money.

The signing of Andrei Arshavin after his meteoric performances for Zenit St. Petersburg and Russia at the 2008 Euros was supposed to be a coup by Arsenal. Instead, it set a transfer fee record that looked progressively worse as the player failed to deliver on the original promise and the fee looked increasingly ludicrous

Another factor that would wreak havoc among those squads was the notorious injuries, mainly those suffered by Abou Diaby, Eduardo da Silva and Aaron Ramsey, but also those that slowed the careers of Theo Walcott, Jack Wilshere, Santi Cazorla, Thomas Vermaelen and Tomáš Rosický. It will remain forever unknown if anything other than bad luck was at play, but Arsenal’s injuries became infamous and unescapable. Still, every season between 2006/07 and 2016/17 would have the Gunners finish in the top four and qualify for the Round of 16 in Europe’s top continental competition. It seemed Wenger could maintain Arsenal competitive regardless of any external factors.

Behind the veil

Yet, something was lacking. The composition of each season’s team became different, with Wenger aiming for ever more technically proficient players. As Gary Thacker points out “the perception is that, amongst the players, ennui has replaced vigour, listlessness has replaced ambition, and optimism is now swamped by an all-pervasive apathy”. The Alsatian failed to replace the leaders his dressing room was losing, and the squad became younger and less experienced each time. Wenger’s role within the club shifted too, with him involved in more areas; without figures like David Dein and the old guard at the club, there was also less pushback against him. The Frenchman became an unquestionable father figure for his players, and his teams looked more and more like projects in perpetual development; perhaps that lesson in timelessness by the Japanese had stuck a bit too deep.

The arrival of new owner Stan Kroenke in 2008 meant Wenger got to work under an owner less interested with filling the trophy cabinet than engrossing the bottom line

This, in turn, produced teams that, like the 2007/08 title challengers, crumbled under heavy opposition. As Alex Flynn and Kevin Whitcher put in their book “Arsènal: The Making of a Modern Superclub”, Wenger’s young players could not respond to adversity in the way his previous sides had. “As a result of enhancing the attributes Wenger holds dear […]”, write Flynn and Whitcher, “victory should be the natural consequence, the end product. And with such productive end results winning has become accepted as the norm. Losing is not contemplated and therefore everyone – players and coaches alike – is dumbfounded when it happens. The ‘unbelievable belief’ coined by Paul Merson has a flip side when the faith is punctured. There seems no fallback position from which to regroup. A collective trauma invades the group. It is as if they have forgotten how to lose, or at least how to react positively to defeat, so unexpected is it”.

Even if we’ll never know how the Invincibles would’ve reacted had Henry or Vieira faced injuries like Eduardo or Ramsey did, when you hear them talk about what went down at halftime of that iconic win over Liverpool, it seems unthinkable that they would’ve failed to at least go out fighting. For whatever reason, however, the Emirates era Arsenal lost that competitive edge. 

Cheik Tioté celebrates after scoring the tying goal in a match Arsenal lead 4-0. That dissapointing afternoon in St. James’ Park would become the definitive evidence of Arsenal’s capacity to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

Rest in Peace, Legend

Still, the economical struggles and injuries cast a veil over all of that. Who was to say Wenger hadn’t had his hands tied right at the moment when he was about to sign the one player to make it all work again? Who was to say the likes of Nasri, Fàbregas, Song or Van Persie weren’t sold just as they were finally ready to overcome the naivety that had robbed them of success? Who was to say without so many injuries to key players those sides wouldn’t have risen to the challenge? When the curtain raised, however, things didn’t look much better.

The end of the illusion

If the departure of Ashley Cole was the moment that marked the beginning of the era of restrictions for Arsenal, it was another transfer that marked its ending and it happened on Deadline Day, September 2nd, 2013. The previous day Wenger had all but confirmed it when a smile escaped (or was allowed to escape) from him; the signing we all knew about was Real Madrid’s mercurial creator, Mesut Özil. 

The day it was all supposed to end

The Merengues were about to make Gareth Bale the most expensive player in the world; back then, even they had to raise funds to pull transfers of such magnitude and some players were made available. Arsenal hit when the iron was hot and Özil became a Gunner; surely that meant a return to the good all days, right?

They certainly looked like contenders, racing to the top on the back of great performances by Aaron Ramsey. Özil’s form was irregular prompting some to brand him a flop and others to point out that he wasn’t the type of player Arsenal really needed to add. Still, his contribution was tangible and the Gunners ended the year as winter champions, leading the table and very much the team to beat. 

However, their season started to get derailed after Ramsey was injured on Boxing Day, and a 5-1 defeat vs Liverpool knocked them out of contention. Two years later, a 2nd place finish was as good as a token victory, with Arsenal failing to take advantage of a last-minute win vs eventual champions Leicester.

Just a fortnight after blowing the title race wide open with that iconic win vs Leicester, Arsenal fell at Old Trafford thanks to an 18yo Marcus Rashford. They would seal the deal less than a week later, losing to Swansea at the Emirates

It quickly became apparent that there would be no quick way back to the good old days. The illusion broke and the world of football realised how far Arsenal had fallen. In fact, the end of frugality brought an ever quicker drop, with signings like Alexis Sánchez, Granit Xhaka, Shkodran Mustafi or Alexandre Lacazette failing to put the club back in contention. The football became stale, and the results soon followed. By the time Wenger resigned in 2018, fans had turned on him as he became the face of a failing regime that long exceed his own wrongdoings. On May 13th 2018 Wenger managed his last game as Arsenal manager.

Following the new stars

Like with our previous analysis, we can distinguish two similar but distinct styles. Early in the Emirates era, Arsenal would retain many of the characteristics that were key to the Invincibles’ style of play, sticking to a disguised 4-2-3-1 but pressing defensively in a 4-4-2. Rosicky and Hleb would play wide looking to cut inside like Ljungberg and Pirès, though their roles were much more akin to the Frenchman’s support of the attack than the Swede’s aggressive runs. Eboue (later Clichy) and Sagna provided supportive runs like Cole and Lauren had, and despite no Emirates era striker ever being as important to the team as Henry was, Adebayor and Van Persie played similar roles, wandering along the final third to find spots where they could be effective.

Arsenal on that magic night at the Emirates

However, there was one big difference: Cesc Fàbregas. Not since the days of prime Dennis Bergkamp had Arsenal relied so heavily on one player to orchestrate play. Unlike the Dutchman, however, Fàbregas played across the entire pitch, often dropping to aid build-up and then rushing forwards to finish plays; a worthy display of the player wearing Patrick Vieira’s shirt. With a tactical intelligence that made him wise beyond his years, Fàbregas simply knew where he needed to be and he became integral to Arsenal’s play. So fundamental he was he became the captain at just 21 years old.

Everything Arsenal created went throught the feet of Fàbregas

As the Spaniard grew into this role, and particularly with the additions of Samir Nasri and Andrei Arshavin, Wenger moved into a deeper, more clear 4-2-3-1, where the likes of Song, Denilson or Diaby provided a defensive line that allowed their three creators to roam from their spots and adapt to the creative needs of each play.

Fàbregas drops into space to receive and orchestratre (1) and spots Clichy running into space on the left (2). The Spaniard was constantly appearing where his team needed him to keep things ticking

It wasn’t a purely defensive setup, however, as Song (and later Wilshere) were more than capable of producing long runs from deep and long-range passing to aid Arsenal’s captain in the build-up. 

Arsenal start a quick counter and Fàbregas spots Wilshere running into space (1). The young midfielder carries the ball at speed into the attacking third, and then spots Van Persie well positioned for a scoring chance (3). The young Englishman’s runs added a dynamism that was lacking in later teams

All of that changed when Fàbregas left ahead of the 2011/12 season. Arsenal struggled for a clear style as signings meant to compensate for the captain’s departure weren’t able to fully replace him. The Gunners would get their next great star with Özil’s arrival in 2014, but by then the Gunners’ style was quite different.

Partly due to the talent at his disposal, and probably partly due to the shifting footballing paradigm, Wenger turned to a more possession heavy, high pressing side that made the most of the squad’s high technical ability. However, whereas Fàbregas made the team work, Özil was at his best when he was helping the team work. If the Spaniard was the conductor that kept the Wengerball orchestra on tempo, the German was the highly skilled soloist that looked best in an already attuned philarmonic.

There were other differences. In Giroud, Wenger added a forward who could play with his back to goal and be the focal point of the attack, something he hadn’t had since the days of Mark Hateley at Monaco. Alexis Sánchez, who often carried the team offensively, was deadly both running behind the lines or creating for himself, more akin to Ljungberg’s darting runs than the free roam and combination play of Nasri or Rosicky.

On Football Manager 2022

For this recreation, I decided to aim for Arsenal’s earlier Emirates era, up until 2011/12 and the departure of Fàbregas. My reasoning is two-fold; for once, it’s the peak of Wenger’s miracle-working, as he pushed increasingly younger sides to the edges of contention and European relevance (the squad that got to the 2008/09 UCL semifinals was averaging just 22.17yo). On the other hand, it’s a setup that has perhaps more clearly defined tactical features. Most teams post-Fàbregas would fall deeper and deeper into the mould of what Jonathan Wilson called the modern press-and-possess teams. Those earlier sides had something of their own.

The Spaniard’s influence on the pitch was impossible to be measured

That of course means the key man to unlock this recreation would be the Spaniard maverick himself, Cesc Fàbregas. I’ll go ahead and admit my memories of him were perhaps a bit rusty, tinted by the bitter circumstances of his departure, the moment of my life it happened at, and who I was at that moment. He did so much on those football pitches. He ran so much, he played so many wonderful passes, he took so many delightful touches, such a magnetic player to watch. As always, warning precedes that most of that just can’t be put into FM; as ever, the FM ME is brilliant, but can only do so much. So how can we make our best Fàbregas impression?

I decided to go after a player with the right elements first and foremost. Technicals such as First Touch, Dribbling, Passing, and… well, Technique are a given, but I was most interested in Mentals. Fàbregas was smart and an excellent reader of the game, yes, but also incredibly creative and selfless; Anticipation, Composure, Concentration, Decisions, Determination, Flair, Off the Ball, Positioning, Vision and Work Rate would be key, with enough physicals to make the player a difference-maker for the full 90 minutes. For a more close representation of Fàbregas full persona, high Leadership and Teamwork attributes, as well as a high Professionalism personality, would be ideal, though that escapes the intent of these articles. After some research (and inevitably some concessions), I landed on “my Fàbregas”, Celta de Vigo’s Fran Beltrán.

I was also happy to find in the Celta de Vigo squad players that could take on other important roles, such as Nasri and Arshavin cutting in from the flanks: In particular, I was keen to see how to replicate the role played often by either Alex Song or Jack Wilshere, starting deep and going on forward runs; I had some ideas, but I wanted to see how it all worked together. 

This was what I had after a good brainstorming session…

As you can see, it’s fairly in line with what we had seen from the team. I chose to use RPM for the “Fàbregas Role” as I felt it provided much of the Spaniards meandering and ground coverage. Much like Vieira’s role in the Early Arsenal tactic, it was all about using a role that gave us mobility, though Fàbregas did a lot less in terms of defensive work so I didn’t even consider a BBM. 

We start with a standard modern back four, fullbacks as Wingbacks providing width and centrebacks and the main defenders; with Sagna often the most adventurous I went with the DR as the WB-A, but it could be interchanged relatively easily. Vermaelen and then Koscielny would sometimes go on the forward runs we discussed with Battiston in the Monaco article, but I decided not to push my luck in this recreation. It’s certainly an element that could be added, though.

In front of them, we have the double pivot sitting deep to provide that defensive pack cover for the creators up top. A Segundo Volante was always on my mind the moment I went over those darting runs by Song and Wilshere. I initially tried an SV-A but they ended up taking too much-attacking weight. It was doubtlessly effective, but not a good recreation of the role those players played for Wenger. I figured if we weren’t taking a hard line on stuff the ME can’t do, we should take advantage when it comes to stuff reality didn’t really do. A DM-S provides a safety net against those runs, like Diaby, Denilson or often a more restrained Song used to.

Upfront, I tried my best to compromise. Both Adebayor and Van Persie were very active in the pressing stages, but they weren’t Pressing Forwards in the way Firmino is now. They also mixed line-leading duties with dropping to allow for fluid interplay at the final third. I could’ve gone with a Complete Forward on Support, but decided on a DLF-S at the last minute. The wide forwards were extremely mobile and creative, at times changing sides and going wide or cutting in depending on situation. I toyed with the idea of using them as two Trequartistas but felt it would’ve been too detrimental to the pressing game. So, Inverted Wingers it is.

I was really happy with the results. I got to see a lot of what I wanted, particularly with Beltrán on the Fàbregas Role. He was consistently dropping to aid build-up and then launching forwards with aggressive runs. His passing was also very much on point and opened up play in a similar fashion to the Arsenal captain. 

Beltrán (MC-RPM)often dropped to aid during build up (1) and open play from the back (2). He was also quite capable of sitting on the edge of the final third (3) and spread up the ball from there (4).

Suárez and Aspas worked well as my Arshavin/Nasri stand-ins. The nature of the IW role limited a bit what they could do, but they were still effective and created danger with assertive movement, passing and shooting.

Mina (MC-RPM) plays a ball into the space for Galán (DL-WB/S) to run on to; Suárez attacks the half-space (1). As Galán gets into the box, he releases a great backpass (2) for Suárez to hit (3) Both Aspas and Suárez were deadly on the cut back from the wingbacks, as well as on the 1v1.

Okay Yokuşlu as the Segundo Volante was also highly effective. Like I said, his runs as an SV-A were a tad too much, but even after curtailing it to an SV-S, he was still productive and tricky to deal with for defences.

Yokuşlu (DMCL-SV/S) receives a pass from a cornered Suárez and progresses with the ball at his feet (1). When the defence closes the road, he plays a quick 1-2 with Galán (2), to get a clear chance (3).

Closing Comments

We often admire the leaders who stick to their principles until the end, but we rarely talk of those who do it to their detriment. Wenger rebuilt Arsenal at a time when the club needed it and made it into a powerhouse in England and Europe. Yet, he failed to acknowledge the modern game was escaping from his grip. 

The veil of the economic restrictions hid a lot of the things that weren’t working in the club. When it was removed, it became clear to see that, much like the English game was shown to have been left behind when Wenger arrived, Arsenal was struggling to keep up. The league he helped modernize was too modern for him. 

Not that Wenger had lost his smarts, he remains one of the sharpest minds in football (even if sometimes his message doesn’t earn him many fans). He simply wasn’t at the cutting edge of the managerial game. Even someone much younger, like Laurent Blanc, has found that those of a certain mindset are no longer in demand. And even if the Alsatian had it in him to match Guardiola and Klopp as coaches (and the likes of Zorc and Monchi as DoFs), the atmosphere at the club had long become too toxic for him to have a real chance at proving it. Perhaps even worse than on the “Arsène who?” days.

Of course, he wasn’t the sole culprit. There were many guilty figures, most of whom fled (either virtually or literally) almost as soon as they realized they no longer had the Frenchman’s shadow to hide under. And yet, like one famous Monty Python character, Wenger’s most damning failure was not to realize when it was time to give up the fight. He had become the Elcano of his very own Magellan expedition, successfully bringing home a sinking ship. And then he proceeded to intend on continue sailing the shipwreck. That one is one hundred per cent on him. But then again, so did most of his achievements in football. He built (and then perhaps damaged) his own legend.

The record shows, he took all the blows. And did it his way.

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