I don’t care which team you support, anyone who loves the beautiful game owes a huge thank you to long-serving Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger.
Whatever Jose Mourinho may think or say, deep down even Chelsea’s maverick manager surely respects the outstanding contribution Wenger has made to the Premier League.
When the two men come face to face in the dugout at Stamford Bridge on Saturday, Wenger will be taking charge of his 1,000th match as manager of the Gunners.
It is an outstanding record that looked an impossible dream three seasons ago when his team were crushed 8-2 by Manchester United. It was a result that sparked a barrage of abuse from fans and so-called experts who called for his head. The way the man affectionately known as the professor has stuck to his guns and turned the cirtics around speaks volumes for his character.
Despite consistently losing his best players – Henry, Fabregas and most recently Robin van Persie – Wenger has never abandoned his purist principles in search of a winning formula based on an attractive passing game. For much of this season his team defied the odds by heading the Premier League, boosted by the outstanding early season form of Aaron Ramsey and new record signing Mezut Ozil.
The recent dip in form that has seen tomorrow’s rivals Chelsea take up the running at the top, last month prompted Mourinho to describe Wenger as a “specialist in failure” after the Frenchman commented that anyone ruling themselves out of the title race was doing so out of a fear of falling short – a clear jibe at his opposite number at Chelsea.
It all adds extra spice to the latest Chelsea-Arsenal showdown, a fixture that has been dominated by the Blues during Wenger’s resign with just four wins in 18 attempts home and away.
But the real achievement by Wenger has been the way he has changed the history of the club he has managed for close on 18 seasons. Not just with his trophy haul but by re-branding the Gunners image from ‘boring, boring Arsenal” to one of the most attractive sides in European football.
Many fans were asking “Arsene who?” when Wenger was appointed manager on 30 September 1996. But the Frenchman is now hailed the club’s best ever manager and his 2003-04 Arsenal side were named the greatest in Premier League history after going for the entire season unbeaten, leading to their nickname The Invincibles.
Wenger’s tenure at Arsenal spans 17 top-four finishes, 16 consecutive Champions League campaigns, two doubles, three Premier League titles, four FA Cup triumphs and six Community Shield appearances. So far his 999 games in charge have delivered 572 victories . . . a win percentage of 57.3.
Mourinho described Wenger as
“specialist in failure”
Critics will point to the nine year trophy drought that prompted Mourinho to muse: “I admire him and I admire Arsenal, because it’s not possible to have 1,000 matches unless the club is also a fantastic club in the way they support the manager, especially in the bad moments and especially when the bad moments were quite a lot.”
Wenger’s legacy – and there is no reason why he can’t carry on for a few more years – is that he has become synonymous with the club, their move from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium and their brand of passing football.
The harsh reality of modern day football is that Arsenal’s lack of silverware for nearly a decade leaves fans divided between those who still trust Wenger to deliver and those who have lost patience with his methods. But let us all pay the Frenchman the respect he deserves as he reached his 1,000 match milestone. The fact that he becomes only the fourth manager in English football to join this exclusive club, along with Dario Gradi and Manchester United legends Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, tells you what a remarkable achievement this is.
Fitting then to leave the final word to Sir Alex because the pair, now friends, had an intense rivalry that included five years when they were not on speaking terms after a match at Old Trafford in October 2004 ended a record 49 match unbeaten run by Arsenal.
“I congratulate Arsene in reaching this momentous landmark,” the Scot said in a statement issued on Friday by the League Managers Association.
“Having also reached the same milestone at one club, I cannot emphasise enough the level of dedication, resilience as well as sacrifice required and for that I have for the utmost admiration.
“Over the years we enjoyed some fantastic battles and you could say we had survived together and respected each other’s efforts to play good football. I always enjoy watching Arsene’s sides – Arsenal play the right way.”
Ferguson, who retired last year after 26 years at United, said playing against Arsenal always presented special challenges “that I burned many hours over the years thinking about. Perhaps the biggest compliment I could give Arsene is that I could never be anything other than competitive with my rival for 17 years.”