Isn’t it ironic as stylish Wenger has to settle for ugly Arsenal winner on his 20th anniversary
- Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images
It is ironic that in the match celebrating Arsene Wenger’s 20th anniversary at Arsenal, his side stumbled to a win with one of the ugliest goals of his tenure.
Such was the controversy surrounding Laurent Koscielny’s injury-time winner in Sunday’s 1-0 victory at Burnley that, in amusingly traditional fashion, the manager did not see it.
But perhaps it is possible that, over the years, he really has missed all the late tackles, offside decisions and dodgy goals – not through any visual impairment, but rather because he simply can’t process any deviation from his purist view of football.
Of course, most of us can. The match against Burnley was a classic example of Wenger’s limitations against stubborn defences - in this case, fielding a side without a recognisable striker nearly caused a very recognisable lack of goals.
Yet as we look back over the two decades of his time in Islington, perhaps it is right to venture beyond the four walls of the Emirates (and indeed Highbury) to appreciate the influence that the Frenchman’s idealism has had upon the game at large.
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Back in 1996, when Wenger took over from an ailing Bruce Rioch, the Premier League was in its infancy. The division had just expanded to 20 teams and, although Sky had already begun snowballing cash into the competition, it was a far cry from the overweight behemoth of today.
Indeed, the heaviest problem back then was the players themselves. Infamously banning Mars bars to the dismay of Tony Adams and Martin Keown, the unknown man from Monaco revolutionised England’s approach to fitness, before instilling a brand of continental football the country has pursued ever since.
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In recent years, it has become fashionable to trivialise style, as the likes of Chelsea have walked the league with regimented discipline.
However, there is a reason that, following Jose Mourinho’s initial success, he was dismissed as Roman Abramovich pursued greater flair. As much as the phrase is beyond cliché, football remains the ‘beautiful game’ and history doesn’t simply remember the victors, it remembers the victors who do it well.
Arsenal’s Invincible season of 2003-04 was a watershed moment, not just for the club but for the English game. As much as living up to the likes of Thierry Henry, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Viera and Robert Pires has become an albatross around the neck of every subsequent Arsenal player, that team has also become the benchmark for any title contender.
Alongside Manchester United’s treble winners of 1998-1999, they raised the bar for what it took to be a truly historic champion, which even the petro-clubs have failed to match since.
Enough words have been written about Wenger’s shortcomings, and no doubt there will be more over the coming months. For all his team’s dazzling play against Chelsea and Basel, doubts remain over consistency and will do until another title is delivered.
Whether the Arsenal manager will have enough time on his side to do so, it’s hard to say. But over two decades, he has turned what most never considered possible into the standard for excellence. For that, Gooners and football fans alike should be grateful.