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Sports

Wenger's vision comes to an end at Arsenal

media Arsene Wenger was unknown in England when he took over at Arsenal in 1996. Reuters/Ian Waldie

Arsene who? was the gist of the newspaper headlines that greeted the arrival of a tall, wiry Frenchman as the boss of Arsenal, one of the grandest English footballing instituttions.

Back in 1996 it was a perfectly valid question.

Arsenal had since its inception in the late 1880s been led by names such as Thomas Mitchell, William Elcoat, George Graham, Bruce Rioch, Bertie Mee and Stuart Burtenshaw. Yeoman names that resonated of the British Isles.

Suddenly, at the latter end of the 20th century, the club executives were eschewing parochialism, patriotism even, and coming over all international with the appointment of their first foreign manager. Radical.

Wenger had no notion of the football culture in England. To tiny islanders, he had no idea about the game. End of. He played for modest teams in his homeland and had then coached in France and Japan.

His first match in charge of Arsenal was a 2-0 success at Blackburn Rovers. That came in October in the English north-west and was a few months into the 1996-97 season. His side finished third.

At the end of his first full season, the headlines were rather more: "Arsene wow!"

The north Londoners - nicknamed the Gunners - because of their roots at the Woolwich Arsenal in south-east London - had claimed the Premier League title and the FA Cup with a brand of pacy, precise football that exploited the fluidity of a young Nicolas Anelka.

With Anelka gone and his fellow Frenchman Thierry Henry ushered in from Juventus, Arsenal then pulled off the most stunning of feats. The side went through the 2003/04 campaign undefeated.

Leading "the Invincibles" to league glory will remain Wenger's apexh for the footballing purists even if the accountants now laud him for filling the coffers with the cash from two decades of uninterrupted Uefa Champions League football.

Though that tap has been turned off lately, the money still flows in from the lavish 60,000 seat Emirates stadium in north London. There is still a roster of international stars. And there have also been six more FA Cups.

But Manchester City under Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool seem to be the innovative epicentres of English football at the moment.

These are fortysomething coaches who appear to have taken Wenger's aesthetic templates and rebranded them for the new era. Guardiola's "tiki-taka" at Barcelona has been transported to City. Klopp's high energy "gegenpressing" from Dortmund is now on display on Merseyside.

And the dreamy joy of Wenger's world? Gone in a whirligig of fan protests and players capitulating on the park. Worse still, the disparity between the contenders and also-rans is growing at exponential rates. In 2016, Arsenal finished second on 71 points, 10 off the champions Leicester City.

In 2017, Wenger's boys came fifth - 18 points behind fellow Londoners Chelsea.

On the day his departure was announced, Arsenal were fifth, 33 points behind Guardiola's already anointed champions City with five games to play.

Whether the margins rise or fall over the next month or so, Arsenal, once again, will not be champions of England. Gruel of late for the faithful who feasted on caviar in the early years.

 

 

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