Friday, March 21, 2014

One Arsène Wenger, 1,000 Games -- Part I


On September 30, 1996, Arsène Wenger was named manager of North London's Arsenal Football Club. Not only was he first manager for the club not from the British Isles, he was one of the first Continental managers of any club in England's first division.

The 1996-97 season was already a few weeks underway, but Wenger was under contract to Nagoya Grampus Eight until September 30, so the appointment couldn't be announced until then.

This was not the obvious selection, and many questioned it. Newspaper printed "Arsène Who?" headlines. Tony Adams, Arsenal's Captain and one of the best centrebacks of his generation, was quoted as saying aloud, "What does this Frenchman know about English football?" Right back Lee Dixon thought Wenger looked like a geography teacher. Indeed, because of his academic nature, he was nicknamed Le Professeur.

"Big history, big tradition, big club, and big support," Wenger said a few years later, explaining why he accepted the job. "I thought that the marriage could work."

But a lot of observers predicted a quick divorce.

That was 17 1/2 years, and 999 matches ago. Tomorrow, Arsène Wenger will manage his 1,000th game for Arsenal Football Club.

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Who was the man, before he came to the club? Arsène Wenger (no middle name) was born on October 22, 1949, in Strasbourg, a city of about 750,000 people in Alsace, a region that France and Germany spent decades fighting over before World War II permanently put it back within France's borders. Other famous Strasbourgers include wax museum creator Marie Tussaud, nuclear scientist Hans Bethe and mime king Marcel Marceau.

The son of a German father and a French mother, Wenger grew up in nearby Duttelheim, and spoke only German until he was 7. The number of languages he speaks now isn't clear, but he speaks Japanese well enough to have managed in Japan, and his English is completely understandable, although it retains enough French and German influence that his grammar has a little bit the unusual word order.

His father ran a pub in Duttlenheim. "There is no better psychological education than growing up in a pub," he has said, "because, when you are five or six years old, you meet all different people, and hear how cruel they can be to each other. From an early age, you get a practical, psychological education to get into the minds of people. It is not often that a boy of five or six is always living with adults in a little village. I learned about tactics and selection from the people talking about football in the pub, – who plays on the left wing, and who should be in the team."

In spite of living near French top-flight clubs FC (Football Club) Nancy and FC Metz; Swiss clubs FC Basel, BSC (Berner Sports Club) Young Boys, FC Zurich and Grasshopper Club Zurich; and German clubs like SC (Sport-Club) Freiburg and Eintracht Frankfurt, Wenger became a fan of Borussia Monchengladbach, a club over 250 miles away. (Though, to be fair, this still put them closer than his country's capital of Paris, over 300 miles away.)

"Gladbach" became a powerhouse, winning 4 Bundesliga (German league) titles in the 1970s, adding a DFB-Pokal (national Cup) and 2 UEFA Cups (2nd-tier European tournament), and reaching the Final of the 1977 European Cup (the top European tournament), losing to Liverpool. But even before they notched these achievements, the teenaged Wenger noticed that Gladbach was playing French teams in European tournaments and friendlies (exhibition games), and usually winning.

"I was attracted to a game of movement, of counterattack, based on speed and dynamism," he said in an interview with English football writer Myles Palmer (who, it should be noted, is not popular among Arsenal fans). "That was what mattered to me." This should surprise no one who, rather than "follow your local team," became impressed by the 1950s and '60s Manchester United, the Brazil team that spectacularly won the 1970 World Cup and then thrilled but ultimately failed in the 1982 edition, the 1970s Ajax Amsterdam, the Barcelona of modern times, or, yes, Wenger's Arsenal.

After playing as a midfielder for FC Duttlenheim, at age 18 he went to Mutzig, a club in France's 3rd division, said to play the best amateur football in Alsace. He moved to FC Mulhouse, and completed an economics degree at the University of Strasbourg -- perhaps the perfect combination for a young man who wants to go on to manage a soccer team. He learned English in a three-week course at England's Cambridge University, played for ASPV (Association Sportive Pierrots Vauban) Strasbourg, and in time for the 1978-79 season, was signed by RC (Racing Club) Strasbourg. They won France's Division 1 (now called Ligue 1) that season.

But like many great managers/head coaches, Wenger was not a particularly notable player. He was tried as a midfielder and a sweeper, usually wearing Number 6 -- perhaps a foreshadowing of Adams being his Captain at Arsenal, and Laurent Koscielny being one of his better finds for the club. In 1981, he qualified as a manager, and was handed the reins of Strasbourg's youth team.

He became manager of AS Cannes in 1983 and Nancy in 1984. In 1986, Nancy were relegated to Ligue 2, and the club chairman defended him by saying he didn't have any money to spend. A little bit the foreshadowing there.

In spite of its worldwide fame as a seaside resort, a gambling center, and a tax haven, Monaco is one of the world's smallest countries. Its population of 36,000 could have fit into the former Arsenal Stadium, nicknamed Highbury for its neighborhood, with about 2,000 seats left over. Yet its soccer team, AS Monaco, competes in France's football system, and had already won Ligue 1 and the Coupe de France 4 times each before Wenger ever got there, so they were already a big club. They snapped Wenger up in 1986, and he guided them to the 1988 Ligue 1 title, the 1991 Coupe de France, the Final of the 1992 UEFA Cup Winners' Cup (a tournament for the winners of the preceding season's national cups, folded into the UEFA Cup/Europa League in 1999), and the Semifinal of the 1994 UEFA Champions League.

German giants Bayern Munich wanted him as manager. Monaco wouldn't let him go. But a bad start to the 1994-95 season led them to fire him. Nagoya Grampus Eight brought him to Japan, and in his first season there, he led them to 2nd place in the J-League and their version of the FA Cup, the Emperor's Cup.

David Dein, former Vice Chairman of Arsenal, met Wenger in the executive box at Highbury on January 2, 1989, as Wenger wanted to attend the North London Derby between Arsenal and arch-rivals Tottenham Hotspur. Under former star player George Graham, Arsenal won, 2-0, and went top of the old Football League Division One that night, so the club weren't inclined to search for a new manager. But Dein was very impressed by Wenger, and thought that, whenever Graham moved on, Wenger should be the next Arsenal manager.

It didn't quite work out that way: When Graham left under a cloud in February 1995, Wenger was between Monaco and Nagoya, but Dein couldn't talk the board of directors into hiring him. After a 5th place finish in 1995-96, they finally listened to Dein, but had to wait until Wenger's contract ran out on September 30.

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What was the club, before it hired the man? Founded as Royal Arsenal Football Club, as their members were working at the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich, in December 1886, and playing as Woolwich Arsenal on the south side of the River Thames in what was then within the County of Kent but is now part of Southeast London, "The Woolwich Reds" moved across the river to the Highbury area of North London in 1913, and dropped the locality from their name a year later, playing ever since as Arsenal Football Club, sometimes referred to (to this day) as "The Arsenal," Capital T, Capital A.

The club won nothing until Herbert Chapman became their manager in 1925. In 1930, he put them on the path to winning 5 League titles and 2 FA Cups in a 9-year stretch. By 1953, the club had won the League 7 times and the Cup 3 times. After a 17-year drought, it won the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (forerunner of the UEFA Cup and the Europa League) in 1970, and then the League and FA Cup "Double" in 1971.

They won another Cup in 1979, and then came another down period, in which their style of play was criticized. Formerly sung at by opposition fans as "Lucky, Lucky Arsenal," they were now derided as "Boring, Boring Arsenal." Even when Graham took over, and led them to the 1987 and 1993 League Cups, the 1989 and 1991 League titles, the 1993 FA Cup and the 1994 Cup Winners' Cup, they were still called boring. As Graham put it, "We were like a machine, and I think people didn't want to see a machine win the title. But I thought, as machines go, we were a Rolls-Royce."

Although Graham's defense-first philosophy worked well at first, producing a lot of "One-nil to The Arsenal" results, it also led to some 0-0 draws, 1-1 draws, 1-0 and 2-1 defeats. After winning 2 League titles in 3 seasons, the club finished 4th in 1992 (hardly a failure, but a bit of a disappointment), 10th in 1993 (midtable mediocrity offset a bit by becoming the first English club ever to win both domestic cups), 4th in 1994 (but with a European trophy), and 12th in 1995, the last season Graham started. Also, in both 1993 and 1995, Arsenal finished behind Tottenham in the league table (standings). That was shameful. In 1996, Arsenal finished 5th under manager Bruce Rioch, who was let go before he could manage a 2nd season.

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So, before Arsène Wenger was hired by Arsenal, he was a manager who had enjoyed some success, but hadn't been seriously tested in one of Europe's better leagues; and the club was one that was truly historic, but was in a bit of a down period, in need of a boost. Much like, say, Everton is today.

The man and the club needed each other.

What they have achieved together over the course of nearly 1,000 games is amazing, as you'll see in Part II.

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