Arsenal supporters born around the turn of the new Millennium could be forgiven for wondering how manager Arsene Wenger had succeeded in remaining ensconced in the hot seat having had only three major honours to celebrate in their living memory. The fact that none of these were League titles or European successes might add to their bewilderment, but similar thoughts will doubtless also be shared by a proportion of the older fans, those who remember fondly the six trophies in six years at the start of his reign. Champions, Invincibles, always contenders, always exhilarating, Wenger oversaw a truly golden age in the rich history of the Gunners, and established himself as one of the leading modern coaches of his generation, anywhere across the globe.
Having recently marked an incredible 21st anniversary of his appointment, arriving as a virtual unknown in the UK, he remains not only the longest serving boss on these or any other shores at the top level, but a constant topic of debate, dividing opinion to the extreme. Would Arsenal do any better with someone else? Is the competition in England now so much tougher than it was a couple of decades ago? Was the failure to reach the Champions League at the end of last term, for the first time in his reign incredibly, the time to step down? Is his relationship with the ruling parties at the club, and their respective outlooks, detrimental to most fans yearning for a title or Champions League winning side to grace the Emirates for the first time? The questions are many, and the groundswell of opinion will have tilted in either direction increasingly more frequently in recent campaigns - here are a few of the individual matches which will have most impacted those debates;
Crystal Palace 3 – 0 Arsenal, April 2017. One single defeat - can happen to any team, but this was different. If ever a manager looked like he had overstayed his welcome at a club, this was the moment. Outfought, outthought, outplayed and embarrassed by a team battling to stay up, it left Arsenal clinging to only a mathematical chance of finishing in the Champions League places, and continued a miserable run of abject away performances and results, with each one seemingly worse than the one before.
Arsenal 2 – 1 Chelsea, May 2017, FA Cup Final. Just six weeks and ten matches since the Palace debacle, nine of which had resulted in victory, the recently crowned League Champions were deservedly outgunned by Wenger’s charges, an outcome that the most optimistic Gooner inside Selhurst Park that night would have thought fanciful. But there it was, a show of determination and resilience giving the Frenchman his seventh triumph in the competition, and lowering the volume of those clamouring for his removal.
Arsenal 3 – 2 Hull City, May 2014, FA Cup Final. In not dissimilar circumstances to the same fixture three years later, the manager needed a victory in this match more than ever. An unsigned contract and a common wish among the faithful that this would be his final match in charge, regardless of the outcome. As it turned out, and not for the first time, Wenger came up trumps, but only after coming from two goals down to win in extra time, thus ending a nine year wait for a major honour. His comment later that, “it would have been a problem if we had not won”, suggests that the future would have taken a dramatic turn had Hull held out.
Arsenal 1 – 2 Birmingham City, February 2011, League Cup Final. A damaging loss on its own, but exacerbated by impending exits from the Champions League, the FA Cup and the title race to make it a miserable few months for Arsenal. As overwhelming favourites to win, this game presented a perfect opportunity to end a seven year trophy famine, but a gift-wrapped winning goal underscored the growing frustration at the extended lack of success.
Arsenal 4 – 2 Liverpool, April 2004, Premier League. The Invincibles' season, but this was the encounter where much needed fresh traction was gained to help push their quest over the line. Still hunting a treble just a week previously, defeats in the FA Cup and the Champions League led to fears that the Gunners were on the brink of crumbling, previous examples of which were not hard to find. However, and again despite being behind, inspired by the brilliant Thierry Henry who scored a hat-trick, Arsenal took a huge step to convincing themselves and others that they would not be moved. Title already sealed, victory over Leicester a few weeks later in the final match of the season, confirmed the remarkable achievement of completing an unbeaten league campaign.
Arsenal 1 – 2 Barcelona, May 2006, Champions League Final. Perhaps a match which could be listed under both the high and lowlights heading, at least in as much as coming this close deserved some plaudits. Despatching Real Madrid in the first knockout round was impressive, and following that up by overcoming Juventus and Villarreal to progress to the final in Paris still rates as one of Wenger’s greatest efforts, although to drop just short ranks as a huge regret. In what turned out to be Henry’s final game for the club, the Gunners led until an Eto’o and Larsson inspired Barca turned the deficit around in the final fifteen minutes, with the first half dismissal of keeper Jens Lehman a definite setback.
In twenty attempts, this was as close as Wenger’s Arsenal ever got to the biggest prize in club football, and the million dollar question is whether the current regime at the club have the aspiration or desire to pursue what supporters would see as the pinnacle for their club? The resounding result if a poll was taken now, would surely be no. Does the success of the North London giants as a going concern, sustained with the help of sell out crowds paying exorbitant prices for a seat, ensure that the likelihood of change in the medium term is slender? That, most probably, is a yes!
The Premier League is one of the most atmospheric...