Wenger still game after 1,000 match days

Like Alex Ferguson, he symbolises a club, but the lack of recent trophies weighs heavily

Patrice Evra once considered the domination of Alex Ferguson, the success, the longevity, the aura, and then came up with the assessment: "Alex Ferguson is a culture".

It is some phrase. It conveys the obliterating scale of Ferguson's era at Manchester United, the ubiquitous voice, the totalitarian persona, the magnitude of one man. With hindsight, it also speaks of the size of David Moyes's task as Ferguson's successor. Moyes is not just succeeding a man and a manager, he is succeeding a culture.

Occupying a space
It will be the same when Arsene Wenger departs. The next manager of Arsenal will not simply walk into an office to fill the chair left vacant by someone whose time ran out, he will be occupying a space that, as Old Trafford has shown, can swiftly resemble a void.

Arsene Wenger, every bit as much as Alex Ferguson, is a culture.

Today is one of those moments to take stock. Today is Wenger’s 1,000th Arsenal matchday morning. In a notoriously fickle and brittle profession, he has lasted in one post for 17½ years.


In such a competitive environment, it is an achievement in itself. At the human level there is energy, determination and talent involved in lasting that long. The under-rated attribute of enthusiasm is there too. Wenger clearly loves football, his obsession flows from that and his managerial intelligence and style follow downstream.

"Football is like a river," said Bill Shankly, "relentless."

There has been confidence and courage as well. In September 1996 when he was appointed as Bruce Rioch's surprise successor, Wenger was greeted with the London Evening Standard headline: "Arsene Who?"

Euro 96 had broadened some English horizons but, seven months after the world-changing Bosman ruling, the full effects were yet to be felt. English football could, and can be parochial.

Though some knew Wenger, such as Glenn Hoddle, who wanted him to be the FA's technical director, to the vast majority he was an unknown Frenchman coming from Japan.

Play hard, drink hard
Wenger could have been daunted, he was walking into a club where Tony Adams was the personification of play hard, drink hard. Privately, Adams and the English core scoffed at their new manager and his spectacles. They thought he would not last.

Wenger was a culture shock to the likes of Adams. Famously there was the food. Wenger replaced saturated fat with sports nutrition. "Grilled fish, grilled everything, even grilled broccoli," moaned Ian Wright.

Wenger responded: “What’s really dreadful is the diet in Britain. The whole day you drink tea with milk and coffee with milk and cakes. If you had a fantasy world of what you shouldn’t eat in sport, it’s what you eat here.”

Then there was the stretching. Immediate post-match activity pre-Wenger concerned pub planning; once Wenger bedded in it became stretching and the effect was careers were elongated. Wenger won.

They all won.

Then there was the style. For a long time Adams' appearance on the field was met with braying donkey noises. Arsenal were dreaded visitors in the George Graham days: the ultimate 1-0 merchants.

But once Wenger began to impose his philosophy, which would find its greatest expression in the likes of Bergkamp, Vieira, Overmars and Henry, opinions of Arsenal, even of Adams, were stood on their head.

Wenger was as revolutionary as the Highbury hero-manager Herbert Chapman.

Wenger was unveiled in Chapman’s shadow at Highbury on a Sunday morning.

This was Wenger’s manifesto: “Football is made of movement, a collective game of quick passing and quick movement . . . that means compact lines, of zones, of quick, co-ordinated movements with good technique. I play 4-4-2 if I can . . . it is much more difficult to pressurise up the field with three at the back.”

This sounds like Barcelona a decade before Pep Guardiola. It sounds like Arsenal every Saturday for about the past 10 years. He said it on Day One.

His first starting XI contained nine Englishmen, John Hartson and Patrick Vieira. His 999th, last Sunday, contained two Englishmen and nine players garnered from Poland to Spain.

That is part of the cultural change of player sourcing Wenger helped initiate, beginning with Vieira, bought before Wenger was even in England. It skipped with the purchase of an unheard-of 17 year-old from Paris St Germain, Nicolas Anelka. Bought for €600,000 and part of the double-winning side of 1997-98, Anelka was sold for €27 million in 1999.

Arsenal, under Wenger, won three league titles and four FA Cups between 1998 and 2005. He shifted Arsenal's landscape, made them Manchester United's principal rivals and part of the Champions League furniture, competing in the competition in 16 of the past 17 seasons .

Left Highbury
Arguably, as significant as any of this, is because of Wenger, because of his world view, Arsenal left Highbury. And on this, it is possible to ease back from the hagiography. Arsenal gained economically from leaving Highbury for their stadium named after an airline, but at what cost?

As Wenger has heard most weeks over the past eight years, there has been no Arsenal trophy since Highbury. In that sense it has been an era of two halves.

The new stadium is swish and grand but it is not Highbury. Arsenal say the new stadium is full when it isn’t. Wenger, too, has been capable of not seeing things as they are. His standard reply to reports of an Arsenal misdemeanour – “I didn’t see it” – became a joke that riled opposing managers.

For a long time he declined to partake in their courtesy post-match drink. Ferguson was particularly annoyed. When Wenger clashed with Alan Pardew in 2006, the Frenchman accepted the charge of improper conduct.

Time, and perhaps Arsenal’s faded threat, erased tension. Ferguson would come to say how much he admired Wenger’s teams and how he wanted United to stop when the score was 8-2.

But Arsene Wenger still matters; and there is still José Mourinho. This is someone willing to look through Wenger. And for Wenger’s 1,000th game it is to Stamford Bridge he goes, and a cold handshake with Mourinho. A Chelsea victory would put seven points between them.

Doubtless Wenger would be re-considered. But he has never had Roman Abramovich's millions, he has never had Abu Dhabi.

Those billions arrived in England in part due to a Frenchman and his role in popularising the Premier League. Imagine if Arsenal had not appointed him. Wenger has made that inconceivable.

He will be 65 in October; he does not look it. Some explanation for that came when Wenger was interviewed in 2004 about the Arsenal “Invincibles” and their 49-game unbeaten run. While others stressed team spirit and desire, Wenger countered: “You cannot achieve this by just wanting to win and having a war every week”.

No, he identified another quality, not one you hear stressed often in jargon-throttled football: “Happiness”.